End of the Road(Trip)
Defending Against DOPA

Decision Making

I'd been the director at St. Louis for about six months and found myself talking with Wayne at an MCMLA meeting.  He was asking me how it was going, and I said that at least I no longer felt everyday that the whole place was going to fall apart like sand running through my fingers, but I still really hated it when I had to do something that made somebody have a bad day.  He grinned and said, "Scott, sometimes it's your job to make them have a bad day."

I've told this story many times -- several times with Wayne in the room, and while he shakes his head when I tell it, he's never disavowed it.  When I took on the director's job, I was very inexperienced and the transition was pretty tough.  I had this notion that I had a dual responsibility -- to the institution of which the library was a part, and to the people who worked in the library.  I was determined that the decisions that I made would be equally good for both.

I found out soon enough that this view was terribly naive.  The two come in conflict.  All too often, the decision that is not only best, but necessary for the organization is going to have a negative impact on somebody.  Sometimes it's a matter of scheduling that is going to disrupt somebody's life.  Sometimes it's giving an opportunity to someone when there's someone else in the library who really wanted it.  On rare occasions it is as serious as taking someone's job away.   I cringe when I hear someone who aspires to a director's job say they don't like dealing with personnel issues, but they guess they could put up with it.   If that's the attitude, you're going to have a very difficult time being happy in the job, much less successful.

For the last year or so, we've been having monthly meetings of all of the supervisors.  Sometimes the discussion is on very practical things, like the revision to the supervisor's manual.  But sometimes the discussion gets into the really difficult parts of supervising, like how do you handle the situation where you've got to confront someone with performance or behavior problems.  "It can get really uncomfortable," someone said. 

"It should be," I interjected.  The further you rise in the organization, the more impact your decisions have on more people.  If that doesn't give you pause, if that doesn't make your stomach churn a little bit, then you're not paying enough attention to the human side of what you're doing.   You have to learn how to think those decisions through very carefully, considering every option, considering every impact, being very aware of how it may negatively impact somebody, of how it may be criticized and misunderstood, and then, with your stomach churning, go ahead and do what you believe is the right thing to do.

And you should assume that every decision will be criticized and misunderstood.  This is an aspect of change management that I haven't seen discussed much in the libraryland blogs.   I believe in having as open, transparent and participative a decision-making process as possible.  I believe in consensus building.  But "consensus" doesn't imply unanimity of opinion.  The quest for complete agreement, the desire to adjust to everybody's concerns in making decisions can paralyze an organization.   

Figuring this out on a day-to-day basis is an art.  It's never clearcut.  I almost never know for certain that the decision that I'm making at any point in time is absolutely the right one.  I rely on my own experience, on the advice of people that I've learned to trust, on the instincts that have developed over time.  On the good days, I look at what we're accomplishing and I'm proud of the part that I get to play.  On the other days, I put my head in my hands, grimacing at the bone-headed things that I've done.  I have more good days than bad, which, I suppose, is what keeps me coming back.

I'm thinking about all of this in the context of some of the frustrations that I see expressed in the blogs from people who are trying to create change in their organizations, but don't have enough authority to make the decisions that will get them to where they want to go.   A phrase I often use when talking about how to identify opportunities within the larger organization is "Find out what keeps the decision makers awake at night."   Whether it is the president of a university, or the CEO of a hospital, or the mayor of a small town, the people who have the authority to make the decisions that affect your library are going to have a small number of really key issues or problems that they are most concerned with.  If you can figure out how to present your idea as a solution to one those problems, your chances of getting the decision made in your favor are greatly increased.

The same, I think, is true within the library.  If you can figure out what the problems are that your library director or your supervisor considers most important, and couch your innovative idea in terms of solutions to one of those problems, you're likely to be more successful.  Part of doing that  is being able to see the situation from their point of view, and getting a sense of what they're trying to balance in making those decisions.  The more that you can do that, the better you'll be at persuading people to your point of view, and the better a decision maker you'll become as well.


Steve Oberg

Some wise words. One thing I learned very quickly in my first managerial position was exactly what you stated, that you cannot make everyone happy and you shouldn't try. I remember keeping awake at nights, terrified of messing up, rehashing things I'd done and/or said, feeling overwhelmed...Funny, those things haven't changed much and for me it's 12 years further down the road...

