Full Speed Ahead

16 Apr

“Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don’t freeze up.” ~ Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again

I came out of an 8 o’clock meeting on Monday morning with the thought, “Well, at least I still have the whole week ahead for things to improve.” They didn’t. Not really. Not until today. It’s been a difficult week.

One of the steepest learning curves of a new job is less often the tasks at hand, but more learning the people. People make life really great, really difficult, and everything in between. That’s pretty much how it goes, unless we live alone on an island. And no one lives alone on an island. Except Tom Hanks in that movie a few years back. Even then, he had Wilson. My work during the earlier part of the week was not critiqued by inanimate objects and/or sporting equipment. It was reviewed and editorialized and shredded to bits before being put back together into something that only marginally resembled what I started off with by people. I admit it … it hurt. And yes, it also made me a little angry.

I had to do a lot of self-talk to keep going. I said to myself, “If someone you know came to you and expressed to you what you’re feeling right now, you would tell them without hesitation that it takes a lot of courage to take chances, to try new things, to stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone.” But if you’re like me, you probably find it much easier to encourage others than to do the same for yourself.

There was, of course, nothing personal in the assessment of the work that I’d done. I had to speak before the Committee on Scientific Research Affairs to explain the findings of a user survey that I carried out for a core service recently. I was representing my department in what I was saying and those who are responsible for it just wanted to make sure that I said the right things, in the right way, to highlight the right points. Still, while it may not have been intentional, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being spoken to like I was a complete newcomer to this business, as if I had never presented anything to any audience ever before.

I walked into my house on Monday night and shouted to my animals, “DON’T THEY KNOW WHO I AM?!?!?!” (It’s good to have animals during moments like this. They never judge you for any angst-ridden, bruised-ego-induced outbursts.)

As I talked about it more with my spouse later that evening and then I paid attention to it more during meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, I realized a couple of things. First, the folks that I work for and with now DON’T know who I am. I get invited to speak at conferences, be on task forces, elected to offices in the world of libraries because my peers in these organizations do know me. They know what I do well. They know how I say things, how I do things, how I believe certain things and express them. And yes, it is a nice ego boost when people like you and respect you for those very things; when they like you and respect you for yourself. But it takes awhile for people to get to know you. It takes work and efforts and showing up and volunteering and writing a blog post week after week.

I have none of this going for myself right now and let me tell you, it’s hard. It’s harder than I thought it would be.

But I also noticed a second thing about my new environs this week and that’s that there is a tendency for people to work collaboratively in a way that is more critical than perhaps I’m used to. On Tuesday morning, I worked for two and a half hours with a couple of docs (an MD and a PhD) on the same presentation. We talked through everything. Every piece – not just what I’d put together, but what they’d put together, too – was up for critique. Everything got moved around and rearranged. Parts got lopped off. I was struggling again to hear people telling me that I needed to say something this way, not that way.

Again, I wanted to shout, “I know how to talk to people, for <expletive> sake!!” But along the way somewhere, I was able to step back from my frustrations and hurt feelings a moment to realize we were all in this together. The process that I was a part of was simply the process that’s the norm for these people. The people who I don’t know and who don’t know me, but yet we work together now.

Yes, I do think that the steepest learning curve involves learning the new people. Coming out of yesterday morning’s presentation, one of my new co-workers said to me, “You’re pretty good at that.” I replied, “Yes, I know. And thanks for saying so.”

We’re getting to know each other. Full speed ahead!

Damn the torpedoes!

Damn the torpedoes!

Do you REALLY want it all?

10 Apr
Feeling the Big Squeeze? Remember that even a squeeze box can make a pretty song.

Feeling the Big Squeeze? Remember that even a squeeze box can make a pretty song.

There’s a billboard across the street from my office building, promoting the hospital that’s affiliated with the medical school where I work. It features a friendly looking young woman with the words above her head, “I want it all.” The implication, of course, is that the medical center can meet all of the health needs of this person, indeed of anyone who uses the hospital and its network of health care providers.

