December 17, 2003
On Managing column
By John Lubans
Library Administration & Management
v. 18, n.2 Spring, 2004
Title: “You Have the Resources”
It’s axiomatic. Managers are to make the most of resources - budgets, materials and people. But, a straightforward call for the best use of resources does not guarantee it’ll be heard and get a favorable response – it’s more complicated than that.
Staff may believe they are underpaid and overworked – and, unappreciated. Asking them to do more with less - that’s what they hear when you call for resourcefulness – will get you an earful about how they’re at full capacity and the engine is smoking. Well, what if their perception is not reality, how then do we get staff to consider possible new configurations of existing resources? How do we encourage staff to feel free and daring in responding to daily challenges?
IBM recently offered a series of “How Inventors Invent” days to its research lab staff. Those attending practiced tai chi or yoga and ran in a five K race or played music. A master chef, a NASA astrophysicist, a cartoonist from India and a fragrance chemist were among the speakers promoting innovation.
When it was over, the participants were asked how they could heighten their creative productivity. There were no reported requests for magic mushrooms or other trips to exotic places, just the mundane: meeting free days, periodic bans on e-mail, and open office hours for drop by visitors. To help mixing among researchers, they recommended breaking lunchtime routines and eating with someone different.
Perhaps in response to IBMs uninspired outcome, Hewlett-Packard issued an imperative: “Innovate.” Or, similarly shortcutting the expense of a retreat, another company mandated: “Elevate.” One engineering company reminds each cubicle’s inhabitant: “Never Stop Thinking” - in headline size letters.
Libraries are not exempt from exhortation. We’ve all been bemused by the consultant’s counsel to “Work Smarter, Not Harder” and one library posted a sign above the door to its Circulation Department: “Think!” When I see these pithy, prosaic exhortations however benignly floated, I add a parenthetical expression: “Innovate (damn you!)” Isn’t that really what’s being said? When you have to remind a professional or any fellow human being to keep thinking, what assumptions are you making about that person? Is a futile berating the best managers can do to bring out our innate desire to do a good job?
Library staff development workshops ask participants to think out of the box, to move their cheese and to catch a tossed fish or two - all this in hopes of inducing innovation, lowering resistance to change and maybe turning a surly staff member into a prince of customer service. A tall order for any workshop; especially, when you consider the underlying premise: Participants must not know how to think in effective ways, they must have some fundamental flaw like a repressed creativity gene. We keep forgetting the simple behavioral truth - just like motivation, innovation does not happen externally – I cannot make you more innovative. I can try to inspire or trigger your innovation, but innovative outcomes only happen when the person responds from within in a creative way.
The more confident a staff member can be about his or her resourcefulness and the higher management’s expectations are about staff abilities, the more likely staff will be resourceful, and more able to respond to the creative opportunity. The manager’s role is to enable staff to go with their creative impulses.
That brings me to the title of this column and my friend, Gordon Caudle, a former Outward Bound instructor who is now President of Nekton, a research engineering company.
When out in the woods and confronted by unhappy campers about their inability to solve an assigned problem, he’d assure them, calmly telling them, “You’ve got the resources.” Once, as part of an executive leadership course, Gordon was guiding an overnight campout for MBA students. They were frustrated with their failure at a simple problem-solving task and were expecting him to solve it.
The group was trying to make sense (and shelter) out of an ambiguous bundle of canvas and an odd assortment of tent poles and guy lines. Adding urgency was the fading daylight and the cold wind swooping off the nearby river. The campers were convinced parts were missing – no way they could put it up.
Interestingly, when Gordon encouraged them to keep trying, the campers paused and reflected. Gordon’s “You’ve got the resources” triggered their taking another look, unfolding all the pieces and laying them out, and, re-configuring their assumptions. He was in effect saying: “You have the power, you have the ability.”
What was there in this situation that made the campers hear Gordon’s words, take his advice and re-apply themselves? Respect, trust in Gordon? Yes, and more.
Gordon could have shown off his technical skills and solved the tent problem, but he withheld the answer deliberately so as not to impede the group’s learning. After all, the point of their being in the woods was for them to gain insights about leadership and teamwork. Debriefings would seek to make relevant extrapolations – the “take aways” - from the camping experience to the workplace.
It’s the same for leaders in the workplace. If we want to encourage resourcefulness we need to display confidence in the staff’s ability to deal with challenges. There are times we should hold back and let people make mistakes, to struggle some, to find their own way without intervention or blame. And, we should take time to reflect on the learning in the struggle.
