Join the 2017 Library Managers Cohort

Management Training Cohort for Library Managers

January 17, 2017 through April 30, 2017

$1,000 per participant

Online from anywhere

Learn the simple, straightforward RISWS managing process with a cohort of library managers in this online course you can do from anywhere. We learn the process in the first session, implement with your teams in the next two weeks, then spend the next three months tracking progress, comparing experiences, and solving problems.

Two webinars
Three group calls
Weekly IM office hours
Discussion group

RISWS is a simple process that allows you to know what problems your employees are having and what they’re doing well, so you can fix the things that need to be fixed and make better use of your employees’ skills. It exposes good work and good intentions and helps you correct misaligned priorities before things go off the rails. It helps you advocate for funding for your department, and makes doing employee reviews more equitable and radically easier and more accurate. This will help you protect your people and your department from problems in your organization, and the cohort model of the training is designed to give you perspective and help navigating organizational issues.

To sign up, email and tell us how you’d like to pay (credit card, check, or PO after we invoice you).

Where to find us next

In the coming weeks, we will be presenting findings and best practices from this CARLI Research Subsidy-funded project via a webinar and conference presentation. Hope to see you there.

9/21/16 Webinar for RAILS (1:30-3:00 pm)

Magda and I will discuss:

•Stories of management successes and failures in three libraries that have implemented RISWS
•Discussion of how the RISWS method helps uncover the problems that make people unhappy at work
•Strategies for triaging thorny management issues (what you can control/change vs. what is outside of your control) for efficiency
•Discussion of how to create an environment of trust within your department so that people are empowered to do their best work

10/18/16 Presentation at ILA Annual Conference

10:45 AM – 11:45 AM at the Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, IL

Magda, Gabrielle, Val and I will talk about how to do RISWS in your library and discuss the value of a learning cohort for library managers.

Reflections on RISWS, by Gabrielle Toth

Had I known last July what I know now, I would never have applied to be part of this RISWS project. Back then, I presumed that, just like so many weather reports of summer storms, the threat of a budget crisis might thunder in the background but would ultimately blow over. I was wrong. It’s June 16, there are exactly two weeks left in Fiscal Year 2016, and we have no state budget. Which means we have no state allocation. And there’s no relief in sight for FY2017.

Welcome to Illinois, and greetings from Chicago State University, where for the past three years I have been our first ever Chairperson. I serve and represent six faculty librarians, 10 civil service library staff, and our systems librarian. I report to the Dean of Library and Instruction Services, whose portfolio includes Archives, Faculty Development, and a Tutoring Center along with we faculty librarians and library staff.

That distinction, first-ever chairperson, coupled with the not-uncommon practice in Libraryland of moving people with no supervisory experience into authority with little to no training, made me eager to embark upon this project. I knew why my colleagues had elected me to the position – I’m a quick thinker, a big-picture-seer, and someone who enjoys speaking truth to power politely and loudly – and I’d learned what I’d like to do better – day-to-day personnel management. The RISWS Project looked like a beneficial – and free! – way to enhance that skill.

In September I began to implement RISWS. I asked that each of my direct reports – at the time, 7 faculty librarians, the systems librarian, and two civil service staff, the Documents Clerk and the Circulation Manager – to email me a brief three-points-each list of their accomplishments and their challenges every Friday by noon. I’d like to tell you that they each did so diligently. Such was not the case. I received one to five random reports from four of my faculty and the Circ Manager and regular, nigh-weekly reports from two librarians and from my Documents staffer. Not the robust response I’d hoped for, but ultimately a most excellent one and one that would generate news – or in this case data – I could use. My two regular librarian reporters worked in areas both outside of my bailiwick and areas easily missed by patrons, university administration, assessment types, and the like, so getting regular reports from them was a godsend. It helped me learn about what they did and it provided me information I can, and will, use as I prepare a formal annual report and which I’ve been able to deploy to argue for the protection/swift return of my staff and the maintenance of resources.