This isn’t a criticism of their advertising campaign, but more just a few thoughts that come to my mind every time that I drive past that sign. Wanting it all is pretty much the American dream, is it not? Maybe it’s the dream of all people, everywhere. We all want whatever it is that we want, whether we necessarily need it or not. You may not subscribe to this belief personally, but you have to admit that it’s an awfully loud societal message.

From the perspective of a provider, be one a provider of health care services or a provider of information services, we want it all, too. We want to say that we can provide anything and everything to anyone and everyone who comes through our doors. Libraries, especially, have this idea deeply ingrained in their DNA. They exist for everyone.

But as we have become such a specialized world, I think we’d do well to face the facts that our ability to meet that mission anymore is dwindling, if not altogether extinct. I’ve been working on an evaluation of one of the research cores for the CCTS and in talking to those involved with it, I can’t help but notice they speak many of the same concerns that I long heard in my former home in the library; a handful of people simply cannot meet the needs and demands of everyone.

This imbalance causes us to rethink much of what we do, how we measure our success, and how we plan for the future. The reality of health care is that you really cannot have it all. A few weeks back, I was feeling really miserable and went to the walk-in clinic of the hospital next door only to learn that it’s really not a walk-in clinic, but rather a place for patients who see a certain group of doctors there. These patients can walk in for a last-minute appointment. If one is available. My doctor is a doctor within the same system, but while he has an office a few floors above the very clinic where I was seeking treatment, his clinical office is in another location, thus I wasn’t able to use the services provided there. Again, not a criticism of the provider network (though I am a big critic of the messed-up system that dictates these type decisions), but I share the story as an example of how claiming all can be provided to everyone ought to be a statement with an asterisk after it. Some restrictions DO apply.

One of the reasons that I chose to leave the library and work for the CCTS is that I felt the expectations in this new role were somewhat more realistic. Here was a defined group of programs and research cores for me to evaluate. It’s a lot, but still seems a manageable number. It allows me the ability to focus more, to feel less scattered, to feel less pulled, to feel less like I’m always falling short of meeting my goals, not because I’m not trying hard or working hard, but because I am only one person and trying to give time to everyone feels like a losing proposition. To me.

Sustainability is a key issue as we continue to work in institutions and businesses and governments that are constantly under the pressures of too little resources to meet all of the required needs. We are limited in people, certainly. Positions are cut or people leave posts and are never replaced. Everyone feels overworked as we try to fill holes and do more.

But we’re also limited by our current service models. Yesterday, I was able to attend the annual eScience Symposium hosted by the NN/LM NER. The afternoon session featured two speakers from different universities who described their particular programs for data services. Regarding their data repositories, one school allows self-deposit while the other offers a mediated service, i.e. researchers send their data to the library and then staff their deposit on their behalf, adding all of the proper metadata, annotation, etc. necessary in order for people to search and find the data sets in the said repository. During the Q&A, I asked the speakers about the differences between their models. I asked them some of the same questions that are asked in the process of evaluating research cores and programs:

How did you decide which path to follow? How did you decide which aspect of your repository to sacrifice; the quality of the content (enhanced by the mediation) or the ability to be a bigger service (because you’re not limited by the time/efforts of staff in the library)?

As one speaker said, “It’s a balancing act.” Indeed. And it’s also a clear example of how believing we can be all for all is misguided. It’s just not possible. We have to set priorities and make choices.

For good and bad, though, these are the realities of academic institutions, health care providers, research centers, and libraries. The one thing that we all really do have is the challenge to face these limitations, all the while trying to come up with the solutions for providing the best of whatever we can offer to as many as possible. Whether it’s what we really want or not, THAT is the “all” that we have.

Turning the Tables

27 Mar

Earlier today, a very nice first year medical student came by my office and apologetically asked me if I could tell her where the offices of our Institutional Review Board people are. I don’t work in the library anymore, you might recall, and now my office sits in a maze of other offices on the 7th (top) floor of the ambulatory care center of our medical complex and medical school. It’s not a place that anyone wanders past. Mine is not an office that someone might simply pop in for a visit. It’s out of the way. And as I said to my former colleagues in the Library and my friends on Facebook, I admittedly miss such interruptions. Not all of the time, mind you, but one of the greatest joys that I knew as a librarian was simply answering someone’s question and / or helping them in some way that made their day better. The student was SO grateful when I got up and walked her around the corner to the IRB folks. She thanked me several times. It was a flashback to those days of yore … oh, 3 months ago or so.