I was speaking with Karen Calhoun, AUL for Technical Services at Cornell, last night during a class that I've been teaching. We were discussing her controversial report that was published in March and talked about how we need to change catalogs and cataloging in light of the Google environment. One of the things that most clearly stands out in my memory of the discussion was her strong defense of the managerial tone of the report. (From what I've heard and read, this is one aspect that has really irked some.) She mentioned something to the effect that managers face a different set of realities and pressures than, say, a cataloger. She said that action is imperative, we can't remain in the realm of theory and what ifs, and this is why she decided to go ahead with specific recommendations such as doing away with the current methods for assigning LCSH, among other things.

Another thing that resonated with me in your words was the emphasis on personnel issues. I never would have dreamed that so much of my time would be taken up in dealing with personnel issues. It's a necessary and key part of the job and I find that what is needed most, usually, is a strong dose of common sense (which I've found is not so common, after all).

Sarah Houghton (LiB)

As a new manager myself, I'm quickly finding that the "every decision you make will piss someone off" rule is pretty much always true. I have often said something similar about carefully planned, surveyed, and committee-driven website redesigns, but that they will piss _everyone_ off. And thank you for your advice to "Find out what keeps the decision makers awake at night." In several "moving toward a big change" situations I have at wokr presently, that is the strategy I'm taking. To hear it reinforced here helps.


Scott - thank you for the frankness of this post. Your observations - that it's okay for the difficult, important things to bother you, that they in fact should, and that you won't always be 100% certain but have to try anyway - are very comforting for those of us new to the profession who have an interest in future leadership.


You have an excellent point of view. I will add that there will always be a perception gap between you (the manager), staff, and patrons. You might perceive yourself as Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek and your staff will view you as Dilbert's boss. I especially liked the part about finding key issues, creating a solution, and winning support. In my first six months our library developed a strategic plan with the help of the Arizona State Library, Archives, and Public Records using the Planning for Results method and the plan has won support from our city council, staff, and patrons. I really enjoyed this post and will probably save it in my files. It is always good to know that someone shares your point of view.

Dean Giustini


I don't disagree that you can't keep staff uppermost at all times and address the shifting needs (and sands) of institutions. But for heaven's sake - give us some examples. The principle is sound, but for a large percentage of time, why can't you canvass for opinions, seek collegial support and that of your allies - and then make a decision? Why does it have to end with someone feeling, as you say, bad?



No disagreements about the difficulties of management, and the sometimes painful decisions that have to be made. I would just add the following:

* Try to maintain as consistent an approach as possible. If on Tuesdays you say the customer is always right, but on Thursdays you say I always support the decisions of my staff... that's the road to being doubted on all of your decisions.

* You have to have manage ethically. Yes, there will be some times that you are forced to make decisions that will hurt people, maybe even badly. But if you adhere to a set of ethical guidelines, and are willing to pay the price to maintain them even in the face of pressure to do otherwise... you may "fail" in the short term, but will be much more successful in the end.

T Scott

To Dean: Of course it doesn't HAVE to end up with someone feeling bad -- you misread my post if you think that's what I was saying. As I said, I'm a firm believer in transparent decision making and consensus building, and every decision in our library involves a lot of discussion. In most cases, all of that discussion results in better decisions, and I think we move ahead without making people feel bad. But there are numerous cases where you're not going to get agreement -- should we quit checking in journals as Rick Anderson suggests? If you've been an OVID library, should you get rid of OVID Medline and rely on PubMED? In a public library, how much of your acquisitions budget should you devote to popular DVDs? What is the appropriate role of Google in library instruction? The list can go on and on... And in the case of my comment to Wayne all those years ago, I was thinking specifically of a guy I'd recently fired -- nice guy, who I liked as an individual, and for whom losing his job that way was a personal disaster. It was awful for both us (worse for him), but it was the right thing for me to do.

And to Scott -- you are absolutely right. You have to have a very solid ethical grounding for your decisions, and you have to be consistent in applying them. I work very hard to be as sure as I can that every decision I make is as fair as possible to everyone. When I'm confident I'm doing that when I make a decision, I sleep well -- but I'm not so naive as to expect that everyone in the library will agree with it.

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