Recently, I’ve encountered something that I’ve found unsettling. Compromising seems to be something that we equate with failure. In fact, people would rather watch something fail – even things they say they value – rather than take ownership of the change needed to make it succeed. I couldn’t understand why the current environment seems to promote and all-or-nothing approach in how we deal with other people, the management of processes, or the allocation of resources. I brought this up with a group of my peers, and I got a very insightful response from one person in the group.

Continue Reading No One Wants to Own the Change

image [cc] Angelskiss31

Let me start out this post by saying that I like David Perla, President of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg BNA’s Legal division, and consider him to be an ally for the law librarian and legal information/knowledge profession. However, I have to say that I am a little disappointed at his Above the Law article yesterday called “A Challenge for the Gatekeepers.” His article starts out with a warning to the legal industry saying that “change is coming – with or without you,” but then he spends the rest of the article singling out Law Librarians and Knowledge professionals as the gatekeepers. Although David says this isn’t about Bloomberg Law’s new roll out of a Tax Product, quite frankly, it reads like it is. I’m really disappointed that he took to Above the Law to vent.

Transitions in how a legal products perform for practice areas is something law librarians deal with practically on a daily basis. One of our primary responsibilities for our firms are to evaluate these products and present an initial evaluation report to the Practice Group Leaders or power players within the practice area. Law Librarians have a diverse legal expertise, and some are legal area experts. I know law librarians that are more savvy when it comes to understanding practice areas like Tax or IP than most Associates or Junior Partners in their firms. We understand our firms, we understand our Practice Groups, and we are tasked with the responsibility to know when it is right to push for new products, and when it isn’t time.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I push for change every day! EVERY SINGLE DAY!!

I constantly evaluate new products, establish training sessions to teach attorneys and others the value of the very expensive resources we purchase with our law firm partners’ money. I work to de-duplicate resources so we are not wasting money. I also make recommendations on keeping similar products because I understand the way the attorneys work and know that sometimes it pays to have those resources, even if on the surface it seems irrational. I make sure that we have team members that go to PG meetings to observe, listen, and engage. It’s not gatekeeping. It’s called being a leader and making sure that we are implementing the overall strategies of our individual attorneys, our Practice Groups, our Offices, and our Firm as a whole.

I’m a little confused when David wrote:

I attended a session at AALL [American Association of Law Libraries] where librarians were brainstorming how to be more relevant or get lawyers to pay more attention to them. But when the moment comes to actually introduce change at law firms, they flinch out of fear. Afraid that the attorneys they work for will find change uncomfortable, they balk—just as Monster’s executives balked at upsetting the site’s customers.

Not buying a new legal information product is not the same as “flinch[ing] out of fear.” I find that statement to be a bit misleading, and way overly broad in the assumption that law librarians can’t pull the trigger on change.

I appreciate Bloomberg BNA being a disrupter in the legal information field. But, I will say that when the disruption initially affects the Tax and the Labor & Employment groups, it makes for a very difficult sale to those groups. Not that they are change adverse, but that they are either well served by their current products and have a comfort level with them, or that they are a group with very narrow profit margins that have to have concrete evidence that new, much more expensive, products will truly make their work more efficient and not decrease that narrow margin.

It’s not about throwing up barriers for change. It’s about understanding our environments and applying our expertise, experience, knowledge, and wisdom to every single change we see, every single day. I’m not a gatekeeper that flinches at change, I’m an experienced leader for change that make sense for my organization.

In the May 23rd American Lawyer article, “More Law Firms Outsource Their Law Libraries [pay wall],” is a wakeup call for some librarians, old news for many, a call to arms for others, and a confirmation of a shift in the profession for the rest. Outsourcing is a scary word, but one that cannot be ignored. We’ve had Deb Schwarz from LAC discuss the myths of outsourcing right here on 3 Geeks. I would be one of the first to step up and tell you that, in some cases, outsourcing the law firm library makes sense, and LibSource (LAC Subsidiary) or one of the other outsourcers (also known as “Managed Services”), would be a viable way to run the library. However, I’d also step up and say that it should not be the first or only option for struggling law libraries.

I will state this again… in some cases, outsourcing the library is a viable option for some law firms. I’m not anti-LibSource or any other Managed Services group that comes in and hires librarians, and maintains library collections and services. That being said, I also recognize that law firms, especially AmLaw 100 and 200 firms, like to copy what other firms are trying. I tend to say that most law firms do not want to be first… but, they don’t want to be last, either. With outsourcing getting more press, it’s bound to happen that law firm leaders will wonder if outsourcing is right for their firms. It’s the nature of the beast in this industry. I’d like to give my peers, and those law firm leaders that are reading this, some ideas and talking points when this discussion comes out.