For ten years, I spent the better part of my working days answering people’s questions. Either answering them directly, looking for the answer for them, or helping them learn how to find the answer for themselves. All day long, the overwhelming majority of sentences spoken to me ended in question marks. Librarians answer questions.

Evaluators, on the other hand, ask them. This is what I’m quickly learning. We are the ones who need the answers, thus we’re the ones who ask the questions. How well did “X” intervention work? How much time was saved by implementing “Y” into the process? What does “Z” do for you that no other letter of the alphabet ever did for you before?

But I’ve also learned that there’s a speed bump; the researchers and clinicians and other users of the resources and services that I’m evaluating … well … they typically aren’t librarians. In other words, I don’t think that they like answering questions as much as any librarian does.

“It’s a simple survey,” I claim.

“It won’t take more than 5 minutes of your time.”

“The results will help us help YOU!”

“I’d be ever so grateful,” said Babe the Pig. (If you miss the reference, check out the movie.)

And still, getting people to answer questions is way harder than I ever imagined. I’m actually very good at talking to people, and usually pretty good at getting people to talk to me. It was one of the skills and characteristics that I honed as a librarian / informationist that I figured would be easily transferable to my new role. Not so much. At least not yet.

It could be the method – the dreaded survey. People don’t like them. Heck, I don’t like them. But in some cases it is the most appropriate and most efficient method for getting the data (answers) you need for the evaluation. I read and studied and asked about writing good questions. I worked with seasoned researchers to put my survey together. I piloted it with different groups and made all of the necessary tweaks based on the feedback I received. I picked my target audience carefully. And once I felt confident about the whole thing, I let it loose.

And then … I waited.

And waited.

And sent out a couple of reminders.

And broadened my audience.

And worked some different angles to reach people.

And waited some more.

I’m still waiting; waiting for the responses to grow to some level that will afford me some information needed to present my findings to a couple of different groups. It’s coming along, but golly it’s slow. And such a cumbersome process. Ask me a question and I’ll happily answer for you, straightaway. But waiting for others to answer me … well, the tables have turned, my friends.

A turning table playing a different tune!

A turning table playing a different tune!

Stay Put!

6 Mar
Sit, Eliza. Stay.  Our puppy on her first day home, Aug 2013.

Sit, Eliza. Stay.
Our puppy on her first day home, Aug 2013.

I read a couple of good blog posts this morning, over on the Medical Library Association’s blog, “Full Speed Ahead.” The first was by MLA President, Linda Walton, called, “The Time for Change is Now.” It offers a nice summary of the organization’s new strategic goals, each of which contains some level of a call for action. Like many professional organizations, MLA is challenged to find its purpose and goals in the ever-changing world of libraries, health care, and information. The second post is by MLA’s new Executive Director, Kevin Baliozian. “Words I Can Do Without” lays the foundation for what became the very strategic plan outlined in Linda’s post. Wondering what Kevin’s “no say” words are? SPOILER ALERT: They are “try” and “continue.” Again, you can see that MLA and it’s leadership are focused on moving forward, shedding the “same old, same old,” and making the organization as relevant and important to health sciences librarians and information professionals as its storied history shows it to be in the past. 

I serve on the Executive Board of my regional chapter of MLA and we are engaged in much the same type of work. What do we continue doing? What do we cast aside? Who do we reach out to? What defines us and makes us different, unique, worthy of a colleague’s membership dues and energy? Important questions, all.

I’ve got nothing against change. I think it’s important to take stock on a regular basis and adjust accordingly. In my new job as an evaluator, that’s one of the main focuses (foci?) of my work. More, it’s one of the main reasons for my work. I evaluate the research cores and programs of the UMCCTS to track their progress and to make corrections; to identify where changes need to happen. 