I’m no mind reader, but I daresay it also helped them understand that all my questions about their work were not because I doubted that they did anything, were not because I wanted to berate them or overload them, but because I valued their labor and their contribution to student success. And that I needed to know about it so I could crow about it. The weekly reports helped open up lines of communication. Ironically, the more I understood and knew what my staff did, the less they felt the need to ask my “permission” before each and every decision. Finally, all my efforts to let them know that I had their back each and every time they made a good-faith effort, even if it cost me my position, came to fruition. This was such a relief.

Part of the reason this was a relief is because I’m not a fan of supervision, or what I had experienced of personnel management. My concept was that the librarians are professionals trained to manage their workflow processes, the staff are knowledgeable about their duties, and that no one needs or wants to be told what to do they just want to be given the space and trust to do their jobs. Wrong! Some workers at all levels like to check in, run through their to-do list, and have decisions OK’d each and every time. As a “better to ask forgiveness than permission” kind of gal, this was very difficult for me to grasp, let alone implement. It felt like so much wasted time, and so much distrust and disrespect – if I didn’t think they were capable of making the decisions essential to their positions, why would they BE in those positions! The weekly RISWS reports satisfied both of our needs for approval.

The RISWS reports I received from my staff member taught me a different lesson. I think my door’s always open, I think everyone feels comfortable coming to me with problems – and boy oh boy do they ever – but sometimes it’s to come to your supervisor with issues. Through my staff member’s reports I learned of problems I had no idea existed, and which meant we had a small backlog of materials which could not be processed until those problems were solved. Had I been more regularly meeting with this staff member, had I rescheduled meetings promptly when she missed them, I could have helped her solve these problems long before. I learned an important lesson – no matter how smoothly things seem to be going, it’s essential for the manager to check in with the staff on a regular and not-infrequent basis.

Finally, I learned that to be an effective manager, personnel or otherwise, I need to not only collect information, I need to make the time to digest it, analyze it, and strategize about putting it into practice. This is crucial, and it seems to never be possible. But today, with two weeks until the end of the fiscal year, with few of my staff, and more strapped for time than ever, I realize that if I can find three hours out of each day to attend to the bare minimum of my missing staff’s work,  I can carve two hours out of each week to think about our accomplishments, challenges, and how we can continue to move forward.

RISWS Works for Libraries, reflections by Magda Pecsenye

I’ve been asked to write a “conclusions” post about this project, and the very short summary is this: The RISWS process works in library management. Our study participants became better managers when they used this process and they experienced better morale and work outcomes when they used the process consistently with their employees. When problems occurred, whether internal to their departments or external from their organizations, the transparent communication process of RISWS helped them manage through these issues without chaos.

I wasn’t surprised by this, because I know RISWS works in any kind of organization that employs people. The process gives a structure for solving problems that rewards the people involved for using their individual skills and experience. So it’s going to work in any situation in which a manager can make it safe for an employee to tell the truth about the work process.

What did surprise me a lot, though, was how chaotic a work environment academic libraries are. They are underfunded and overworked, student-facing but not given enough funding or institutional capital to serve the students the way they should be able to. In addition, library managers are often given employees to manage that they didn’t hire and cannot fire. Being a library manager seems a lot like trying to train for a marathon inside a submarine. Add to that the fact that the org chart of academic institutions is complicated and has a lot of weird corners, and it’s basically a hostage situation.

This means that the results of using the RISWS process revealed themselves more slowly in this study than they do in organizations where employee actions have even a vague relationship to costs and/or revenue. Some of the employees seemed to get it right away, and started reporting in and asking for help with problems in the few weeks. But when employees didn’t get it, they really didn’t get it. It had genuinely never occurred to me that someone would (or could!) file a grievance with their union that their manager was actually trying to manage them.

The other thing I wouldn’t have imagined is that an entire institution could just be defunded suddenly so all the work of using RISWS would fade away because the manager couldn’t actually tell employees if they’d have jobs in a few weeks or not. Private companies go out of business all the time, but one if the benefits of working for a public institution should be knowing that your key is going to work tomorrow morning.

I’d thought I was a hardened observer of capitalism, but with the woes of academic libraries I’m a wide-eyed noob.

Was this project worth doing? Absolutely. Work and life at work has been improved for the manager participants and for the people they manage, though the use of this process.