Service is a Floor, Not a Ceiling

As someone that manages the law library function (as well as other departments) at my firm, I know that the most critical function of the library is not simply about providing good service. Good service, along with a good collection, a well-maintained budget, and on-demand responses to the needs of the law firm are the absolute basics of what a law library does. If that is what you provide, you’re doing the minimum. If you’re a manager of people, you know what it’s like to manage those that just do the minimum. You keep them around, but if you ever got a chance, you’d replace them in a minute. Think about how your firm’s management committees view departments that just bring in the minimum to the firm. Your services, and your people must be viewed as an integral part of the organization.

The Library is a Powerful Resource, Leverage It

I sell my department in many ways, but one that has a great effect on the leadership is when I tell them that the Library is the conduit for all external information, and understanding how these resource tie into the overall firm needs. Whether it is tracking down assets, conducting background checks on expert witness, or finding that elusive piece of information hidden in the recesses of a county courthouse, the Library and its professionals know how to find information. They find it quickly. They leverage their peers and professional associations. They do it at a cost that is appropriate (or lower.) They are experts at this. When you have these experts, usually with some subject matter expertise they have learned while at the firm, you have a powerful resource beyond traditional Westlaw and Lexis databases. My suggestion is to find ways of embedding these experts into the Practice or Industry Groups and take advantage of their expertise. Outsourced services, even if they end up hiring your own people to stay in the library, do not become a part of your culture. There will be turnover, and those brought in will service the company for which they work, and that is not your law firm.

Don’t Let Bad Librarians Bring Everyone Down With Them


This is for law firm leaders who have librarians they do not think are doing the best work for their firm. Find New Leadership! Nothing drives me more crazy than seeing someone that has led a department into the ground. I’ve seen it in law firms, academic settings, and in Government Law Libraries. People that have kept their heads down, not asked for anything, kept under budget, and didn’t rock the boat, be a twenty-plus year director of their law library. It makes me shake my head, and I get angry when I hear these stories. In many cases, I see that the staff has kept these zombie leaders alive by doing great work despite the lack of leadership. Unfortunately, when bad leaders retire (or finally get a buy-out package when someone discovers the lack of production), they are replaced by someone that isn’t a law librarian or information professional, or the position is simply left vacant and the library becomes rudderless. That’s a shame, because there are a number of strategic thinkers out there that know what a great law library can bring to the organization. By not giving these leaders a chance, and passing the library over to Marketing, KM, or IT, it brings it back to a department that simply gives good service, but not helping in accomplishing strategic goals.

Give the Law Library a Voice in the Discussion

I knew that ALM was working on an article about outsourcing, so I wrote a piece a week ago called “If You’re Not at the Table, You’re on the Menu” where I laid out some examples of how it is important to be involved in the strategic direction your law firm is taking. It doesn’t matter how great the ideas are if no one ever hears them. The law library leadership needs a voice in the conversation. For those in other departments that think that if they allow library leaders to be involved means that your individual power is somehow diminished, then it’s time for you to grow up and realize this is not a zero-sum game you are playing. Libraries that are engaged in the discussion bring ideas to the table that other departments simply don’t even know about. It could be how to streamline Business Development processes, or improve due diligence investigations of lateral partners. It could be improving conflicts processes by exposing current conflicts staff to external resources. It could be exposing IT department to new products that it can then integrate into Practice Group and Industry portals. Clients are looking for firms that are efficient, have improved processes, and innovative. Outsourcing can get you to step one, but would have a much harder time getting to steps two and three.

Law firms typically spend millions of dollars on library resources, and if you’re not allowing the librarians and others within the department to champion those resources and spread their ideas on how to best leverage them, then you might as well be pouring that money down a drain. Remember, even if the department is outsourced, the outsourcing company uses your resources, not their own.

Lead the Conversation before You Are the Conversation

Law Librarians are often risk-adverse people in a highly risk-adverse industry. We want to do what’s right, serve our organization, and help in the overall success of our law firms. Most of us do not like conflict. Well, that’s too bad in this situation. Start strategizing your arguments on why outsourcing is not a viable option for your firm. List out the pros and cons (and be honest), and design a plan that shows the leadership that the law library can bring much more of a value proposition to the firm as a strategic partner, than it would bring as a managed service by a third party. Step up and lay out your ideas, goals, and successes. Admit your previous failures and explain how you’ve learned from that and how it has made you a better group because you know have experienced and understood what went wrong. For each point that makes sense on why the law firm should outsource your group, counter with a better plan for why it makes more sense to not only keep you within the firm, but to expand what you do in a more strategic way.

