By Andrea Mullarkey
Bringing Your Conference Ideas Home
Every time I go to a conference or workshop, I come away with some fantastic ideas. I seem to find myself saying, "We could do that!" over and over. But back in my library, away from the good conference energy, turning those ideas into new programs or services can prove difficult. There are various obstacles to implementing new ideas learned at conferences, and each presents challenges. But there are also useful strategies for overcoming those challenges. ALA Annual in Anaheim is fast approaching and that makes it a perfect time to spend some energy thinking about the great ideas that come out of conferences. In my experience, there are four basic challenges to implementing new ideas learned at conferences.
1. "It's all just a blur!"
The first obstacle you are likely to encounter, in getting your great conference ideas all the way into implementation, is keeping track of them. No matter how good the ideas are and how persuasive you can be with decision-makers, if you can't remember what you wanted to try, it won't happen. I always have aspirations that, after a conference, I will go home, review my notes, and type up an action plan. But in reality, after the conference I return to work, where my desk is piled high and inboxes are fuller than ever. My visions of carefully plotted out action plans are seldom realized. That is why the time to get organized is before you even get to the conference.
The good news is there are lots of strategies and tools you can use to get organized and stay organized. My highest priority is keeping track of where I went, what I did, and whom I met at conferences. At my first conference, I used the print program book to keep track of these things, but the ALA conference scheduler is also a fantastic resource. Recently, I have been keeping my conference schedules in my phone because I love being able to include unofficial events and add notes about whom I met at sessions. I also like to distinguish between things I actually went to versus things I thought I might do. My favorite old-fashioned approach is to get business cards from people who sparked great ideas. Nearly everyone I have approached at a conference, no matter how famous, was happy to hand over a business card. I always write the idea or topic on the back of the card along with the date and location where we met. Just remembering who you were with, and where you were, can often bring ideas back to mind.
It also helps to keep a separate space just for things you want to try at home. I sometimes dedicate the first or last page of a notebook for this purpose and only put things there that I want to make sure I follow up on when I get home. When looking at a 3-inch stack of paper from a conference, it is nice to know that there is really only one page of notes that I have to look at. If ideas were buried in that 3-inch stack, there would be a very good chance they'd never get looked at again.
If you decide not to keep a separate space for follow-up items, I highly recommend that you do a daily purge at the conference. On the exhibit floor, or in sessions, it is tempting to take one of every handout that catches your interest. Really good vendors manage to make me take a handout even if it didn't catch my interest. But just because these make it back to your hotel room, that does not mean they have to make it back to your desk at home. By the end of a conference day, I can usually tell whether there is a reason to keep things for later use at the conference, or back at home; everything else is tossed. Not only does this help manage the stack I have to go through when I get home, it lightens my tote bag for the next day of walking through the convention center.
2. "That's not how we do it."
Some of us may be working in libraries that have staff or administrators that are resistant to change. When we get excited about new ideas, we are likely to hear from those colleagues or bosses, "That's not how we do it here." Your gut response may be to tell them, "Yeah, but we could!" While that may be true, it probably isn't the most effective argument for getting your fantastic new idea implemented. Instead, try relating your new idea to something your library already does. If people can see that the program area or service delivery model you would like to try is similar to something they are already comfortable with, it may be easier for them to accept the idea in a new project.
If that doesn't work, consider looking for just one other innovation-friendly person to share ideas with. Whether or not they are in your department, or would be involved in the project, they can help you develop arguments and build a buzz. And if they have some influence in your organization, they can become a champion for new ideas. But even if they don't have decision-making power, it can be enormously powerful to have even one other person helping you build momentum.
3. "We don't have the time or money for that."
Probably all of our libraries are working with constrained resources right now. With small budgets and full schedules it can be hard to convince people to spend any of those limited supplies on something brand new. In these cases, planning and flexibility are your two best strategies for moving forward with new ideas. If you anticipate that you may encounter this kind of objection when you present an idea, do some advance planning, and develop a proposal that takes into account budgetary and staffing concerns. Show how programs or services you are currently offering could be adjusted to make room for the great new idea. And if your new idea will result in efficiencies in your current work, be sure to highlight that fact.
Even if you manage to make a great case for the efficiency of a new idea and show how the budget could accommodate it, your library may be reluctant to start something big. Staying flexible about how to implement your great idea can allow you to start small. You may be able to pick just one piece of the idea to start with. Or if it is something that could be done across the organization, why not start with a pilot program in just one department or location? By trying out a small-scale part of your project, you will know and be able to demonstrate the value in expanding it into the full-blown idea you first conceived.
4. "I don't get it."
One of the great things about going to conferences is that you end up spending time with new people, talking about new things, and exploring what is possible. Every day stressors are far away and don't impinge on our creativity. Having a dedicated space and a large group of like-minded folk builds an amazing energy. It is no wonder that fantastic ideas are generated in such situations! But many of us are at the conference without co-workers or supervisors. So when we get back to our libraries, and talk excitedly about all our ideas, the folks who weren't there may just stare blankly, as if to say, "I don't get it." Remember that they are only getting your digested version of the excitement, and then must try to fit it in around all the other concerns of their regular workload. This is your opportunity to tell a fuller story about your idea. Whatever initially piqued your interest, tell that part of the story along with the great idea you had for making it happen in your community. Whether there was a particularly interesting quote, image, statistic or testimonial, share it with your colleagues and see if it sparks their interest as well.
And don't forget to tell your boss and co-workers what's in it for them. If you can point to increased usage statistics, improved workflow, or other measurable outputs that other libraries have seen that could be powerful. But even just re-framing the idea so that it highlights the advantages to the person you are talking with can go a long way toward getting their attention. Consider what it is that your boss most values and demonstrate the value of your idea from that perspective.
So now that we have tools and strategies for getting our conference ideas implemented at home, it is time to go out and share our ideas. If you are like me, when you go to conferences you get more great ideas than you could reasonably hope to implement. But even when you aren't at a conference, you may hear about things you think libraries should be trying. I know I do. I have been using a made-up Twitter hash tag to keep track of my "We could do that!" moments. If you tweet, I invite you to share your ideas as well using #WCDT.
See you in Anaheim!
Andrea Mullarkey is a Reference and Collection Development Librarian at Berkeley Public Library. You can find her on Facebook, or Twitter (@mullarkea).