Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rules for Improv @ Your Library

I'm behind the curve on this one. I just finished listening to the audiobook of Tina Fey's Bossypants, and like lots of other bloggers, I was struck by her Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat*. I think the reason so many folks have posted the rules and how they relate to their professions is that they're just good rules for life in general. If you haven't read them yet, here they are, slightly paraphrased from Tina's book. Her thoughts are in bold and italics, and mine (specifically on how I see these play out in librarianship) are in regular type.

1. Agree. Always agree, and say "yes."  
This rule reminds you to respect what others have created and to "at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a 'yes,' and see where that takes you." 

We've all heard that "librarians fear change." No, not every single one of them, but enough of them to add it to the stereotype (hey, I don't knit or own a cat, but plenty of library folk do). I think we have trouble with this rule; our instinct is to say "no" and to question why we should do something new. But what if we took this rule to heart? Jenica Rogers, one of my library heroes, does just this (emphasis mine, fabulous writing hers):
After the first six months in my current position I told my team that my operating principle is that I will say yes unless I must say no, and that I define “must” by considering our mission, our goals, and our resources. And I’ve been consistent in that.  They trust me. And they expect a yes, but respect a no, because they understand how I make those decisions. Someone, upon hearing that, once asked me if I didn’t think that was a misstep – telling the team. Because now that they knew how I made decisions, they could manipulate the system, and thus me. I just stared at them. If my decision-making process is something I’m proud of, and it’s based on mission, goals, and resources, how precisely would someone manipulate me? If their idea is good, I say yes. If their idea compels me to say no, I say no. Knowing that doesn’t give them some strange power over me, it just makes them more comfortable asking me for things because they know how I will treat them when they do.
I love this idea. Most people (especially in libraries!) aren't going to propose random changes without some reason for them, so what are we so afraid of? Let your employees or co-workers try something new! Even better...

2. Don't just say "yes." Say "yes, and..." 
Agree, and then "add something of your own.... To [Tina Fey], 'yes, and,' means don't be afraid to contribute. It's your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you're adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile."

Encourage your staff/colleagues/librarians-where-you-work by joining in with their ideas. Instead of questioning them, kick it up a notch! "Oooh, I like that idea! And what if we added x as well?" What would happen in our institutions if we embraced new ideas? If we brainstormed without judging? If we weren't afraid to just go for it with no-holds-barred abandon? Think about it. Dream about it. Do it.

On to rule 3...

3. Make statements. 
"This is a positive way of saying, 'Don't ask questions all the time....'" Don't just raise questions and point out obstacles; be part of the solution. "Make statements with your actions and your voice."

I don't even need to add to this (but it's my blog, so I will). Leaders, if you're spineless, grow a spine. Stand up for yourself and your people. Be firm! Say what you mean! Everybody, if you have an idea, share it! Don't hem and haw or sell yourself short. You're in this business for a reason. You love it. You're passionate about it. If you think something might improve a process or a service, let the leaders and managers know. Own it!

4. There are no mistakes, only opportunities.
"In improv, there are no mistakes, only beautiful, happy accidents."

Try something new. If it doesn't work, you can always go back, or better yet, try another new thing. Instead of dwelling on what went wrong, look for what you learned from the experience. How can that help you improve the next iteration? What are we so afraid of? You're never going to please everyone; that's a given. But what could you do that would brighten someone's day or make a process more efficient? Do that.

The whole idea of improvisation is that you're doing something new and creative. It hasn't happened before. It may never happen again. But in this moment, right now, you can have an impact on the other actors in your scene (your co-workers and employees). You can give your audience (patrons) an experience that they'll never forget. You might even impress your directors and producers (those administrative higher-ups who really call the shots). If you always follow someone else's script, what's special about you? Anyone can do that. Live a little, and "set the stage" for something new and exciting!

*Improv will not reduce belly fat.

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