What would I do differently? I think I would have had the participants ignore entirely the employees they actually had no authority over when they were starting RISWS. I think the early wins with the employees who got it right away were overshadowed by the resistance from the employees who really didn’t want to be there anyway. And I think focusing on those early wins would have made for a smoother process for everyone, and avoided some of the resistance.

I am ready for more library managers who want to be walked through this process. We know it works, so let’s roll it out everywhere.

Reflections On a Year With RISWS, by Valerie Neylon

I’ve really seen a big change throughout this project! I started as a new librarian, and I was faced with a staff very resistant to change. Although, aren’t all staff resistant to change? I think that’s a normal thing.

And I came in ready to make changes. Big changes. I was not happy with the way the library had been running, specifically customer service, and I was hired on the condition of making those tough changes. I was not a department chair, just a full-time faculty member, but I had the support of the department chair to be a supervisor. I implemented a hands-on management technique, which was very new to the staff, and not very welcome at first. I checked in with the staff every day and asked how they were doing. I organized meetings that focused on ways to improve customer service. I let staff know what was allowed and what was not allowed (for example, cell phones are not allowed while you’re covering the circulation desk).  Over time, I started to see improvement. We’re far from perfect, but the school’s administration has acknowledged that there were no student complaints about the library this year!

We’re a unionized school. I’ve never worked in a unionized environment before. Now that I am, I sure did see both sides of the coin. When I implemented the weekly emails with the top challenges and accomplishments, I was faced with a grievance. The circulation staff said that this was not a duty outlined in their contract. Luckily, the grievance was decided in my favor, and the weekly emails continued.

At the beginning of the weekly reports, there were tons of challenges. And, we worked through them. We fixed a lot of things, and a lot of things, like the absence of IT support in the evenings, was something I was incapable of fixing. But we talked about these things as a team and had regularly scheduled meetings and went over these things. It got to the point where the staff started complaining that they couldn’t think of three challenges. Yippee! That means it worked! I’m not sure the staff all had the same level of excitement as I did, but generally I saw some smiles.

In fact, as we progressed, staff members would say to me during the day, “Hey! I found my accomplishment!” I cannot even begin to describe the change in attitude this was. These were staff members who seemed fully checked out, and now they were on board with accomplishments and being proud of what they did. One staff member even asked if they could start reporting accomplishments for co-workers, sort of a “giving a pat on the back” situation. This teamwork was new, and exciting.

I won’t say that it was all easy or all good. There are still times when I have a hard time motivating staff to do something, and there are still most definitely issues. But, I will say that the challenges have been easier to find and solve, and the staff felt they had a hand in that. And positivity erupted from it (but let’s be clear: positivity did not erupt everyday).

Overall, I feel much more confident about my skill as a manager. I was promoted to department chair in the middle of the RISWS project, so that makes me feel that other people feel confident in my management style, as well. I’ve learned quite a bit, and although there are still some day by day challenges that I’m not quite sure how to tackle, I feel better equipped to think about it.

Wrapping up: Thoughts about my management philosophy and RISWS

Last week, we convened for our final project call. The trainee managers Val and Gabrielle, Magda, and I talked through how the past year with RISWS has gone in our libraries, what we’ve learned, and what challenges we still face. It’s been a crazy year in Illinois libraryland. Gabrielle works at Chicago State, one of the public higher education institutions facing severe budget cuts, furloughs and layoffs. It’s not yet clear what that means for library services (and staff jobs) at her school. Val also works at a public institution, Richard J. Daley College, part of the City Colleges of Chicago. The state budget cuts are less of a factor for Daley, but as Val will discuss in her upcoming post, she faced a union grievance as a result of implementing the RISWS weekly report process. Meanwhile, at my school, we’re undergoing an intensive change management initiative and dealing with the realities of a flat budget projected for next fiscal year as a result of low enrollment growth.

RISWS alone can’t solve state economic crises, generate enrollment numbers, or heal rifts between union employees and management. However, the constant stream of employee-provided data CAN help managers know what’s going on with their teams. And it is this information-based reality check that has served me well in the past year. Below I talk a bit more about how the RISWS process and my management philosophy intersect.

