Reading Time: 9 minutes
I read a lot about management and leadership. Other than my family, the people I work with are among the most important people to me. It’s not that we’re all great friends. I think I’m a difficult person to be friendly with, I’m pretty private. But when you run an organization, those people are your responsibility. It’s like your #onejob. As I approach my one year anniversary in San Diego, I’ve been thinking a lot about our baseline.
I think of the baseline as the basic operations of the organization. What work do we have to do to keep the doors open? What are the fundamentals of our mandate? If I was not interested in doing more, what would be the least amount of work we could do and still be functional? Do you know what your organization’s is?
Everything on top of that is optional. You might offer many more services and do many more things and have much more collection than that baseline. But all of those are choices that you or your team or all of your predecessors have made. Some choices are encouraged by governance boards or partnerships. Some are made based on resource availability, and come to an end when that resource ends.
Sometimes we can lose track of that baseline. There are a couple of reasons, I think. One of them is time. Another is experience. Another is the appearance of necessity.
Let’s start with time.
The Passage of Time
“I have to do this.”
“But why? “
“Because I have to. Arthur told me when I started here that it had to be done every day.“
“Why did Arthur say that? Who is Arthur, anyway? We don’t have anyone named Arthur on our staff?”
What is the baseline? What is the fundamental “keep our doors open” stuff? And what isn’t. Arthur isn’t the boss of me. Although they hire me, my governance Board is only kind of the boss of me. They hired me to run the law library, not just do whatever I’m told. It’s the “executive” part of the executive role of a law library director.
We have always done it that way. Well, what is “it”? The question shouldn’t be whether we do it one way or the other. The question should be, “why are we doing it?” Any increment off of your baseline deserves to be questioned. The world around a law library changes. Laws are passed, professions evolve, information changes format.
One way to be nimble is to be constantly removing and replacing incremental additions to your baseline. Are you a courthouse law library? How have you adapted to the profession moving to the suburbs and fewer lawyers using the courthouse? How about collection? Are you weeding based on changes in who uses your library, and how they use it? Is your academic law library using its space the same way it did in 1990 or 2000 or 2010 even though you’re probably delivering a hugely different set of format choices? I’m thinking seating, collaborative spaces, heck even things like more electrical outlets.
The answer is probably “yes, we are.” (Well, you can never really have too many electrical outlets.) As time passes, we see the need to adapt. Sometimes we see it ourselves. Sometimes we see our colleagues doing it so we copy them. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and I do it a lot (and give credit when I remember my inspiration, which may not be a library).
The important thing is to also be looking at the little stuff. The resources you’re expending on things that are not being buffeted by time. What are things that your staff are doing because they were asked to do it 10 years ago and they still do it, whether anyone remembers why or not? What sort of information are you sharing even though you are confident no one has been reading it for years? What are you doing because it’s always been done?
This can be tricky. Our law library has somethings that are mandated by statute. You have to do those. Everything else? Everything else should be selected based on how well it allows us to extend the spirit of our mandate.
This is where the law library director has to act like a micro manager, in that they need to ask the very tiny questions. Why are you creating that report? Why are we storing that there? What are you doing? Unless you are interested at that micro level, you cannot fully comprehend the accretion of little things that may be burning your staff out.
Here’s an example. We had a report that was being generated every two weeks. It’s original purpose had been so it could be imported, but we’d lost that functionality. No one was reading it. It was literally being generated without purpose. In this case, we’d automated it so it wasn’t costing anyone actual time. But it remained part of a process. Someone had to ensure the process worked. Or we could stop doing it.
It’s not hard but it takes … time. This means that you can ask your staff to look at what they are doing and start to make choices about what they are doing. Do they know why?
One law library I worked at had a monthly report, done in Excel. The spreadsheet had multiple worksheets. What wasn’t clear, until I asked, was that no one was responsible for one of those worksheets. It had been created in the mists of the past and whoever was accountable for it had moved on. It was just copied forward each iteration, each update, with no ownership. The data on it turned out to be incorrect because, of course, it wasn’t being maintained. Your folks need to be encouraged to be curious if they aren’t already. Why are you doing something?
Some things only become visible when a person leaves. We found that we had a safe to which no one knew the combination. After doing some research, including calling former employees, it turns out that we may not have had the combination for a decade or so. We make assumptions about what other people know, which can dampen our curiosity. Knowledge walks out the door and no one may realize.
You need to give staff the time and autonomy to make those choices. This may mean you need them to be doing fewer projects and services and activities, perhaps permanently. Deciding whether to stop doing something takes time too. It’s like cleaning out a closet. It’s not going to clear out itself. But once the work is done, you can decide whether to fill it again. Or not.
This can be habit forming. If you are asking people why they’re doing things, they will probably start to anticipate (or dread, your choice) you asking. They will start to do it themselves. As they start to become autonomous, they will ask you if they can stop doing the activity. Perhaps they have identified what they should be doing instead. Once they are autonomous, they will let you know they have stopped doing something without having to ask.
This is the do more with less area. After people have been in a role a year, they are better at it than they were when they started. People who haven’t improved probably should have been let go, that’s what probation is for. In a year, they will have learned a ton of things. Work that took an hour now takes 45 minutes. A reference question that required a second opinion is now given confidently, independently. Books are shelved, pages filed in looseleafs, in record time.