But all of this said, I do have one cautionary note about change: Change for the sake of change is no change at all.

I once counted the number of times that I moved between the ages of 20 and 30. I don’t remember the exact number today, but it was around 18. Eighteen moves in 10 years. I also had a number of jobs during that time. I changed all of the time, BUT I went nowhere. I never stayed in any one place long enough for it to feel like home and I never stayed in any job long enough to become very good at it. And it’s the latter that I sometimes fear when it comes to the bigger picture of organizational and/or professional change.

The other day, someone called me to ask for some “librarian expertise.” I told him that I no longer worked in the library, but I could still certainly help him because I still have librarian expertise. I have it because I stayed in a job for 10 years. My job in the library did not stay the same for 10 years, but I stayed true to a certain core ideal – to help the students, clinicians, and researchers of the Medical School with their information needs, whatever those needs might be. Whether I was building consumer health websites, answering reference questions, teaching how to better search PubMed, or building data dictionaries for research teams, in each I was staying true to that ideal. 

As we search and investigate and try on new roles as librarians – at the individual, institutional, and professional organization level – I hope that we stay true to our ideals. It’s a big challenge, but not impossible. It doesn’t mean we don’t change, but that we purposefully change. Change is expensive. It costs time to learn new things and time to become an expert. It costs time to raise the awarenesses of the people we serve regarding the things we now do. It costs people jobs, when roles and tasks disappear. It costs people their identity, when they’re tied closely to one in particular. 

In the past 2 months, I have changed jobs, moved offices twice, watched my mother-in-law pass away, and (just about – almost ready to sign the papers) bought a house. I seem to be forgetting another big thing, but that’s probably an innate defense mechanism, because let me tell you … all of this change has been exhausting. It takes a toll on a person physically, mentally, and emotionally. We all know this. So it’s all the more important to make sure that we undertake change that’s worth the expense.

I’m enjoying my new job, though it’s stressful to not be an expert anymore and I’d be lying if I said that I don’t miss the library. I’m going to love our new house, something that I’ve never had before in my life. And I do so love having an office for the first time, even if it’s across the campus from all of my old colleagues. All good changes. All worth it.

In the same way, I think that many of the changes that we’re talking about and making in the world of health sciences libraries and beyond are great – necessary and worth the cost. But I do wonder about some and I question their true connection to our ideals. Are we scrambling to change because we don’t know what else to do? Are we forced to change for reasons that have nothing to do with our work, e.g. budgets, space, etc. All very real forces of change, but I worry that sometimes the changes that they force aren’t necessarily in our best interest.

Change is difficult. Change is inevitable. And perhaps most importantly, change requires good leadership – whether you’re leading an organization or just trying to lead yourself in the right direction. In that respect, I feel pretty good about my professional organization. I paid my dues for another year. :)

 

Politics is an Eight-Letter Word

26 Feb

A number of years ago, the librarians at Lamar Soutter Library, UMass Medical School, received the directive, “Get Out!” Our Library Director wanted us out of our cubicles and away from our desks. She wanted us to go to the people that we served. If people didn’t need to come to the Library anymore, the Library needed to go to them. And thus was born our embedded librarian program.

One of the very first lessons that I learned when I started getting out of the Library was that I needed to learn about politics. I remember going to my Library Director and asking if she could give us a lesson on the topic during one of our professional development meetings. Fortunately, she understood where I was coming from and from that point on, was open and willing to answering any questions any of us had regarding who was who and how things worked, politically, at the Medical School.

Our political system has become so broken the past few decades, it’s easy to think of politics as a dirty word. We think of corruption and conniving and backstabbing and the like. But the truth of the matter is that most, if not all, organizations and institutions exist in some sort of political atmosphere. If we’re lucky, it’s NOT a destructive framework, but it is an existing structure all the same.