I believe in the mission/vision statement of an institution as an important guiding tool for its constituent divisions and departments. In higher education, student service is our raison d’etre; the library exists to help students along every step in their educational journey.  Starting with the mission/vision as a guiding principle and rallying cry, we can then build a strategic plan with “SMART”  (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) goals or objectives. Depending on context, the library can use a larger division strategic plan as a starting point or build one of its own to specifically delineate how library staff can move the department toward institutional objectives. RISWS data should be invaluable here — by sorting through the weekly reports, I can identify what we’re currently spending time on see whether that matches up with what we should spend time on. Then, I can make data-driven decisions about what might be the better/best use of limited human and financial resources.

One of my core responsibilities as a library manager is building the right team that ensures the library works in service of the overall mission.  I am a librarian by training and a human resources strategist by vocation. As a manager, I strive to empower my team to solve problems and remove system roadblocks to allow us all to work efficiently and from our strengths. This language is straight from the RISWS playbook. I begin with the assumption that people come to work in good faith, wanting to do their best. Sometimes that isn’t the case, and issues of poor performance or low morale need to be addressed with those employees. But hiring smart, capable, and creative individuals at all levels in the library (whether full-time, part-time, interns, contractors, temps, professionals or paraprofessionals), and then devoting time to training, and mentoring them to develop professionally is key to moving a library forward.

To achieve excellence, libraries must have the wholehearted support of and “brand recognition” from key internal and external constituencies. To earn that trust and support, we can use data to tell powerful stories about library value. As a manager, I am an advocate for my library and my team. It is my job to articulate and demonstrate our value to key stakeholders. Sometimes, I need a soundbite for impromptu meetings with leadership. Other times, I need a longer answer to the question, “what is the library staff doing this week?” RISWS data helps me in those moments I am called upon to articulate library value and win support. The good news is that I can now bring RISWS information into play alongside the typical metrics of circulation stats, archive research requests, and database usage. I believe in assessment and evaluation as a means to reality-check our assumptions about our success.

What’s next?

In the next year, I hope to spend more time analyzing data from FY16 and working with my team to craft a plan for library service that can further big institutional goals and more clearly mirror our school’s priorities. Then, I want to create a feedback loop that flows from my school’s mission statement and strategic plan into individual performance evaluations and employee goal-setting. That is, let’s see what happens when I weave institutional aspirations and markers of school success into the job descriptions and expectations for my individual team members!

Method to the madness: Using RISWS to ensure consistent communication when everything else is unpredictable

Welcome back, everyone. It’s been awhile!

Where have we been?

We took a planned November/December hiatus from the project blog, knowing that we’d have too many holiday schedules to contend with to keep up an active posting schedule. During the break, we all continued using RISWS in our libraries, receiving, triaging, and commenting on our teams’ weekly reports in order to eliminate obstacles and establish better workflow in our libraries. In late January, the three of us, plus trainer Magda, finally re-convened for a team conference call. Here, I’ll report on some of the trends we’ve encountered in the past few months.

No one is here: staff vacations and holiday closures

For academic libraries, the winter holidays often bring us lovely, quiet times. Classes aren’t in session, students are away, library hours are shortened, and you can get a chance to work on long-postponed desk projects. However, for a manager, this time of year also means an onslaught of requests for PTO from employees, the threat of severe weather, and, sometimes a sense that whoever is left in the office has to do all the work that vacationing colleagues leave behind. What happens to big projects when no one is around to help get them done? How do you keep staff motivated when everyone is thinking about their holiday plans and online shopping during lunch?

Keeping RISWS going through the consistency of the weekly reports helps keep the team moving toward goals, even when you can’t have everyone in the office at the same time for an in-person meeting. As manager, you can monitor the reports for emerging crises and observe what’s happening to overall morale during this weird time of year. And you can really see if people are still doing their assigned work or if they’ve slacked off early. Once you get everyone back from vacation, you can use the reports to structure your agenda for your first face-to-face meeting in the new term.

Everyone is here: kicking off a new semester

And then, all of a sudden we’re busy again! The students come back in January. At my school, January is our most hectic month. It starts with an all-student two-day Convocation and then we move into three full weeks of Intensives (on-campus, 9-5, M-F class sessions) for our distance learning students. And, in Chicago, the weather was still bad and the flu bug of the season was going around. We remained short-staffed and over-extended for weeks past Christmas and into the New Year.

