When Evidence and Emotion Collide: Rolling Out Controversial Evidence-Based Decisions

by Kathleen Reed, Assessment and Data Librarian, Instructor in the Department of Women’s Studies, and VP of the Faculty Association at Vancouver Island University

Last week’s news of Trent University Library’s Innovation Cluster was the latest in a string of controversial decisions centering on academic libraries that jumped from campus debate into the mainstream media. With so many libraries in the middle of decisions that are likely unpopular (e.g. cutting journals, weeding little-used and aging print collections), I’ve been increasingly thinking about best practices for communicating major evidence-based decisions to campus communities.

Simply having the data to support your decision isn’t enough; rolling out a controversial decision is an art form.  Luckily, I’ve had some really good teachers in the form of colleagues and bosses (shout out to Dana, Jean, Tim, and Bob).  With the disclaimer that I’ve taken no change-management training and am in no way an expert, here’s what I’ve learned in my first six years as a librarian:

Start conversations early and have them often.
Decisions do not go well when they’re dropped on people out of the blue. For example, we know that there’s a crisis in scholarly publishing – the fees and inflation vendors are charging are unsustainable and the CAD/USD conversion rate isn’t in our favour. Faculty need to hear that message now, not in a few years when a major journal package has to be cut.  If you talk to communities early, you’re able to hear concerns that may figure into future decision making, and figure out strategies to meet needs in other ways.

Don’t force an idea if you don’t have to.
One of the things my first boss told me was that sometimes you’ll have a great idea, but conditions just aren’t right for uptake.  Now 6 years into my career, I can see what he meant.  In my first year, cutting a particular database was unthinkable to a particular department, even though there was plenty of evidence that this cut should be made.  Four years later and I was able to get an agreement to cancel from the department with little issue.  Sometimes an issue has to be dealt with, but other times you can wait.  Plant a seed, walk away, and come back to it another time if you can.

Be proactive.
When Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) announced that thousands of journals were being reviewed for potential cost-savings and CBC reported on it, Ryerson University Library & Archives did something outstanding: they published a proactive blog article being upfront with their community. There was no beating around the bush, with the first Q&A being: “Can we anticipate similar activities at Ryerson? Yes we can.”  Ryerson didn’t have to do anything – the controversy wasn’t at their institution.  But they showed excellent leadership in addressing the issue head-on and set a great example for other libraries to follow.

Have a plan
A former boss of mine brought the idea of project charters to our work culture. These documents clearly outline goals, deliverables, in/out of scope areas, rationale, stakeholders responsibilities, scheduling considerations, timelines, risks & mitigation strategies, and sustainability. The most recent project charter around my library is related to the evolution of our print collection, which we’re looking to reduce over the next 5 years (evidence-based, of course – shout out to the COPPUL Shared Print Archive Network (SPAN) Project and GreenGlass. Having a project charter allows all librarians and staff to consider the direction of the project, have their input, and get on board with it. And this last point is key – if employees don’t feel consulted and buy-in, it’ll be especially hard to support that decision externally.

I’ll also highlight the “risks & mitigation strategy” section of project charters. This is where risks are identified.  For example, if the decision you’re undertaking is related to reducing the number of journals or print books, you’re probably going to attract negative media attention and dissatisfaction among print-book lovers. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, so plan for it.

Show due diligence and evidence.
I’ve mentioned above that it’s important to give your community plenty of opportunities to talk to librarians about large decisions and to get assistance for mitigation strategies (if necessary). But it’s also important to keep a record of how you did this. I once had an irate student group demand a meeting about a database that was cut over a year prior. When I laid out the process (multiple meetings and emails) and the evidence (rubric numbers, faculty input) used to make the decision, as well as how the library devised alternatives to accessing the cut database’s content, the students were completely satisfied and even apologized for assuming that the library was in the wrong.

At my library, we use a rubric to assess all our databases. Aside from helping us make decisions, this rubric enables us to “show our work” to faculty. When they see that we look at 28 different categories for every database, they’re more inclined to trust our decision-making than if we showed up with limited evidence and told them we need to cancel a database.

Do some anger aikido (if appropriate)
When our library started a consultation with several faculties on cutting a particular database, some of our faculty were understandably upset. But because of prior conversations about the problems in scholarly communications, instead of turning that anger on librarians it was directed at admin for not funding the library better, and at a parasitic scholarly publishing industry. When the latter came up, it gave librarians an opening to talk about the importance of Open Access, and helped convince some faculty to submit their work to our institutional repository to ensure it would no longer be behind a paywall.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take the blame if it’s legit your fault.  If you messed up, own it and don’t throw your colleagues under the bus. But when librarians are doing the best they can – being proactive, using evidence, starting conversations early – and factors beyond our control are the source of anger, I think it’s acceptable to do a little aikido and redirect the anger toward the source (especially if change can be made there).