I’ve talked about how measuring work with time is a problem. What happens when you get faster at something? It takes less time. Duh, Whelan. But we pay people to work by the hour – theoretically – and so now they need more work to fill that time.
Or not. One approach is to embrace the spare time that people create. Let them use it for educational purposes, for learning something new, for expanding a current skill set. It’s tricky though. If, like me, you assume that your law library can perform more reference interactions with more reference staff hours, then there becomes a tension between that excess time and your query metrics.
Over time, with expertise, you start to receive more projects. Projects that may have longer timelines, greater exposure or accountability. If you are in a position to delegate, you start to assign more projects. We fill up the available spaces. Management hates a vacuum.
This is a great place to stop yourself, as a law library director, and wait. Patience is a virtue. Let staff get used to having some time to breathe, to think, to explore on their own. You do not need to keep people busy. If you’ve hired well, and I’m sure you have, your people will want to fill that time themselves. But they need to have time to realize that they have time to fill.
Not everyone will ask for more work. Assigning work is also management. But you can give people time to understand that there is a pace other than full speed. Some people might soldier, fill the time available with however much work they’re responsible for. That may be an acceptable outcome too. Sometimes what we hire for is not actual outputs so much as availability.
What is your baseline? Is this person contributing to the fulfillment of those basics? If so, everything else is optional.
Hopefully, you will already have work ready for them to grow into. By having something ready, you can use the slack that is created by experience to prepare them for the next thing. You will already have a sense of what gives them energy and purpose and hopefully the new assignment or tasks will be a good match for that.
This is particularly important for your seasoned staff. They tend to be asked to do more, because they can do more or have been there longer and may be easier to delegate to. They have accreted more tasks, some you won’t know they are doing. Someone told them and you don’t even know about it.
A law library is comprised of many small teams. Your seasoned folks may be bearing the brunt of incremental growth from the baseline. They may feel responsible for bearing that brunt. You may not realize that, when you give space to newer employees, it’s at the expense of seasoned ones, who don’t see the same slack.
I’m not a huge fan of annual performance reviews. But one thing you might do an annual basis with every staff person is ask them “what should we stop doing now, or do differently, as you look at what you did last year?” This sort of assessment gives everyone on your team an opportunity to recalibrate. It can also help them to be proactively thinking about their work, growing that autonomy.
You may need to tell your seasoned folks to be more aggressive at doing less. And you can also be clear that dropping one thing might mean picking up something else, that creates more value for the law library and for the person. It’s an opportunity for them to put aside something they’ve become expert in and grow in a new way. Or take something they are expert in and dive even deeper.
I’ll be frank. I don’t really care too much about these choices except that they be meaningful to the person making them while still furthering our mandate. Our law library can be successful in a million ways. If my folks are engaged and working with energy on things they care about, that will give me a solid guide for choices I make about how to implement our strategy. The route doesn’t have to dictate the vehicle.
The Appearance of Necessity
One thing I consider all the time is cause and effect. What are we doing? And what impact did it have? At my current law library, our foot traffic has been going down. Our state funding has been down and also unsteady from year to year. In a sense, I don’t even have to understand what the specifics are about what we were doing during those years, prior to my joining the library. Whatever it was, it wasn’t having a measurable impact on those two metrics, funding and foot traffic.
That doesn’t mean the work that was done didn’t matter. It may mean that we can only see the need for change after the need has been visible for awhile. Or it may mean, particularly with government funding, that your law library has very little ability to impact that outcome.
I’ll pause on funding because I think it begs the question: what if you did nothing? We see our funding drop and we look for incremental funding offsets. But the reality is that we are non-profits and alternate income streams will never create a meaningful impact. If your income is fluctuating by 3-5% a year, creating a 0.5% incremental stream helps but isn’t going to keep the doors open.
And, unlike government funding, there is an operational cost to that 0.5% incremental income. It may feel necessary to try to raise funds but you should have an operational reason to do so. If there is a necessity, be sure to understand what it is. It really should be part of your baseline and fundraising, revenue creation, may be a choice, not a fundamental.
This can be hard. If there are moments when I start to feel leery, it’s when I’m toying with the idea of not doing something that has been deemed necessary in the past. It requires picking apart not only why we are doing it but what people know about it. We may have lost the knowledge for why it is necessary.
For example, we have a number of policies baked into our employee handbook. I was struck by the fact that some things we have policies for but, in comparable risk areas, we have nothing. Then I was doing our annual insurance renewal and saw that the policy required specific policies. Those are policies we have and I’m guessing their inclusion is because of this insurance requirement.
Why Does It Matter?
We emerged from the pandemic and it was like a car that had gone too fast over a speed bump (sleeping policeman). The car was running the whole time it was in the air. Now it’s back on the tarmac and it’s re-engaged with the ground. We were carrying all of the new things we’d started doing with the pandemic and had to return to all of the old things we were doing before it.
When people say they are overworked, I listen to them. It has not been my experience that people are malingerers. “Quiet quitting” sounds more like individuals quietly finding their own baseline because their management won’t.
If staff are working on things that are beyond our baseline, then it’s literally within my discretion, as the law library director, to stop doing them. They may not be able to make that choice themselves, because they don’t feel empowered to do so, because they are uncomfortable “failing” or being unable to achieve externally placed expectations or internally created goals.