There’s A Battle Going on For Your Law Library – Step Up and Defend It

There’s a battle going on in this profession. In order to be a winner in this battle, you must create your plan, align your resources, and be willing to step out there and defend yourself and those that follow you.

If you’ve ever been on a committee, or on any type of board, you know that if you miss a meeting, there is a good chance you will be assigned to lead a project that no one else wanted. It’s something that we all dread, but come to expect when you’re not there to defend yourself. Now, imagine that you’re never there, but still have to take on all those unwanted projects. That’s what many of us on the administrative side of law firms face. It really doesn’t matter what department you are in… if you have no say in the decision making, there’s a good chance that decisions will be made for you.

I was at a meeting this weekend, and heard this succinctly said by former Houston City Council member, Sue Lovell, when she was discussing political decision making. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” That made me sit up and pay attention because it resonated with me about the law firm environment, and how business decisions are made, and tasks are doled out to those that are absent, and even worse, those that had no voice or representation during the decision making.

How many times have we found ourselves tasked with projects that we know are fruitless, but by the time we understand what our role is, the other pieces of the project are already in motion? There’s no turning back, and if you jump in and say “hey, what you’re wanting me to do is not possible!” No… you don’t want to be seen as that person that tosses the monkey wrench into the project, so you do what you can, and hope that someone else fails before you do.

We all have to find ways to “be at the table.” Now that doesn’t mean that you have to physically need to be sitting at the table when decisions are made, but it does mean that your voice has to be represented in some way before decisions are finalized and action plans are put into place. I have a “C” title, but that doesn’t buy me a seat at every management committee meeting at my firm. Nor should it. However, it does buy me a ‘voice’ at the meeting. It buys those that report to me the ability for me to relay legitimate concerns or ideas to the committee, and a chance to rebut unworkable initiatives before they are put into action.

I’ve listened and watched some of my peers talk about their firms as if they have absolutely no say in what tasks are assigned to them, or what their roles are in the strategic goals of their firm. That is both sad, and frustrating for me to hear. Sometimes there is a general dysfunctional decision making process at their firms. If decisions are pushed down without any input on the part of those being tasked with those action items, then the firm is rolling the dice on whether the objective can be accomplished at all. It is setting people/departments up for failure without even giving them any chance to succeed. That is a bad situation, and if that is happening to you, and you cannot fix it, my only suggestion is to beef up your resume and look somewhere else for employment.

Most of the time, however, I see it as a lack of willingness on behalf of the individual to step up and work to have his or her voice represented at the table. Sometimes it’s a cluelessness in reading the situation, and understanding that the lack of engagement is causing the powers-that-be to see them, or their department as expendable. I’ve seen it during leadership transitions when managers do not understand that the way it’s always been done, is no longer the standard within the organization. I’ve seen it during downturns in business when shifts in business models make certain services obsolete, yet department heads keep churning out irrelevant work product as though nothing has changed.

Now back to the saying that Council Member Lovell so eloquently stated. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” If you are a leader in your organization, are you at the table? If not physically, is your voice and those for whom you lead, represented at that table? If you are unsure, you need to step up and find ways to be heard. It could be as simple as asking for a seat. In many instances, it means finding a champion that has a seat, and lobbying them to represent your ideas and fighting on behalf of you and those you lead. The worst thing you can do is nothing and hope for the best. If you do that, you will find yourself one day as the main course on that menu.

Download Flyer

I wanted to put out a pitch for the AALL Leadership Academy and suggest that if you, or someone that works for you, are looking to hone your leadership skills and network with experienced leaders and peers within AALL, then you need to take a look at this program.
The deadline for application is coming up on November 4th, and the Academy itself is on April 1-2, 2016 in Chicago (actually, Oak Brook at the McDonald’s University campus.) Below are some details about the Academy, and I’m sure that Celeste Smith, AALL Director of Education, will gladly answer any additional questions you have.