Reframing 5th coverWhen I was earning my library science degree from Syracuse, I had to take a course on management and one of the required textbooks was Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal’s book, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership. The “Political Frame” is one of four organizational frameworks that they present and they describe it as follows:

The political frame views organizations as alive and screaming political arenas that host a complex web of individual and group interests. Five propositions summarize the perspective:

  1. Organizations are coalitions of various individuals and interest groups.
  2. There are enduring differences among coalition members in values, beliefs, information, interests, and perceptions of reality.
  3. Most important decisions involve the allocation of scarce resources – who gets what.
  4. Scarce resources and enduring differences give conflict a central role in organizational dynamics and make power the most important resource.
  5. Goals and decisions emerge from bargaining, negotiation, and jockeying for position among different stakeholders.

(Bolman & Deal, Reframing Organizations, 2nd ed., p. 163)

Now that I work in a different environment than the Library, I’m learning a different political landscape. Different people, different personalities, different programs, different priorities. I’m still in the same institution, so I have a slight head start, in that I at least know the people; by name and position, if nothing else. I also know, thanks to my years in the Library, that walking into situations without respecting the politics is not only naive, but can be downright disastrous to any efforts you’re attempting. It’s a really important lesson and a skill set that’s not necessarily taught in graduate school or in continuing education classes. That’s a shame, because when we pretend that politics doesn’t matter or that it’s a dirty game that we want to avoid, we’re setting ourselves up for trouble. Politics is an eight letter word. There’s no need to not talk about it.

In the Bleak Midwinter

12 Feb

As I write this, it’s snowing here in Worcester, Massachusetts. If you’re not up-to-speed on the “Golden Snow Globe National Snow Contest Snowiest U.S. Cities” rankings, you’ve missed out on the story about my snowy city’s great claim to fame this season… We’re Number 1! 92+ inches and counting. Many folks are tired of it, but not me. I love the snow. I love winter. And I’m loving being in first place! Midwinter

Perhaps the thing that I love best about a snowy winter is that it forces upon us the time to sit still. Stay home. Be quiet. When I’m stuck at home during a blizzard, once I get past the elation that the Medical School is closed for the day and I don’t have to go to work, I hunker in on the couch with a blanket, my dog, something to drink, and either a good movie or a good book, and I revel in the fact that I have nothing to do but enjoy myself. I get this strange feeling that in another life, I must have been some woodland animal; not the kind that hibernates, but the kind that just knows how to hunker in for a day or two. I can do it, no problem at all. 

 For the record, in my 10+ years working at UMass Medical School, this is the first and only time that the school has closed. Twice now. I’m telling you, we’ve had some snow!

I remember reading Helen and Scott Nearing’s memoir, The Good Life, years ago and being struck by their choice of living. In spring, they planted. In summer, they tended to all of the many chores around the homestead. In fall, they harvested and prepared for the winter. And in the winter, they rested. They read and they wrote and they studied. It was the quiet time of year to do those very things.

Funny thing, though, is that while I love hunkering in at home on a snow day, I struggle with it at work on a work day. 

One thing about a new job is the requirement that it can put upon you to be quiet, to pay attention, and to read to learn a lot of new stuff. You know the joke about how librarians do nothing but read all day? Well, I’ve read more in my new role as an evaluator in two months than I likely read as a librarian in the past two years! And the strangest thing about that is how I’ve noticed I have to fight the urge to think that I’m not doing anything. Not being busy attending meetings and troubleshooting problems and answering questions and teaching classes and bouncing from thing to thing to thing … well, sometimes I feel downright guilty just sitting here in my office reading! Reading and planning – two things that I never had enough time to do in my previous job. Never. And now that I have the luxury to do so, I feel a little off my game.

But maybe that’s it. Maybe the fact that it’s ingrained into our workaday mindset and values that busy-ness means a jam-packed schedule is why I feel off. We measure productivity more by a full calendar than anything else. We measure our value in accomplishing stuff. Replying, “I’m free all day on Thursday and Friday,” meaning I don’t have any meetings on Thursday and Friday, makes me feel weird. Lazy. Guilty! I’ve realized that it really is a luxury, in this day and age, to sit and think and read and plan. On work time. 

