Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Prevent the stonewalling librarian from becoming the stone anchor on your library


(c) iStockPhoto


We all know we're facing an ever-increasing pace of change today in life and certainly in libraries.  Library managers are grappling with how to handle these changes while at the same time, trying to instill in their staff the skills, training and confidence to handle new ideas and the related processes and workflows associated with them.

Change management, the process by which managers are taught to cope with this topic, is filled with case studies of the typical problems and methods for resolving them.  Yet, when you consider the amount of change being undertaken in libraries today and the fact that some efforts seem plagued by extreme difficulty while some run smoothly, it seems apparent the techniques are either not well defined or not very easily implemented.  Usually, implementation problems aren’t because of flawed processes or procedures, both of which are easily changed, but rather the problems occur because of the way individuals involved react to the change.

It would be an unusual library, indeed an unusual organization, if some members of the team didn’t resist changes.  Frequently, there is resistance to the point of being a virtual stonewall that appears insurmountable.  Yet, overcoming that resistance is something that management needs to happen in order to keep the organization moving forward.  How can the stonewalling staff member be overcome?  The best answers are either to work with the person to break through their reasons for not wanting to change, or if that is not possible, going around them to implement the change.  While there is a third answer I’ll mention at the end, it really is not an acceptable answer for today’s modern library, although you do see it happening!

Break through the stonewall

Personally, I’m a strong advocate of those change management techniques that focus on implementing new ideas by first working with the individuals involved. Having been involved for decades in the processes of implementing major new systems in all types of libraries, I can honestly say the most successful projects were those that began work with the individuals.  J. Stewart Black and Hal Gregersen endorse this technique, in their excellent book  “It starts with one” where they say: 
“Lasting success lies in changing individuals first; then the organization follows.  This is because an organization changes only as far or as fast as its collective individuals change.”  
I totally agree.  It’s a very powerful statement:  It’s especially powerful in light of their research that showed 50-80% of change initiatives in organizations fail. 

Their book does a great job of outlining how to be successful when performing change management.   So I won’t repeat those techniques here, other than to recommend you read their short, excellent book.  However, I do want to add some thoughts based on my experiences.  

First, choose your words very carefully and thoughtfully when presenting change. As human beings, we inherently know change is inevitable.  Furthermore, we know others often impose it on us, be they colleagues, bosses, organizations or governments.  When we “hear” the word change, we frequently “feel” what we know and what we think is about to be outdated and replaced.  We also realize that if we cannot learn that new way of doing things we might well find ourselves replaced. Understandably that causes concern.  So, let’s try to replace the word “change” in these discussions.  Instead, let’s focus on the perceived benefits that will happen when the new processes and procedures are in place.   

Now the word “benefits”, in my opinion, is often misused.   It will be very useful to prevent that from happening in this discussion, so let’s spend just a moment exploring this concept.  Many times, when someone is describing the outcomes of new process, procedures and outcomes, what they actually end up describing are features. Features are what are owned by the product or organization that makes these processes, procedures and services available.  The outcomes (i.e. the benefits) result from using the features and are owned by the end-user, customer or member of your organization.  This is what the they care about and want to hear about.  For instance, a “cloud computing service” is a feature.  The fact that you, as an end-user of that service, are now benefiting from no longer needing to buy hardware, do software upgrades or worry about power and air conditioning – those are all benefits you obtained from using the feature of software as a cloud computing service.  That’s what matters to you.  A valuable lesson in selling ideas or products is to learn to talk about benefits, not features.  So to successfully sell the idea of change management, use the same rule; talk about the benefits that will result.

Here is an example of what I mean.  In many libraries today, Patron-Driven-Acquisitions (PDA) are being analyzed for adoption.  In order to focus the conversation on benefits, one would need to talk about: a) making the library acquisition process Amazon-like for the members, b) reducing the time from when the member requests a new item be purchased to the time it is in their hands, c) making the member libraries money go further so they can purchase more of precisely what they need and will use.  Moving the discussion to the member/end-user benefits also has the advantage of quickly moving the discussion beyond the “should we even do this?” to the “how are we going to do this?”  Again, the important point here is not to focus on discussing change but to focus on discussing the benefits as a means of getting the needed changes adopted.  

Of course this one step alone will not make a reticent person move forward.  Its goal is simply to lessen their fear and anxiety levels so they too can focus on the positive things that will result.   Beyond that, depending upon the degree of stonewalling they’re performing, here are some other ideas that may need to be used.
If the person’s manager is aware of the resistance and is willing to take action, then there are a variety of steps they can take to help the individuals.  This blog post suggests the following techniques:

  1. “Assign a coach to the person with daily/weekly/monthly meetings without holding anything back. Give the truth as it is, along with advice for improvement.
  2. Recognize that it could be professional arrogance (“I am better than others”) that translates into negative attitude. Introduce them to others who are better and show him the reality.  (Blogger note:  Having them attend a webinar or virtual/actual conferences where successful implementations of the idea are discussed, might be one way to do this.)
  3. Put them on a PIP (Performance Improvement Plan). Make it clear why they are on PIP—which is not because of work, but attitude.
  4. Assign them away from the “critical” nature of the work, which works at times to demonstrate that they are not irreplaceable. It may moderate their behavior. (Blogger note:  This technique is useful if the person is “tenured” or personnel policies make it very difficult to remove them.)
  5. It could also be a genuine case of needing training.”

If those techniques don’t work, then you have to examine the adoption of more difficult steps.

Go around the stonewall

There may be times where you’ll find yourself in a situation where the recalcitrant person’s direct manager/supervisor, typically the library director, will not push the person, or work closely enough with them to bring about the needed adoption of new ideas. If the manager/supervisor is too busy, disengaged or otherwise occupied to do this, the problem can fall on the shoulders of peer level managers.  It shouldn’t but let’s be realistic, it does.  

When this happens, I suggest the management team call a meeting and discuss the status of new ideas being discussed and planned for adoption.  Then, when the stonewalling person (assuming they’re a member of the management team) lists their litany of reasons why it can’t be done (no need, overworked, bad idea, won’t work here, we’ve tried that before), the peers have to jump in and gently apply pressure to examine the reasons and point out the fallacies contained within, or to offer to take over some tasks so that time can be freed up to try the new ideas out.   

If that doesn’t result in movement, then it is time for the team to “think-outside-the box” in terms of working around the stonewalling person.  For instance, this might be done by offering to create an “exploratory committee” to implement the idea and report back to the management team. Staff time might be offered by the other managers in order to support the work of the committee, or other support might be offered to make the ideas happen.  Clearly, other managers are doing this by taking key resources away from their own area, so it doesn’t happen lightly or easily.  Furthermore, it might mean slowing down new project adoption they have underway, but if the management team agrees the idea is important for the total organization, then the value of this approach is to put the idea into place and to show that it will work and can be done.  This helps to remove the stonewalling manager’s fear of failure and shows them the way the ideas can be made to work, thus removing two substantial reasons why people stonewall and prevent new ideas from being adopted. 


There is a final point to remember when dealing with stonewalling library team members.   When you're faced with one (or several), either as a manager or a management team, and you’ve made a reasonable and fair effort to get them to implement new ideas, then you have to realize that you can't let them stop the library team from doing what needs to be done.  All too often, the stonewalling librarians can and will, become a stone anchor on your library.  They’ll drag the library, and everyone associated with it, down.  In today’s environment, this simply shouldn’t be allowed to happen. Nor can you wait to deal with the issue.  The pace of change will no longer accommodate that approach. You have to start now.  Be fair, but deal with the stonewalling librarian quickly.