I’ve been thinking about outcomes recently. There are things we do because we have to do them, or think we have to. Sometimes I stop and ask myself: what if I stopped doing this? What would be the impact? When you have a workflow or process and you need to adapt it to events like a pandemic, you may end up creating a new workflow when you might just have eliminated it all together.

First, it’s probably fair to own up to a certain degree of laziness. I tend to look at my time and resources as finite and so I prioritize what I do. Part of that prioritization is to demote things that are lower value compared to resource requirements. It also includes demoting projects that I don’t have a lot of enthusiasm for. It can sometimes mean that I don’t always have a full dance card.

A lawyer I once worked with used to say at meetings, “Who has energy for this one?” when looking for a volunteer. It was a weird “go team, rah rah” sort of statement, but it stuck with me. The lawyer only looked for – and primarily got – people who already had energy to get a project done. That self-interest, self-motivation can be critical to project success.

But you do what you have to do. The question I then ask is, “why am I doing this?” Or, just as often, “why are THEY doing this?”, when I’m dealing with someone else’s process.

Here’s an example. Public library cards. They are a privilege paid for by tax payers and so tend to be geographically limited. A person gets one because they comply with certain criteria. The card gets renewed periodically.

I was delighted a few years back when I realized some libraries were starting to renew their cards every two years, instead of annually. If, like my family, you primarily use a public library for its digital resources, you may rarely set foot in the library’s physical space. A renewal then becomes a special trip, which is a bit aggravating since you (and especially your under-18 children) probably haven’t moved.

It’s not (just) the trip that’s a hassle. It’s the moment you attempt to use your card and you can’t because it needs to be renewed. But you haven’t used it at the library and no-one told you about a renewal approaching.

Unfortunately, it’s because of people like me that the renewals need to happen. If a person has a library card and moves, that person shouldn’t really keep the card. But if they continue to come into the library, they are, for whatever reason, at least creating footfall like any other citizen. A person who moves away but is primarily a digital user isn’t making any more effort than anyone else.

One of our local libraries has decided to use video conferencing for renewals this year. When your card times out, you are given a link to set up an appointment for a video chat. You will then go through the process of showing some recent mail or government document with your qualifying address on it. Hopefully by the next 2 year renewal, this won’t be necessary.

But is it necessary now?

As I’ve posted before, I’m not a fan of the video option unless it adds value. If you’re just verifying documents, why not allow someone to take a photo with their phone of the document and email it to you?

This would vary by public library, but how mobile is your population? If I think about law libraries, our populations tend to be very stable when we’re talking about licensed professionals. For one thing, their license often restricts where they can practice. For another, many will practice in one jurisdiction their entire career.

Law libraries can have geographically-restricted remote access in their electronic licenses. There is, then, an obligation to ensure that those people are where they are supposed to be. If they move away, they should lose access.

But even in those cases, we have a bit of tolerance. If a lawyer moves and doesn’t notify the library, the library isn’t going to be watching the regulator’s database for daily address changes. Similarly, if I get a public library card renewed and then move, it may be 2 years before anyone knows that I no longer qualify for the card.

Public libraries have indicated two years is their comfort level with that fault tolerance. But you could probably push it out further. Or perhaps eliminate it all together. It may be easier, based on your population, to just assume that someone with a card is entitled to it. And periodically clean your ILS of cards that haven’t been used in years.

Opposition: regular interactions, even every two years, with patrons can renew a connection with the library. Also, contexts like universities have a known window of up to 4 years or up to 3 years in which someone would be allowed access. Contexts like that would have enough information to cap access.

If your law library had a license that had a geographic limitation that required regular address validation, it may be worth rethinking that clause. We are a law library for a regulator, so all those regulated are allowed access. We could take a geography-specific clause (“Only in Ontario”) and shift it to (“Only licensed researchers”) and now it doesn’t matter where those people are. As long as they’re licensed, they can research from anywhere. It eliminates our need to care if they move away or not.

In some cases, the fault tolerance means we do need to continue the workflow. In others, we can change the primary workflow. And in others, the fault tolerance means we probably can eliminate the workflow.

I realized that I’ve been using this framework for a while, although I am now mindful of it and so can be more deliberate about it. It will help me watch out for where I am micro-managing or being micro-managed, whether it happens inside or away from a work context. For example:

  • Nagging a kid about mowing the lawn. I don’t really care if the lawn is mown or not. The people who care most about that are my neighbors who are yardeners. The lawn mowing chore is about responsibility. That’s the outcome. If it isn’t happening, then I need to rethink how I get to the outcome I want. It may be that the lawn doesn’t get mowed.
  • Vacation followup. A librarian was explaining that, in their organization, managers are tasked with reminding staff to take their vacation. The reminders cascade down the organization, involving a bunch of managers and administrative staff to generate reports and to email each other until, finally, the reminder hits the staff person. But the staff also know how much time they have and that the corporate policy is use it or lose it. It’s an inordinate amount of time spent micro-managing. It seems to me that this workflow could be eliminated.

For a manager, I get two lessons from it, both outcome-focused:

  • Continue to focus on the outcome and not on the means. Your job as a law library director is to achieve outcomes. If a staff person has their own idea and energy to get there, there is no need for me to direct them to do something different. The outcome should reinforce the law library’s strategic direction but the tactics can take any form.
  • Every process or workflow has an outcome but not every outcome is necessary. Revisit what you are doing and, if it is warranted, eliminate activity where the outcome really doesn’t make a difference.