My apartment building got a coffee machine. It’s one of those counter top items and sits in the shared kitchen. It’s one of a number of small improvements that the new property management company has implemented in the last few months. I’m a huge coffee fan so I was thrilled to have an alternative to whatever I make myself. But it stopped working after a week due to high use. In its second week, the beans and powders ran out. What happens when you create a success story and then demand or other factors undermine it?
We all want to make improvements to our services and collections to ensure they attract and retain use. There’s not much point in a law library that doesn’t get used. It means that, when we commit resources to something, we should do what we can to ensure that it’s successful. You can’t assess the success of a half-hearted or under-resourced attempt.
It means that, when you’re faced with a new idea, you really need to test it’s likelihood of success. For a director, it means ensuring there’s some friction between receiving an input to do something and actually implementing it. The friction protects your people and other resources.
This is particularly true if you’re dealing with so-called stakeholders. Lots of people have ideas of what would be a great thing for the law library to do. They are all well-meaning and some of them are even based in a solid operational understanding of the law library. But that doesn’t mean that they are things you can put into play.
For one thing, each new service or collection resource is going to use resources that you are probably already using for something else. This assumes you are not regularly under-spending your budget or leaving your staff idle just in case. So any addition to services and collections should also consider what you will stop doing.
But since this is an operational decision – to start, to stop – you may find that the people making suggestions only think about how to start things, not when to stop them. I’ve watched “sunset” committees at the ABA and the Law Society of Ontario who reviewed lots of programs but were never able to make the hard decisions to stop some of them. This may be because sunset committees are often stakeholder representatives, transient, and without experience making hard personnel and other decisions. If you decide to sunset an activity and people are doing that activity, you may also be bringing their employment to an end.
At some point, though, you’ll have a compelling idea and be ready to move it forward. It may be a big project or it may be a small change. But no matter what size initiative, you now need to think through what will cause it to fail after you’ve successfully launched it.
Causes for Failure
Our apartment building’s coffee machine is a great example. And I expect many of us have seen this happen with other technology-centric initiatives. Someone comes up with an idea that involves a technology and the initiative now is considered successful if the technology is implemented. Buy a coffee machine, get a plumber to install it, market the coffee machine, project complete. Success.
Or not. As our building has found, there’s maintenance. Who is tasked with keeping the coffee machine full of beans? Of the powder necessary to make that vanilla cappuccino? Who is watching the coffee machine to do the automated maintenance after X hours of service.
Law libraries will have experienced this. That Libguide that you just spin up and then needs to be maintained. Or that WordPress web site that needs regular technical maintenance so that your law library doesn’t get hacked. Or those kiosks or public access terminals that need operating system and app upgrades, or just need to be wiped down to keep them from being disease vectors.
The smaller your law library, the more likely you’ve also run into the “only one person knows how to do that” issue. It’s a service bottleneck that you may be able to break with cross-training. Or it may truly be something that only one person was hired to do and, if that person leaves, the initiative may need to come to a close.
This is a key director insertion point. One thing I have tried to avoid is having law librarian jobs that contain work within their title. I spent some time reverting a reference librarian team back to being called “reference” librarians, rather than “digital” or “web” librarians.
It’s not that there’s any reluctance to engage in digital or web services. It’s just that, by naming some roles with that title and not others, you may segment your staff in unintentional ways. These days, I’d rather every staff person have the opportunity to work on digital or web initiatives, no matter what their title.
Another thing I’ve looked for is which staff person has energy for a particular project. One way to retain people is to give them work that they find exciting and engaging. This may mean that you select a service or initiative that is particularly challenging or a good match for the professional growth of an individual on your team.
The obvious challenge there is what to do when you’ve selected a path with a specific individual and their skill set in mind, and then that person moves on. A good example in a law library is an administrative person who has financial or other skills that are niche. You may have relied on those, or given more responsibility based on them, only to find that it’s difficult to maintain continuity after they move on.
It’s not rocket science. It’s resiliency and redundancy. As you’re thinking through your new service or initiative, you need to look for the places that things will break down. And you won’t be able to know them all, so you will make decisions using your best guesses. The one place I value professional reading above all others is to be able to read how other people have rolled out initiatives, in and outside of libraries. It can help you to think of points of failure that would have never occurred to you.
Like theft. The coffee machine in the apartment first stopped working because it needed some very basic maintenance. I expect that problem is now permanently solved, as someone can set a scheduled reminder to look at the device. It makes me wonder now how much an ethernet-enabled coffee maker would have cost, one that could notify you remotely that it needed help.
But the second time, when it ran out of resources? It turns out an apartment resident stole the ingredients. On the one hand, theft is an obvious possibility when you leave raw resources out in a shared space. Means and opportunity. But what about motive? How many people can even use the special powders of a commercial coffee maker, especially when they’re apartment residents who can’t plumb their own version?
Your service or initiative may hit the same point: you’ve rolled it out, it’s a success. But then something changes. The cost rises. The usage drops. There’s a pandemic. An employee leaves. Success can sometimes create new challenges: it may be such a huge success that you are faced with having to constrain it before it consumes more resources than you’d allocated.
Sometimes people will choose to do a pilot program for this reason. I think the pilot is often a mistake, because it may reflect a failure to make hard decisions early on. A better approach is to commit to the service fully right out of the gate. This approach, like a pilot, will surface the unknowns that might change your approach. But I think the full initial commitment means that everyone has the same level of focus: this is a “forever” activity.
Which doesn’t mean you can’t stop doing it. When a successful program is no longer achieving its goals or staying within the resources you’d allocated, you need to consider the sunk cost fallacy. What will it take to keep something going? What is the cost to stopping?
I would be surprised to see the coffee machine go away. Consumables can be locked up and replenished by building staff with only a minor risk in diminished service. Maintenance can be scheduled so that it’s preventive. But I expect it’s become clear that the coffee machine is a long-term investment in a way that may not have been obvious when it was purchased and installed.
I think this is one of the hardest decisions a director has to make outside of personnel decisions. When you stop a program or initiative, you are entering the unknown. And that can frighten people or raise specters of unknowable outcomes.
We recently made a significant service delivery change by closing one of our law library branches. It was a financial sink hole and was one of two possible in-person delivery models we were following. It was also the only one that couldn’t be replicated due to cost. There was some concern that there would be stakeholder blowback and I think that caused delay in making the decision to change. In the event, there hasn’t been any feedback, even after I wrote an article in the local bar newsletter about the change.
Sometimes we can anticipate outcomes that are not, in fact, as likely as we think they are. And sometimes we cannot anticipate outcomes that are, in fact, entirely likely but beyond our personal awareness. That’s one reason for as many people to talk and think about a service or initiative or change as possible.
When you start an initiative, you can only do your best at looking into the future. Sometimes you just need to take a leap of faith, keep some resources available to deal with unforeseen consequences, and move ahead. You do your best. And, when you gain new information, you make new decisions. Those may be to continue. Or they may be to stop.
Certainty may be your greatest asset at this point. Make a choice and then, with confidence, ensure you put the resources into that choice. You’ve got a success but it’s stumbling? Shift resources and personnel and eliminate some other program. Or bring the new successful, but unsustainable program to a close, and help your organization learn from the decision. This means understanding how to share change with your governance board and stakeholders and staff.
And to encourage your staff to try again. Some ideas aren’t going to work and you can’t know until you’ve tried. Sometimes stopping a program, even a successful one, returns resources to your law library that will lead to some new and even better initiative.