When we’re extra busy with lots of student/patron service tasks, I notice interesting problems start to bubble up in the weekly reports. Capacity issues (not enough time to devote to helping more students with more detailed reference requests), facility issues (competing user needs in a limited library space), and evidence of employee burnout (staff can’t keep up with daily tasks because it’s all hands on deck all the time for special requests) show up in the reports week to week. While we have to wait for quieter times to address these bigger, systemic issues, the good news is that the documentation is in the weekly reports waiting to be used.

Teams in flux: On-boarding new staff and taking on new roles

Since November, I’ve added a temp employee and an archive assistant to the team at my library. Happily for her, but unfortunately for us, our library assistant altered her shifts this term so she could take on another opportunity in LIS. In another library, one of our trainee managers was promoted to Department Chair for the new semester. Throughout these times of flux, again, I’ve found the consistency of the weekly reports to be a valuable management tool.

My team files their weekly reports on a shared Basecamp site where everyone can see everyone else’s lists of challenges and accomplishments. From day one, I’ve asked the new folks to contribute to this process, adding their lists to the document everyone can see. This has proven immensely helpful to me as I manage their orientation and on-boarding. I can see where they need more guidance and training, and what “new hire” obstacles (information gaps, confusion about priorities, lack of proper equipment or software) continue to stand in their way. I’m excited to see other staff pitch in to offer their assistance with problem solving. The RISWS process is part of the regular workplace rhythm and it’s helping us to build a team by letting the seasoned employees jump in to help where they can.

What we missed and where we’re going

One of the other lessons learned this winter hiatus is about the value of the learning cohort. Though we sometimes feel isolated inside the particular realities of each of our institutions, having the structure of a monthly phone check-in and information-sharing through our Basecamp site has helped us to feel less alone. Despite our schools’ differences, we face similar challenges, and through this process, we’ve been able to share stories and troubleshoot solutions. I’m glad to have that structure, plus the RISWS weekly report system, back in place to help us power through the next few months.

On that note, we should be back to our usual monthly posting schedule as we wrap up the spring semester and fulfill the term of our grant-funded project. If you’re interested in RISWS training for your library, please email me at

Thanks for reading!

Working inside the box: Why creative/intellectual industries need systems and processes

I am a librarian. I like to bring order to chaos. I love taxonomies, metadata, classification systems, and org charts. Sometimes I work to bring order to shelves of books or caches of records. More frequently lately, I bring my systems orientation to managing people and creating efficient workflows and processes. For a librarian-manager who has spent ten years working in public, special/non-profit, and academic libraries, this project – implementing the RISWS management method in three academic libraries in Illinois – hits all those sweet spots. Yet, as we’ve watched the weekly reports filter in from our diverse schools (a large urban state university campus, a branch of the City Colleges of Chicago, and a private theological graduate school), and when we meet in our monthly training calls, I’m continually struck by the similarities in the struggles we managers face.

Many of these challenges have roots in the structural particularities of academic libraries. As a creative industry, academia provides fertile ground for management problems to arise.

Librarians are faculty. Or staff. Or both/neither.

In the libraries we’re studying, there is a professional librarian vs. clerical/civil service employee divide. The professional librarians are classified as faculty in tenure-track positions and hold the MLS degree. This means they are evaluated in terms of teaching, service, and scholarship alongside subject matter faculty peers, while the staff they manage (often circulation desk or tech services folks) are evaluated through their union or another performance evaluation process. As faculty, we managers are encouraged to undertake research projects, find grant funding, and bring our whole creative selves to the job, pursuing intellectual passions that enrich our work. Faculty librarians follow a prescribed path of evaluation leading to advancement and, ultimately, tenure. Meanwhile, our staffs (because of how their positions are classified) do not enjoy much freedom or support for professional development. Many lack clear paths to promotion. Managers and staff are in different boxes and are evaluated based on different expectations. RISWS helps to even the field a bit, as the same methods are used for all employees. But, some tension remains between the groups.

How do we measure success?