The campers positive response is interesting because often when I used Gordon’s phrase in the workplace, I’d get an equally interesting , but negative, response: immediate disbelief along with some baleful looks at the miscreant (me) who obviously did not understand or appreciate the complexity of the work. Yet, under the right circumstances, responses from some work groups were as positive as that from the campers - more of the “Maybe we can do it, after all” variety.
What are some of these “right” circumstances? What are the drivers of resourcefulness?
Trust has much to do with how staff feel about you as a leader. The more trust they have the greater their willingness to consider new ways (even better ways than you may have thought about), the less trust, the less willing to confront change or deal with the unanticipated, the unexpected. I recall how a lack of trust compounded an organization’s prolonged e-mail crash. The systems staff were scrambling, haplessly re-booting, afraid to admit they were in over their heads. The administration was lashing out at the systems staff’s seeming ineptitude. Instead of mutual support there was mutual suspicion and disdain. Looking back, had the situation been less fear driven, there would have been a quicker solution – probably a matter of days instead of weeks.
There is our innate desire to succeed – call it pride. The campers certainly would prefer to pitch the tent on their own if they thought they could. We all would. Why not capitalize on staff’s innate desire to do a good job? Present the problem in a way that appeals to pride. Like when the musical conductor Simone Young, in an earlier column, got the all male Vienna orchestra to buy into her musical interpretation. She told them, “Sure you can - you guys can do anything.”
When staff truly believe “We did it ourselves,” good feelings flow toward the leader. This is not a recent truth. It was first articulated by Lao-Tzu in 500 B.C.
A surmountable adversity, like the cold wind and the settling darkness, can promote resourcefulness. However, you need to be reasonable and unambiguous about what you want: a 15% productivity improvement in titles cataloged is in reach. Doubling dollars donated annually is probably not. Erecting the tent was doable, and once they did the campers benefited from its shelter and shared in the pride from doing it themselves.
Reward resourcefulness. An example from my experience is letting library staff put dollars saved into buying needed equipment. One year we saved enough money to buy over 100 computer terminals for staff and student users – that reinforced innovation and laid the foundation for a technological surge several years ahead of other libraries. Another example, was our encouragement of a copy cataloger with a gift for simplifying complex but repetitive computer cataloging procedures and boiling them down into utilitarian macro commands. Her work benefited other copy catalogers and resulted in an upswing in productivity.
Team resources. If the staff knows you are not going to fix the problem, they may make better use of all their own resources – the team. If the challenge is sizeable, those who normally “take charge” may have no choice but to be open to other ideas. I observed that Gordon’s several “take charge” MBA campers became less worried about asking for help from within their group. It is at times like these when the quietly perceptive member (every group has one or more) can come forth and offer her observations.
I’ve been known to use a mildly facetious strategy when a group is at a decision making contretemps. I tell them if they cannot make a decision, I will. That works every time.
A library could not improve its slow processing times. Whenever the processing heads convened to make another run at improving, every idea was rationalized away – the system was frozen. This cycle continued until the exasperated CEO made a leadership change. The new processing leader learned that the staff doing the work - had put together a multi-page list of steps for improvement. These were implemented with an immediate and dramatic turnaround. The previous leadership’s inability to implement valid ideas suggests how perfectly good managers (all of us) can become entrenched and resist external ideas – an example of “group think.”
Limit options. Well, what happens when we have too many options, including that of doing nothing? What happens when mañana is our only deadline?
One library director limited options and inspired staff resourcefulness. She did so by taking away shelving space for gift books. There was a valid reason to take the space – it was needed for people. But she had an ulterior motive: to get the collection development staff to make long delayed decisions on years of unreviewed gift books. Her deadline was explicit: demolition starts in four weeks and the shelves will be the first things to be scrapped. While gift processing would get some shelves in another location, it would be 10% of what they now had.
Collection development staff, overcoming their initial shock and denial, did find time to make the decisions - add or discard. The space was vacated. Since that legendary push, all new donations get a timely review. It wasn’t easy or foolproof for the director – no doubt a few good duplicate books were discarded – but the lesson learned about timely review far outweighs that cost. What good is a gift book out of sight, inaccessible and unavailable? There is no value in unrealized potential.
It is management’s obligation in pursuing resourcefulness, especially in traditional organizations like libraries, to make certain staff understand - through our words and actions - that we believe they can be resourceful and are up to working through any reasonable challenge. And, that they can trust us to support their resourcefulness, through thick and thin.
John Lubans is Visiting Professor, North Carolina Central University School of Library and Information Sciences. His latest workshop is “Leading from the Middle.” Reach him by e-mail at: Lubans1@nc.rr.com.