Now that I’ve begun to plan out some projects, to schedule some meetings, to get out and DO something, I’m feeling better. More balanced.

And the fact that I’ve been doing just what I needed to do until now … that’s buried in the snow. 

The Lost Art of Being Frugal

29 Jan

Worcester, Massachusetts got slammed by a blizzard this week, bringing out the hearty nature in all of us New Englanders. What’s a little (34″) snow to dampen our spirits? I made a big pot of chili, watched a couple of movies, read a little, and hung out with my pets while the snow flew. Then yesterday, I joined everyone else in the neighborhood in the first great dig out of the winter. It’s what you do when you live here. No complaining needed. Born out of the spirit of the Puritans that settled here, New Englanders have a reputation for hard work and frugality. Granted, it’s been some time since the days of the Pilgrims, and regional distinctions fade as we’ve become a much more migratory society over the centuries, but we still think of Southern hospitality, Midwestern friendliness, Western pioneers, and hearty New Englanders. And yesterday, we hearty folks were shoveling. 

Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While we praise hard work and frugality, these traits also run counter to much that Americans dream to achieve today. Retiring early, becoming a millionaire overnight, achieving fame and fortune by winning a talent contest … these are the ideas behind bestsellers and top rated television programs. We talk the talk of hard work, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, scraping and scrapping and saving for our dreams; these are the bedrocks upon which America was built and, thus, they remain a part of our societal DNA. As one of our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, said, “The way to wealth depends on just two words, industry and frugality.” In theory. But in reality, for more reasons than we can count, they are less and less the walk of America. 

Economists speak of “frugality fatigue” as a driving force behind folks living in debt. As a species, we aren’t always very good at delayed gratification. We want what we want now and we’ve built a society that feeds this human habit in so many ways. Thus, when we also hear the popular mantra “do more with less” in our workplaces and business, it’s not something that we necessarily want to hear. It becomes a very negative thing. It wears us out, after awhile. We get stretched too thin. We simply cannot do more and more with less and less. In this sense, frugality becomes our enemy.

But is it? Was Mr. Franklin wrong? Or is there a way to look at “do more with less” that prompts something beyond stress?

According to Navi Radjou, an innovation strategist in Silicon Valley, the answer to that question is yes. In his thought-provoking TED Talk, Creative Problem-Solving in the Face of Extreme Limits, he outlines his theory of frugal innovation. In this brief talk, he gives lots of examples of people living in conditions where resources are often extremely limited, yet rather than limiting their ability to solve problems, the situation actually enhances their creativity and results in solutions that they would likely never come up with in a land of plenty. 

They can magically transform adversity into opportunity, and turn something of less value into something of high value. In other words, they mastered the art of doing more with less, which is the essence of frugal innovation.

~ Navi Radjou

We hardly need to live in abject poverty to take advantage of this idea. Librarianship, and any profession struggling with finding its footing and value in tough times, can tap into the one resource that’s common in most every situation, human ingenuity. Radjou calls it our most abundant resource. We need to find ways and create situations that foster our ingenuity. Maybe, the pressure cooker of a “do more and more with less and less” work setting can be the impetus for this. Maybe not knowing what’s coming next, not knowing where we belong, not knowing how to define and/or redefine ourselves is just the environment we need to push us towards creative solutions.

In many ways, I’m glad that I’ve entered my new role as an evaluator without a lot of traditional knowledge and background in the subject. Yes, I’ve been reading and studying up on the basics, but lacking the resource of years of experience and know-how, I find that I’m able to come up with some different thoughts and ideas and solutions that I probably wouldn’t have come up with otherwise. It’s like the team that enters the big game for the first time. They don’t know enough to know to lose.

One of the great things about evaluating the impact of clinical and translational research is that nobody really knows exactly how to do it yet. This is what I tell myself. It helps me put aside any anxiety of knowing that I don’t necessarily know what I’m doing, and sets me free to try all sorts of things in doing my job. It’s my way of making the most out of my limited resources and thus practicing frugal innovation. And that can be downright exciting. 

 

 

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