People may not like a decision but they will usually respect your position if you’ve shown yourself worthy of respect.
Difficult decisions are easier to respect when they’re argued for by trustworthy, respectful, diligent people who have a track record of working on behalf of the community instead of for personal gain.  Be one of those people. As one of my favourite sayings goes, “We’re all smart in academia. Distinguish yourself by being kind.”

Consider the Spectrum of Allies.
I was first introduced to the Spectrum of Allies in the Next Up social justice leadership program, but it’s applicable to any controversial subject. The idea is that you’re not going to radically shift people from opposing an idea to loving it, so it’s better to think of nudging people from one position to the next.

Applying this concept to the decision to cancel a database might look something like this: active allies are those that will advocate for the decision; passive allies are those who agree with the decision but don’t speak up; neutrals are those who don’t care either way; passive opposition is people who oppose the decision but don’t speak up; and active opposition are the folks who are outspoken critics of the decision.  The point becomes to shift each group one position over.  So you may not be able to convince Professor Y that they should support the decision to cancel the database, but you might convince them to move from active opposition to passive, thereby not running to the press.

Accept that some people will be unreasonable.
Some people are just jerks. There will be nothing you can do to satisfy them, and there’s no point in dumping endless energy into convincing them of a decision.  But you can try to neutralizing their influence. If one particular member of a department is being an unreasonable PITA (Pain In The Ass), make sure you’re talking to their departmental colleagues so that those folks aren’t swayed by the individual’s influence.

Build an evidence-based culture.
If your library becomes known as a department that does assessment well and can provide valid evidence, you’ll garner respect on campus which can only make life easier.

Study the people around you who are good at conflict.
Tap into the wisdom of your diplomatic colleagues.  I’m lucky enough to have one who is United Nations-level good at diplomacy, and so when I found myself in a situation where my natural un-diplomatic impulses were about to take over, I’d ask myself “What would (name) do?”  After several years of this practice, I now cut out the middle step and just act tactfully in the first place most of the time (“fake it ‘til you make it” really does work!) But I’d have never been able to get to this place without watching and learning strategies from my co-worker.

At the end of it all, reflect on how it went and what you can do better next time.
Big decisions, like canceling journals or doing significant weeding, are difficult and hard to make roll out perfectly. It’s important to reflect on what’s gone well in the process and what can be improved upon for next time.

What’s your experience with rolling out controversial decisions?  Is there something that should be added or subtracted from this list?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

Change Management: Bring on the Tea!

by Charlene Sorensen
Services to Libraries, University of Saskatchewan

I like to think I’m okay with change. The introduction of new and more efficient technical services processes – I’m there. The library needs to put some journals into storage to make room for more student-oriented space – I’ll gladly work on that. Coffee makes my heart race – bring on the tea.

These three changes actually have something crucial in common that allowed me to embrace them – I clearly understood WHY the change was necessary.

I recently learned quite a lot about change during a change management certification course. The methodology was robust and there were many tools available to participants to help us bring about effective change. The most interesting aspect to me was that the methodology focuses on the people side of change. This of course makes perfect sense in hindsight – in order to streamline a workflow, update an IT system, or implement a new service – each person involved needs to change something.

I have had varying degrees of success in trying to effect change in my area of the library over the years. I am hoping to put some new skills into practice in order to have my change efforts produce more successes than failures. Reflecting on this course and some of the work I see in my future, I have decided to focus on a few elements from my learning. I have summarized my thoughts into five areas that I think provide a decent starting point for bringing about more effective change:

There is a human need to know “why”
I think there no worse feeling than being asked to do something differently without knowing the reason behind it. Think about the last time this happened to you. Were you a “good soldier” and participate somewhat grudgingly? Or perhaps you even resisted the change, talking with your colleagues about how little administration actually understands your work? The next time you have some control over how a project (large or small) is implemented, try to be clear about why the change is important and the benefit people will gain by participating. This is a crucial first step to any successful change.

Change management is not a one-size-fits-all approach
Each person you work with will have different skills, knowledge, background, ability, adaptability, resilience, and attitude towards change. So when you are communicating about a change effort and why it is important (see above), remember to talk with people one-on-one to discover their concerns. You won’t know if your message is understood if you just send it by email or share it at group meetings.

