Friday, July 10, 2009

Lemons to Lemonade

“These are the times that try men's souls.” - Thomas Paine (English born American Writer and political pamphleteer, whose 'Common Sense' and 'Crisis' papers were important influences on the American Revolution. 1737-1809,

To that sentiment, I would add the more useful Obama point about using a crisis as a transformative opportunity. My mom would call it - "turning lemons into lemonade". Sounds trite, but it is probably the most important (of so many important) lesson(s) my mom has given me.

For MPOW, the crisis has become more of a perfect storm - budget cuts (potentially severe), hiring freeze (since over a year ago, I might add), edict not even to print (which has me instead going through pens & yellow legal pads by the ½ dozen... taking more time, too, darnit), and the loss of more than 453 years of institutional knowledge through the mass retirements that took place at the end of the fiscal year. If MPOW's leader has lost 3 of his 5 top managers, and all of us have lost the extra manpower, and "boots on the ground" that make things as elemental as staffing the reference desk (and other places where we provide services) a great challenge, how do we survive – or better still, thrive?

And MPOW, like so many other places of work these days, is only a microcosm of the stresses of a rapidly changing world. The whole issue that our profession has been struggling with in recent decades – the role of our libraries in a world of ubiquitous information – creates a similar perfect storm. I'm writing this while seeing a stream from the ALA Unconference today (twitter hashtag #unala2009 -, in which Steve Lawson tells us that Jason Griffey is “saying that he believes that libraries branding themselves as providers of "quality information" won't be enough to distinguish ourselves”... It seems that Griffey is telling us that we'll need to focus more than ever on providing services and that our former raison d'etre is no longer sustainable. We have to build on something else...

I normally adore change, but even for those people who get bored with status quo, change is stressful (even when it's a good stressor). So I offer the following, both as a reminder to myself and my colleagues in this profession. To get through our crises, we'll all need to manifest – more than ever – the following qualities:
  • patience & faith – At MPOW, we need to show patience with and faith in our colleagues, our leader and those managers/supervisors who are left... they are all working on the issue of how we get the job done in these circumstances... Rome wasn't built in a day & this is a really big ship. (In the profession at large, I think a little impatience/sense of urgency is probably functional, since there's that much more work to be done to get the whole profession to change. In an individual organization that's undergoing a major change already - one that is led by people of good will & vision - extending some patience & faith is required.)
  • flexibility – we have to be able to roll with whatever comes our way. At MPOW, our leaders may be experimenting with how to fill the many gaps we've been left with. They are constrained by all sorts of arcane bureaucratic restrictions, I'm guessing, that we don't always understand
  • innovative spirit – we'll need to figure out newer, better ways of doing things – faster, more automated means of getting things done. We'll need to deliver information AND services digitally. At MPOW, we need to empower more staff to participate in innovation.
  • Collaboration, cooperation, and sharing – an unprecedented level of cooperation will be required to “build Rome” (or rebuild, as the case may be). We have to support one another, at none of our colleagues' expense. In a library (or in the profession as a whole), of all places, we should be sharing information, not hording our special store of knowledge and skills. Professionals should put the interests of the organization (or the profession) ahead of their own personal ambitions and fears. Though, in defense of folks who have behaved in dysfunctionally territorial ways, these behaviors can arise from an aspect of an organization's culture that may need to be dealt with on the leadership side of the equation. If people feel like their jobs are in greater jeopardy or others are getting rewarded for their work because they've shared information, they're not going to share again in the future. So from the management perspective, you've got to figure out where the real “go to” people are, even if they are too timid to point it out for themselves. You've got to recognize & reward them so they know that they are valued all the more for their willingness to share. It doesn't matter what their official position is in the organization. For the individual worker, collaboration and cooperation means having back-up people, documentation. and cross-training. Let's rethink how we look at things – maybe, just maybe, if an organization is going to fall apart when you leave, you haven't done a very important part of your job. (And supervisors/managers – to avoid future disruptions in service, you may want to make documentation and training a required part of your supervisees' workflow. Maybe every year, before each person's review, they should do a writeup/revision of their documentation and training of colleagues... just a thought)
  • communication – to support said collaboration, we need to remember to talk with one another. Talking is far better than email – it's the quickest way humans can share information and it's the way least likely to intensify/create conflicts. We all modify our tone and words in real time conversation based on the feedback we're receiving. That allows for diplomacy. It's not as possible through mediated formats like email and even through IM, tweeting, blogging, etc.
  • compassion – we'll need to understand that we're all doing the best we can in our own little way & to be patient with our colleagues to reduce the inevitable points of conflict. We need to respect one another's strengths (and shall we just call them, challenges?), because, after all, we're all imperfect beings.
  • Optimism & hope – another aspect of my mom that I've always admired is her ability to see the silver lining in ANY situation, no matter how dire. Optimism isn't easy work – especially when it's not the pollyanna/stick-your-head-in-the-sand kind of optimism, when it is, instead, the look-reality-in-the-eye and still insist you can turn those lemons into lemonade kind of optimism.
The upside of our reality is that we're in a new era/a new day – everything's on the table. The hierarchy of the past, the systems that kept things so regimented have been torn apart by circumstance. Now, there is no more excuse for a failure to collaborate, communicate, and innovate. So let's get going, let's build something great!

BTW, for those of us (at MPOW, that's all of us) – NOT at ALA this year, you can follow the tweet-stream out of ALA at #ala2009 -

No comments: