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What is your work product?

I still wake up most Thursday mornings feeling that I’ve misplaced something. It’s a hangover from when Thursdays were the center of my week.

We had very distinct work products at my Former Place of Work Minus One (FPOW-1). While some projects were multi-year activities (funding and migrating to a new search engine, doing the same for our content management system, changing our content contribution model), and some were slightly abstract (raise usage, increase visibility), every day for five years I woke up with a very clear list of activities, many of them revolving around a weekly newsletter. Thursday morning (or sometimes, Wednesday night) was the moment of crisis, the Great Unveiling, when the newsletter went live, and if problems arose, a great wurra-wurra began. Our technical people learned quickly that it’s Thursday morning and they need to get out the newsletter.

This follows a pattern of satisfaction in my work life. I like a distinct work product, and I like it if my work day can focus on that work product. In the Air Force, where I worked on airplanes (and later supervised those who did), my work product literally took flight–a wonderful metaphor for my work life. Air Force work was hard, sometimes grueling, often exasperating, political, and daunting, but your work product sat on the tarmac around you. In LibraryLand, I’ve been happiest when my work life focused on clear mission-related outcomes. Call me a simple gal, but “turn a wrench, launch an airplane” works for me. It could even explain why I love to teach, because what better expression of clear work product is there than to travel along the arc of a syllabus toward a new land of knowledge for student and teacher alike?

My tension about library work is that it too often suffers from mission drift. In some libraries, the meeting appears to be the final work product. That is the only conclusion to draw when as much as 90 percent of a clocked work week is spent in meetings, and all other tasks are relegated to homework status or to stolen minutes early in the morning or late in the day. I have worked in libraries where the daily meeting schedule was so full I have had to decide between emptying my bladder and taking a sip of water or being on time to the next meeting. I have also worked in libraries where other workers would look at my calendar and tell me (not ask me) that I was available for a meeting, which they determined because my calendar said I had an “open” block of time, which of course was theirs to fill up with yet another meeting.

When the meeting is the work product, all normal workplace politics and dysfunction are transferred to the meeting structure. The life of the library revolves around who gets on what committee; which committee reports where; where meetings are held; and even whether non-members may sit in on meetings. The focus on what the meetings are to accomplish can get very hazy; it is not unheard-of for meetings to take place even when there is no agenda or known reason to meet.

All that, and yet there’s more: at one of my first library jobs, part of the work angst came from “meetings” where things were decided, and yet, the real decisions came later, at the meeting-after-the-meeting where the informal (and all male) power brokers met to decide how things would really go down–not the last time I would see that pattern in action. I wasn’t quite as distressed as my supervisor (largely because my work product at the time was not quite as tied up in the decisions from these meetings), but I felt her grief at knowing that her time was caught up in painfully lengthy meetings that in the end were charades.

So I am sympathetic to the angst Jane expresses in a recent post on A Wandering Eyre, and I’m not quibbling with her observations about generational differences (these are real; I know this because I’m really a Millenial with trifocals, wrinkles, and grey hair), but I’m wondering how much of the discouragement she feels is really about working in institutions where there are huge disconnects between the mission and the product, and where daily activity revolves around the meeting.

I don’t think this problem is unique to LibraryLand–in fact, I’m sure it’s not (and I remember one Air Force base in Germany where work dysfunction rivalled anything I’ve seen in our domain). However, it’s particularly pernicious for LibraryLand because we too often have a tenuous relationship with our mission to begin with.

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4 Comments

  1. Karen,
    A belated, “I was thinking of you” when I wrote the young and driven section of that post. I know too many fabulous, idea-driven librarians older then me to discount you.

    An Amen! to the meetings discussion. I have been much happier this last week at work. The reason? I actually have chunks of time, larger then 45 minutes, at my desk to do actual work. It is amazing what one can do with a little time. For the past few months, it seems like all I did was go from meeting to meeting. Much of my job has been neglected and I am exhausted.

    I become frustrated with this structure, at ALA as well as MPOW, because I would venture to say that 45% of the meeting could have been a status report on a blog and 45% could have been discussed over email or on a message board. The other 10% was needed. But only 10%.

    The book that really sums up all of my bad feelings about meetings is Death By Meeting: A Leadership Fable About the Most Painful Problem in Business http://tinyurl.com/38yzhd

    I think it should be required reading for every manager. Everywhere.

    Thursday, May 3, 2007 at 10:39 am | Permalink
  2. kgs wrote:

    I started that book but I found once I was past the first chapter it kind of wandered from its main point. But the title tells it all, doesn’t it?

    Thursday, May 3, 2007 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  3. Debi wrote:

    I think this is a problem that may be more pernicious not necessarily in libraries but in any not-for-profit setting — an organization, educational instutition, museum, library, etc. A wise management training consultant (ok, my dad) once told me that in profit-type company settings, people can fight over money, but in not-for-profits, people can only fight over power. There is no money to fight over.

    So, they fight over power by trying to be the most influential person in a meeting (Look at how much I can talk!), the biggest user of resources (My group got more budget dollars than yours. Ha!), the biggest problem solver (I called a meeting about that issue! Watch me take charge!), etc. Also, at least at some professional associations and not-for-profits, many things cannot be decided by a single power-holder; they are subject to committee oversight or buy-in, and so when it’s time to paint the men’s room, every man must be consulted on the color, and then vote. Well, to do that, you have to have a meeting!

    It’s miserable. I’m with you, and like to have a product at the end of the day. I always talk with clients about “deliverables” — i.e., what “thing” will you get at the end of this experience? It would make me rest easier if every job I ever did had a list of deliverables I could festoon with pretty little checkmarks. Done! Done! Done!

    Thursday, May 3, 2007 at 1:17 pm | Permalink
  4. kgs wrote:

    Oh, deliverables, a word I adore!

    What a great assessment of the library power struggle. I think that wraps it up more clearly than I’ve ever seen described.

    Thursday, May 3, 2007 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

5 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Generational Confusion « Life as I Know It on Thursday, May 3, 2007 at 8:52 am

    [...] responses to this issue – T. Scott’s Lookin’ For A Ladder, and K.G. Schneider’s What is your work product? Both are well worth a [...]

  2. [...] Hm… so I found this draft sitting around from waay back (a week at least) and I haven’t been able to figure out what I Was going to say about these two links: Free Range Librarian » Blog Archive » What is your work product? [...]

  3. [...] much help if your day is largely controlled by others, such as if your organization is built around the endless-meeting paradigm, where actual work production is coincidental to organizational processes, and your role requires [...]

  4. [...] etc. — however you want to phrase it) to discuss my broad concern that in many organizations, the meeting seems to be the work product. This isn’t even a library-specific problem; it may be endemic in nonprofits, which are [...]

  5. [...] 1. Agendas. A good meeting has an agenda. It might be a very informal agenda, such as “Today we are all going to share for two minutes each on everything we’ve done this past week.” Or it might be an elaborate, three-level-outline agenda. But a meeting without an agenda is not a meeting, it’s an encounter group. [...]

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