Monday, October 24, 2011

Doing less with more

My good friend Andy Woodworth wants to retire the phrase "Doing More With Less":

Unless someone can unequivocally demonstrate how “doing more with less” is a good thing (which I doubt highly), I think librarians should drop the phrase from their lexicon forever. It does nothing but cover up the real hurt of what budget cuts mean for our communities; because less is less and spinning it into some kind of positive helps no one.

Not only do I agree with this sentiment 100%, but I think we should taking things a step further- not only retiring the phrase, but the mindset altogether. In jest I commented on Andy's blog that we should try doing less with more for a change, but the more I think about it the less I'm convinced that I was joking.

So what does "Doing Less With More" mean exactly?

1. You Can't Do Everything. Implicit in Doing Less With More is, well, the doing less part (actually, I think it's explicit in this case, not implicit). Thinking about my previous post, whenever Gordon Ramsay revamped a failing restaurant, what was the one of the first things he did? He simplified the menu. Most of these eateries had boasted menus longer than a sequel by George R.R. Martin, with a page seemingly for every cuisine that had been trendy at one point. Never mind what the actual purported theme of the restaurant was, or whether or not the kitchen was any good at turning out General Tso's chicken or media noche sandwiches. Establishments that embraced such a scattershot approach to their offerings were trying to pander to everyone but ironically enough pleasing nobody in the end.

So, too, are libraries tempted to overextend themselves so as to please as many of our patrons or stakeholders as possible, offering all manners of services and/or programs regardless of actual demand, let alone whether or not we can afford to pay for them. The rapid advancement of technology is in part to blame for this kind of overextension, for as librarians we all too often feel obligated to remain either out in front of innovation as it occurs or at least remain open to its transformational capacities in how we do business as librarians. While I am by no means advocating a Luddite approach to this problem, we must at the same acknowledge that there are only so many FTE hours in a week. By all means leave yourself room for "20% Time," but don't forget to spend some time identifying your strengths and leveraging them, so that you do not wear yourself hopelessly thin.

2. Efficiency Is Your Best Frenemy. What's the first thing that any institution does in response to budget cuts? That's right, workflow assessment. The idea that one can always squeeze a little more efficiency out of any existing procedure in the workplace is by no means new, nor is it limited to the library world, but librarians' recent infatuation with assessment (or, as I like to call it, the "A-word") can make this process a double-edged sword. Again, please don't get me wrong here- I am a self-proclaimed stats geek and proud of it, and I have used assessment constructively in my own office to bring some long overdue change to workflows that were riddled with various inefficiencies. However, whenever I hear a fellow librarian talk about breaking out the stopwatches I can't help but think about Amazon, who has recently come under fire for pushing Taylorism to inhumane extremes in its distribution centers.

As a manager I have no choice to think about the bottom line, but at the same time bottom-line thinking absolutely terrifies me, especially as I see more and more of it trickle into our profession. I've always liked to think that what makes librarians different than their private-sector counterparts is that we don't run things like a business. Of course there are various business principles which can be successfully adapted into the library workplace, but however much we now compete with businesses like Barnes & Noble and Amazon and services like Netflix or Hulu for our patrons' needs we follow their business models at our own peril. Do we know where to draw the line when we assess, or is the temptation to turn a data point into an actionable performance benchmark too strong in this leaner, meaner age? Doing Less With More doesn't mean you need to reject efficiency and assessment, just that you know how to deploy these things intelligently, discreetly, and (above all else) humanely.

3. Find Your Joy. I blog a lot about joy being at the center of librarianship. Indeed, in a Doing Less With More philosophy, joy is absolutely essential, as the goal of doing less with more is to spend more time on what really matters- i.e., your joy. Once you've found that and made it the center of your work, everything you do will proceed outward from that point and inform your work as a librarian. It is far too easy in this day and age to simply circle the wagons and assume a purely defensive position, but once you allow yourself to succumb to a "Doing More With Less" mindset there's only one logical outcome. The older and presumably wiser I get, the more I become convinced that framing is more than half of the battle. A more cynical person might think of Doing Less With More as nothing more than window dressing, an amusing but sad attempt to put a positive spin on a truly depressing situation, but I see it as an opportunity to turn the tables on the prevailing negative discourse and refocus our efforts on the joy of librarianship. Because it is this joy that will carry us through the darkness.

"I can get sad, I can get frustrated, I can get scared, but I never get depressed – because there’s joy in my life." - Michael J. Fox


Jessica Olin said...

In a word: yes.

Tom said...

Sometimes the shortest comments are the sweetest- thanks, Jessica! :)