In most corporate environments, the bottom line is king. If a unit of XYZ Corp. isn’t clearly contributing to the profit margin, positions can be cut and money reallocated to more successful parts of the operation. In academia, our success metrics are fuzzier. While we do face very real budget limitations as public institutions, our evaluation and success as libraries or librarians is not spoken of in terms of dollars but in the language of enrollment targets and FTE and “student satisfaction.” At times, we may know that a reallocation of funding (from an outdated collection priority to another, for example) is needed, but we are not always empowered to make those changes.

Using a management method in a creative profession.

One of my literature professors in undergrad (at The Evergreen State College, an extremely liberal and “outside the box” institution) told my class that you can mess with the conventions of grammar and usage and break new ground in creative writing once you’ve learned the rules. Meaning, before you can go crazy with the free verse poetry and leave conventions of capitalization and spelling behind, you need to know how to write a grammatically-correct sentence and craft a 5-paragraph essay.

Before you can subvert a process or function well outside the box, you need to appreciate the benefits of structure and work within it.

Academia is a strange beast that defies easy classification. We’re definitely not corporate, but (as far as public institutions go), we are not independent (or independently wealthy) little islands of pure workplace freedom, either. The beauty of RISWS is that it works in any office setting or industry. In RISWS, Magda has created something truly agnostic, that fits alongside any other reporting or performance measurement/evaluation system you might have at your library or university. RISWS has shown each of us the trouble spots within our libraries and team workflows; the data has also made clear when library staff encounter challenges that are truly institutional, or bigger than the manager can handle on her own. When appropriate, our managers can use the RISWS data to work within the org chart to address bigger problems with superiors and work for broader institutional change.

So far this academic year, we’ve encountered a fair bit of resistance to the simple RISWS methodology, from direct reports and from union representatives. I am starting to believe that if your organization is vociferously resistant to a process that is a sign a process is sorely needed.

Employees need structure in which to flourish.

Regardless of union/civil service or tenure-track faculty status, our team members need clear reporting structures so that they know their work is useful and appreciated. I’ve interviewed several candidates this week for a couple of open positions in my library and, without fail, they all say they want clear expectations from their managers and freedom to run with ideas within an established framework. They want to know what their goals should be and then have the flexibility to reach those goals however they see fit, using their skills, creativity, and expertise.

I am not a micro-manager. I don’t hover. As long as the work is getting done, I usually don’t care how it’s happening on a day-to-day basis. I hire my staff to be experts in their assigned areas of responsibility and I want to see them engaged and creatively working to solve workplace problems. But I also want to give them clear benchmarks and ways to measure their achievement. I have to give my team a certain amount of structure (a box!) and support (a process!) so that we all know we’re moving in the same direction and I can be sure that the unit I manage is truly supporting the mission of our parent school.

A process like RISWS that is simple to implement gives management a foothold to see and solve problems, helps employees thrive, and enables the team to move the library in a single, strategic direction. It brings a little bit of order to the chaos. And that makes me happy.

More in January after our holiday break.

The Benefits of Consistency

Now that our participants have been asking for weekly reports for a few months, they’re starting to see the benefits of consistency. At first, reading all the reports (and dealing with employees who made a fuss about sending in the reports) took a lot of time and thought about what to do about each complaint and how to categorize each accomplishment. But after a few months of regular reporting, our managers were starting to anticipate what they were going to get. Here are the main benefits they’re seeing of this consistency:

1. Issues with different job roles and positions are exposed that they wouldn’t have been able to see before. And now that the managers know what’s blocking people, they can figure out how to deal with it. Some of it can’t be resolved, but now at least everyone knows about it and can acknowledge it.

2. Collective sigh of relief from the people who are working in good faith. The managers found that people who were facing challenges in doing their jobs as well as they wanted to were hungry for the chance to simply tell someone and have their issue reports noted officially. They knew that once it was in the “official record” that they’d reported problems with something, it would be as easy to be held accountable for later failures, since they’d reported what they knew. That allowed people to relax and focus on what they could do.

3. Better goal setting and assignments. Our managers are pleasantly surprised by things their employees are reporting as accomplishments, and are able to give employees more responsibilities and assignments in the areas they are excelling at.

4. Nowhere to hide. The employees who are sitting around resisting work are outing themselves, either by refusing to do the reports or by missing the mark completely on the reports. Our managers usually knew who wasn’t doing the job, but now they had confirmation of that.

