Breaking through change barriers in three steps


By Charles Pace, Executive Director, Gwinnett County Public Library, and
Michael Casey, Director of Customer Experience, Gwinnett County Public Library

What role does the library play in the community? That was one of many questions that led the Gwinnett County Public Library (GCPL) toward organizational change in 2016. We were (and still are!) fully committed to being a continuous change organization with a clear outside-in focus and a customer-centric approach. It’s been a journey, and our biggest lesson is probably that we always have more to learn. Change is complex. What’s helped is keeping our ultimate purpose in clear view. And for us, every initiative is always geared towards improved service to the community.

Our initial goal was to automate as much as possible to empower staff to spend more time connecting with customers and building partnerships. With this in mind, our first step was a full assessment of community needs. Next, we evaluated all aspects of library operations and looked to other libraries that have made similar changes for perspective and best practices. Everything was on the table, and we were able to eliminate more than half of our basic procedures. Our combined efforts have been transformational—building the foundation for how we work with our community, but also modifying how we define business as usual.

In our approach, we’ve tried to be mindful that any proposed changes make sense in the big picture and that they are conceived through a collaborative process. It’s also important to understand organizational culture. Not only does this help evaluate what kinds of changes need to happen, but it provides insight into what to emphasize for buy-in. What’s more, we’ve had to consistently remind ourselves about the ultimate purpose, stepping back occasionally to make sure any changes fit community needs and always support and uplift.

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Change isn’t necessarily just about the outcome. We’ve learned that a positive and enriching experience on the journey is critical. Here are three key components that we’ve found help break through change barriers along the way.

1.      Communicate with transparency

The best plan in the world won’t work if it’s created in the shadows. We try to be inclusive and informative every step of the way. (Even in the early days with leadership discussions.) We suggest providing a solid foundation for what you would like to do and why, and then integrate opportunities for collaboration. For example, we calmed fears and showcased benefits through consistent communication and discussion opportunities.

And never be afraid to admit when you’re wrong. Be honest, cut your losses, and move on. Change is a process, and everything doesn’t have to be clear-cut. We’ve worked toward a balanced approach with formal direction to staff, but a lot of room for flexibility. Being open about what’s happening also means going into every initiative knowing things will be influenced by your staff; so for us, leadership’s focus is to keep everyone aligned and moving in the right direction.

2.      Focus on people

We’ve been surprised by how difficult it is for some people to let go of the old way of doing things. What seems like a cut-and-dried task elimination from a leadership perspective may have intense personal value to the individual doing the task. We try to anticipate this, always appreciate it, and build in strategies that ultimately change mindsets. We’ve seen the most progress when staff really understand ‘why’ something is changing.

A peer leader program to help promote and educate one-on-one and branch to branch has proved highly effective. This is vital for building knowledge and understanding, and getting buy-in. (Let’s face it, a message from library management and talking to a peer are two very different things.) We’ve also created a staff committee for new ideas, which provides an avenue for contributing to change while showcasing leadership’s commitment to listening and acting on frontline ideas.

3.      Embrace ongoing change

Success with any change initiative can be difficult to quantify. Setting specific goals to track has been helpful, but accepting that we will continue to tweak has put people at ease. We want staff to embrace change, so they not only buy in, but become part of the process as we move forward. Any kind of change, large or small, should be a piece of something bigger. And it’s this larger vision that will likely inspire the smaller shifts.

We’re often asked if we’ve been successful. The answer is always yes, but that we still have work to do. Change like this is never complete. Our leadership team kicked things off, but our staff is now the driving force. And for us, that’s a clear indication that we’re headed in the right direction.

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