It’s a new year! A new fiscal year frequently brings goal discussions. This may happen in January or whatever month follows your law library’s fiscal year end close. If I did new year’s resolutions, I would resolve to eliminate goals as a performance measure. A recent meeting with some peers solidified this resolve.

Performance management centers around one key question: does the employee perform. If they perform well, we may provide recognition. If they perform poorly, we may provide coaching or other guidance, like access to additional training. In either case, we manage the performance to the extent that we work with our employees so they understand what’s expected.

Goals and objectives are a common part of performance management. Like strategic plans, I’m not sure of their utility except as guidelines in law libraries. When you are managing a law library team, much of what they do is the work. In a broad sense, if the work is completed, they have met the expectations. Where do goals fit in?

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Goals are more like guidelines than rules

Do the Work

The thing that struck me was a comment by one of the managers. An employee had raised a particular item as a potential goal and the manager’s response: “No, that’s your job.” So what is an appropriate goal, then, if it isn’t the work.

It highlights an underlying challenge in goal setting. Let’s say you work in a fast food store making hamburgers. It apparently takes 60 seconds to prepare a burger at McDonalds. If you work for an hour, you can create 60 burgers.

But you would only make 60 burgers in an hour if you had 60 customer orders for a burger in that time. Otherwise, you’d make as many burgers as ordered.

If a burger is like a reference question (deep, man) or an acquired print volume, you’re in the same place. You can’t just sit at a reference desk and provide answers if no-one’s asking. Well, I suppose you could. A law library isn’t going to just acquire books to have more books.

If a reference librarian answers an unasked question in a forest, does anyone hear?

That’s the work. We acquire and organize and provide access to things. We answer questions. If we set goals to increase those numbers – catalog more books, answer more questions – are we doing anything meaningful?

If I sit down at the end of the performance management cycle and say to an employee that they met expectations on the work, the goals should also be met. The goals can’t exist separately. It’d be like saying “here’s your job description but there are also all these other things you need to do.”

The goals have to be part of the work. They may be adjacent to the normal processes but they can’t be on top of normal work expectations. Otherwise you’re just burning your people out.

So how do you frame goals in an environment where the work isn’t project-based?

Give and Take

One approach is to ensure everyone has some project work. This may sound like a challenge but you’re probably already doing it. The reference librarian who is also doing Libguides. The acquisitions staff who also do shelf reads. We don’t always think of what we do as projects when we do them all the time but I think they qualify.

You might have someone set a goal for one new Libguide in the year. Measurable and achievable and adding value. Or you might create the project work more broadly so that many people can participate.

Let’s say you’ve got an integrated library system or discovery layer that needs an interface rethink. That’s a project that will be helmed by someone (goal) but that can also incorporate others, for input (goal) or to survey users (goal) or to identify exemplars to copy (goal). Same with a web site or any other larger service (photocopying fees, room scheduling, etc.).

But hold on a moment because we need to reconnect to performance management. If you and your employee agree to a goal, what happens if they don’t meet it? Is an employee who does the work but doesn’t meet a goal in need of improvement and coaching?

I don’t think the answer is always “yes”. Which is why I struggle with goals as a performance management tool. Here’s an example.

Our corporate records team was working on a product project. The end result was to have a SharePoint-based records management tool. We’d had meetings with our internal staff before year-end and had a certain amount of information under our belt. The team decided it’s goal would be to move the project forward.

But then:

  • the IT team started to make changes to the scope, reducing it
  • it became clear that they didn’t have the expertise they’d said they had
  • update meetings were just kicking the can down the road

The goal had relied on resources that, although promised, were not available. The goal was not going to be met. I wasn’t responsible for the IT team’s performance management, although I was very clear with their manager about what I thought of it.

How do you assess your own team’s performance if they haven’t met their goal?

Bigger question: what is the purpose of meeting the goal?

On the records management project, after giving the IT team 18 months we bailed after they delivered a literal Word document as their records solution. We licensed a third party product and were up and running by the end of the next year.

Have a Reason

If experience as a law library manager has taught me anything, you need to have a good reason to do things. You’re working with smart knowledge workers and they can sense time wasting. I would rather them use time on something they’re interested in rather than something I asked them to do for no reason.

Unfortunately, goals and objectives are an arbitrary performance activity. Assigning activity X to be completed within 12 months isn’t always how work happens.

My approach to goals tends to be open ended. Let’s see if we can get X done this year because then we can move on to Y. The goals support a strategic direction and provide context. But if we don’t get X done this year, we’ll keep cracking on it until we do (or decide to stop).

The inability to deliver the goal isn’t necessarily tied to performance management.

What happens just as often is that we set X as a goal but the real world intercedes. We get an assignment from higher up or something breaks or something unknown happens. In that case, we put off X and set our goal as Y.

The cycle of goals should be:

  • have goal that supports library strategy
  • provide the staff with resources (time, money, whatever) to accomplish the goal
  • provide recognition when the goal is met
  • post-mortem when a goal is met and when a goal is unmet
  • repeat

The performance review at the end of the year can take into account the goals that were met and the goals that were unmet. But they don’t need to be identified at the start of the year. And they needn’t be completed by the year-end. How many of us have had projects that started to be crammed into December as our staff – and supporting staff, like IT – started to disappear for holidays?

Worse are the organizations that do goal setting in January but performance reviews 9 months later in order for the process to be completed by December. The HR process becomes more important than giving staff time to complete the work. Goals that are met after review may just get a shrug of recognition, because the review is already complete.

The interceding goal doesn’t happen at the start of the year. It happens after the year is under way, which further erodes my belief in using the year end/year start as a goal setting time. I posted recently that I don’t really work on a yearly cycle when it comes to strategy. I find it far more useful to set goals and meet them as they are attainable, not based on whether it’s December or not.

When you and your employee agree on a goal and it has a purpose, I think you’ve reached the optimal solution. It may or may not occur within a performance management period. But if they’re engaged and they understand how their goal contributes to the library, you’ve got something better than a completed goal. They will get the work done and probably far more. A little flexibility can go a long way.