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Sparking Innovation: Pop Your Mind and Risky Business

Denver Public Library, CO

Innovation Summary

To involve staff in creative thinking and future planning, the Denver Public Library launched a monthly lunch/learn series, Pop Your Mind. One session incorporated a brainstorming technique to generate ideas on encouraging smart risk taking within the organization. One of the ideas that was implemented was called Risky Business.

Problem Statement

In any organization but particularly a large one it can be difficult to both inspire innovation and align staff to achieve common goals. As the Denver Public Library moves into a new strategic planning process, we were looking for ways to infuse new ideas, generate excitement and build momentum. Due to multiple years of budget cuts, the Library has been short-staffed while continuing to make progress on numerous major community initiatives. Staff are not only stretched thin and stressed but many also feel constrained by the current strategic plan. We felt the organization needed an infusion of fun but low stress ways to share ideas, learn new things and explore together. It was also an opportunity for staff at all levels and across divisions to co-mingle and cross-pollinate. The goal is to be prepared with fresh concepts and a re-engaged/ re-energized staff when we have new data about our community to create our new strategic plan.


Since August 2012, we have held nine lunch and learns. The title of the series, Pop Your Mind, is a riff off our branding tagline, “Feed Your Mind.” We used Pop to signify blowing your mind and because we serve popcorn. During the Pop Your Mind sessions we often show inspirational and entertaining videos by visionaries like Seth Godin or Hans Rosling on topics like fixing things that are broken and using data to make decisions. We have also had a team Marshmallow Challenge, a fun activity with profound lessons on failure, innovation and collaboration. Other sessions included staff members sharing innovative and inspirational presentations they have given elsewhere. Recently, we used IDEO design firm’s brainstorming and prototyping techniques to generate ideas on ways the organization could encourage smart risk taking. We then implemented one of the staff-generated ideas and called it Risky Business. For the Risky Business challenge we invited all staff with great ideas to complete the Risky Business application with questions such as: What is your big idea?; Describe the cheap and easy experiment you wish to implement; and How will you share your successes and/or failures and what you learned?. We indicated that one staff member or team would receive support and up to $1,000 to spend on a low risk, simple prototype of a risky idea. Administration would then evaluate the process to determine if it met the goals of inspiring new ideas, helping develop a culture of smart risk taking, and ensuring lessons are learned prior to full-blown implementation. Based on what we learned, we may modify or expand the Risky Business process after the first innovation gets implemented.


A key indicator of success is turning learning into action. Our Risky Business staff challenge resulted in 18 applications from diverse departments including Security and Cataloging. The funding was awarded to the Hot Wheels project (will be renamed due to trademark concerns), a customized tricycle (trike) with an attached cart that will be equipped with library materials relevant to the trike’s destination and portable wi-fi devices that can be used by the public. The trike will be driven by Library staff wearing branded outfits at outdoor events such as festivals and farmers’ markets. It will promote the Library’s collections including downloadable books, audio books and magazines as well as free Internet access. The project was selected because it was risky and we believe it can help the Library achieve two of its objectives: strengthening customer loyalty and communicating library value. Pop Your Mind is becoming increasingly popular with up to 60 staff members per session. Upon staff request, two events were held at branch libraries with staff from eight branches participating. In May we will blend Pop Your Mind and the Library’s Technology Interest Group (TIG). TIG, comprised of technology enthusiasts from various departments regularly meet off-site, after-hours to discuss all things technology. With the popularity of Pop Your Mind the TIG planning group is trying an on-site, lunch-time event to expand interest. The focus will be new frontiers such as makerspaces and 3-D printing but also provide time to play with DIY technology such as e-textiles and paper circuits.