5. Opportunity for a priorities review with each employee. One of our managers inherited a bunch of employees without completely understanding their area or job duties, and our other manager had a few positions cut and needed remaining employees to pick up some extra duties. In both cases, the reports told our managers what each employee assumed were the priorities of their role and the managers got to have alignment one-on-ones with each employee to make sure the manager and employee both had the same idea of the priorities for each role.

The first few weeks of reporting were slightly terrifying for the managers, but once the initial panic subsided, the managers started seeing how these quick check-ins could tell them more about how their department were running than they could see just by walking around or following project management report progress.

From the Trenches: Triaging Problems and Locating Authority

As the weekly reports came trickling in over the past month, our managers faced some struggles in common. The RISWS reporting system gives the managers data about what is working and what isn’t for team members and, understandably, each of us wants to jump in and solve problems where we can. The most exciting and fulfilling part of managing people, for me, is this feeling of success: If I can advocate to make my employees’ work-lives easier and free them from unnecessary obstacles and complications, they’re going to be happier and more productive at work and, as a result, my department as a whole is going to function better. Everyone wins.
At least, that’s the dream. To make this work, the manager needs to have the authority, skill, and political will to enact or enable those changes on behalf of her department. Analyzing this first batch of reports, we noticed a few common issues with authority and advocacy that impair the manager’s ability to address team problems in each of our libraries.

1. Responsibility without authority: Employees identified problems that the manager has the responsibility (but not the authority) to solve. For example, it is the manager’s responsibility to make sure the public service desk is covered during open hours. But the manager does not have the authority to approve existing employee overtime or hire temp staff if that is needed. Appealing to higher-level supervisors may be effective in certain settings, but the manager is left feeling inadequate and hamstrung as she tries to solve a real problem that is “her job.”

2. The org chart: Fact or fiction?: Managers try to solve the problems people report but there is no obvious, solid chain of command to work through to get things done. Academic libraries do have reporting structures on paper; in fact, our managers report both formally and informally to a complicated array of VPs, deans, chairs, and department heads. However, it is often unclear in daily practice who really does what and when they can or should do it. Our managers wonder if and when it is appropriate to pull in the big boss to help solve a problem. If the manager takes the initiative to involve upper management, she can look like a great advocate for her team, but runs the risk of appearing useless and ineffectual as a middle manager if problems don’t get solved or get taken out of her hands.

3. Things fall through the cracks: Crossover of duties among employees or between departments (managed by different people) creates confusion. Weekly reports from our employees have shown some overlap in duties that isn’t terribly efficient. Sometimes, critical projects and functions are completely neglected. This is a subset of the org chart problem, where the right hand team doesn’t know what the left hand group is doing and there’s no one assigned to monitor the project or function as a whole. In some cases, the manager can step in to provide that critical oversight or project management role and smooth the way for the team to do their parts. Other times, it means things just aren’t getting done because no one is explicitly responsible.

4. The tyranny of the team approach: This is the problem of decision-making by committee. When everyone is in charge, it means no one is in charge. No one is vested with the authority to make a thing happen. While this consensus style of democratic decision-making is sometimes essential for project buy-in, it is definitely not the best way to run every project in every circumstance. A flat organizational structure generates learned helplessness because no one can authoritatively answer the question “who does that?” or “who’s in charge here?” That non-answer quickly becomes an excuse: “Well, I don’t know whose job it is. But I know it’s not mine.” Employees begin to justify not doing their best work (or doing any work at all) because who does what and who they are supposed to answer to just isn’t clear.

So, what now? As our managers try to tackle these problems, Magda and I recommend a triage approach. Managers will consider: What can I fix immediately? What do I have the authority and support to realistically fix soon? What seems impossible to address given current structural realities? A side effect of the weekly reports is that they force a manager to confront her own limitations as a problem-solver within the organization. I’ve found it’s important to be transparent with my team about those limitations so that they know I’m doing the best I can while I work to effect greater organizational change.

This process of uncovering authority gaps and untangling the org chart within a department can help managers start difficult conversations about how to realign job duties, rewrite job descriptions, and shift reporting lines so that we are all empowered to do our best work.

More next month.