Evidence isn’t enough to convince people
You know those times when something just seems so darn logical, or you even have the data in your hands to prove it, but still that change in policy or procedure just doesn’t catch on? At the risk of sounding repetitive, even the most logical change will have a hard time getting implemented unless people understand “why”. It is great to have evidence, but it will not be effective on its own. The awareness of the need for change and the risks of not changing really need to be communicated clearly.

Resistance is normal
Even if you do your best to communicate the need for change and talk with people individually about the change, there may still be resistance. The good news is that resistance is normal. At some point everyone will go through some questioning of the process and this may drain your energy and wonder if this whole thing was really such a great idea anyway… but don’t give up! Your leadership and persistence will bring people along, and for most the resistance will be a brief phase.

Not everyone will get on the bus
Despite your best efforts to implement a change at your institution, some people may continue to resist the change. I encourage you to not be side-tracked by the few people that actively resist your change efforts. In the long run, not one wants to be left behind, so continue your good communication and leaderly efforts and show everyone what a successful change looks like. There is a chance that the people actively resisting the change have not seen change happen in a positive way in the past. Your persistence and follow-through will provide a good foundation for more successful change in the future.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

Reflections on Change Leadership

by Jill Crawley-Low
Leslie and Irene Dubé Health Sciences Library and Veterinary Medicine Library, University of Saskatchewan

There have been opportunities to reflect on leadership, organizational culture and change management during the past months at the University of Saskatchewan. The campus community has been involved in the impacts from TransformUS, a project that has been described by President Barnhart as “… too big, moving too fast”. “We have been part of a crisis…” (the President’s description of events) with activities unfolding in fast paced succession and resulting in the departure of several members of the senior leadership team. This astonishing progression was followed by a lull over the summer months as a modified leadership team met to determine a way forward.

During that time, although leaders were busy gathering information and consulting with stakeholders, there was little communication which deepened the feeling of suspension on campus. On September 9th, the President and senior team held a town hall meeting for the campus community and outlined their priorities for action this year. The majority of employees, I think, began to breathe again. Those who had resisted this change felt vindicated.

Although in normal times we take organizational culture for granted, in a crisis, which is usually characterized by accelerated change and often unpredictable outcomes, we long for familiar touchstones. Culture once established is difficult to change because it encompasses our overt beliefs and behaviours as well as those that are unspoken. When fundamental or transformative change is the goal then a shift in culture must occur if the change is to stick. This is why there have to be compelling reasons to initiate complex change. The cost of maintaining the status quo has to be higher than the cost of the proposed change to justify going ahead. Often, the change process involving a large scale change takes longer than predicted, and encounters more hurdles than anticipated.

There is a vast literature on managing change with lots of advice on doing it well and cautionary tales for failing. Daryl Conner and John P. Kotter are two researchers who have written widely and their theories and advice are quite accessible. Conner, author of Managing at the Speed of Change, addresses roles in change management. He examines peoples’ psychological reactions to change, namely that we fear disruption of our expectations and seek control in our lives. Since employees have to “come along” for change to succeed, the most effective employees are those who are resilient, that is, they are adaptable in an ambiguous environment. Resilient employees look for some degree of direct or indirect control they can exert in the change process; they can assimilate the pace of change around them; they accept that there will be micro levels of change (will my desk move?) as well as macro changes at the organizational level. We all perceive things around us in our own way, so different frames of reference have to be taken into account when asking employees to participate in the change process.

Kotter developed 8 steps to transforming your organization in a 1996 article called Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail in HBR that is still cited. Firstly, Kotter advises creating a sense of urgency around the change process otherwise it’s business as usual. Other steps include forming a powerful guiding coalition, creating a vision to direct the change, communicating that vision, and empowering others to act on it.

Returning to the impacts of TransformUS on the campus community, in my opinion, senior leadership could have been more effective in communicating the vision surrounding TransformUS. As well, they failed to modify the change process to take into account feedback from stakeholders who wanted their leaders to slow the process and be more forthcoming about the financial reasons for the initiative. On the part of employees, we didn’t model resilient behaviour that would have positioned us to view the proposed changes through a more neutral lens acting for the benefit of the institution. In the fall of 2014, calmer times prevail, to be sure; I have to ask – have we settled for the comfort of the status quo and will we pay a bigger price sometime in the future?

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.