Lead Effectively: AALL Leadership Academy

April 1-2, 2016
Hyatt Lodge
2815 Jorie Blvd
Oak Brook, Illinois 60523

The 2016 AALL Leadership Academy will emerging leaders with essential leadership skills and tools to be an effective leader. The Academy has a solid reputation for building strong leaders who are prepared to meet the challenges facing today’s law libraries. Investing in emerging leaders builds a talent pipeline, supports the long-term mission of your institution, and supports the profession. The program will include discussions to explore key leadership concepts and current trends, assessments to identify strengths and preferences, small and large group collaboration, and focused development activities.

About the Academy:
  • Open to: AALL members with up to 10 years of experience
  • Cost: $575
  • Apply by: Wednesday, November 4, 2015, 5:00 p.m. (CST)

Criteria for consideration:

  • Library/law degrees held
  • Leadership and/or service record 
  • Statement describing the personal/professional benefits of attending
  • One professional recommendation

Why you should encourage members of your staff to apply:

  • The academy utilizes current leadership best practices and research-based techniques.
  • It is designed to give participants practical tools and strategies that will help them emerge as effective and confident leaders.
  • Effective and confident leaders inspire other staff, which creates a thriving organization.
  • Trained leaders take more initiative and support the organization’s strategic goals.

What participants will learn:

  • Leadership models, concepts, and myths
  • Effective and assertive communication techniques
  • Leadership styles and approaches 
  • Strategies for difficult conversations
  • Core leadership values
  • Motivational leadership
  • Influence and workplace ethics 

This morning, I had the honour of spending half a day with the famed Daniel Goleman exploring emotional intelligence, focus and leadership as a part of the CEO Global Network – Great CEO Speaker Series.  The room was filled with C-Suite executives from a broad range of backgrounds and professions.  Of course, all I could think about was how to apply the theories and methodologies discussed to the practice (or business) of law. 
Dr. Goleman introduced the concept of “mindfulness”, a meditative practice that originates in Buddhism, but has gained popularity as a distinctive method for managing emotions.  The participants in the room were each asked to close their eyes and focus on their breath for a moment or two, and if their minds wandered, to bring the focus back to breath again.  It is believed that by being able to focus for extended periods of time, over the long term, you will be able to react to stress better and recover more quickly from emotional episodes or outbursts.  Imagine if it got so heated in a courtroom that the judge made everyone stop and focus on their breath for a moment? Or if midway through a tough take-over bid all parties stopped to meditate rather than allow their emotional reaction to prevail?  It sounds a bit foolish but the idea is to train the brain and its related muscles to resist distraction, stay focused and thereby manage the stressful situation more effectively.  Only though practicing when it is not necessary can you rely on the muscle function to be there when you actually need it.  I think six minute meditation should become mandatory in firms, keeping lawyers focused can only be a good thing for the bottom line.    
As important as “mindfulness” is, the concept that resonated most with me from a law firm perspective is the notion of “flow”, and how when in  “flow” or when focused on a task at hand, people are at their peak performance. Great leaders will learn to read those they lead and encourage 
them into a state of flow.  Flow is described in four parts: 
  1. Clear goals
  2. Flexibility – ability to change and adapt
  3. Immediate feedback  – it is believed that a person focused on a task will respond better to feedback during the task, as it is happening and this will make success that much more achievable.
  4. Matching of goals with skills
As we’ve seen throughout the legal community (3 Geeks included), over the last several years and specifically, in the last six months, there has been a great deal of talk around legal project management, AFAs, increasing productivity and process improvement.  Essentially, there’s been talk of wanting to increase the flow between lawyers and clients.  Consider the four parts above in this analogy: 
  1. Define a clear mandate of work or scope for the firm, no periphery or ancillary legal work
  2. Lawyers need to be able to adapt to the changing environments of the market and their clients as the mandate unfolds
  3. Lawyers and clients both need to keep one another apprised of the progress throughout the process with an open and honest dialogue
  4. The firm needs to staff client files with the appropriate balance of expertise and experience to meet the client needs effectively and efficiently. 
If we can achieve the four steps above on every client file, then client service will be in “flow” or at peak performance.  Efforts will be focused and outcomes will be (hopefully) successful for everyone involved.  Sounds utopian, but I believe it is possible, it just make take some mindful work to get firms working and focusing on these steps consistently.

Moving from four to three, great leaders according to Goleman are composed of equal parts:

  1. self awareness,
  2. people or social awareness and;
  3. a wider public awareness. 
I would argue that great law firms are much the same.  First, they need to understand what kind of firm they are and where they exist in a market.  Secondly, firms need to be socially aware of their client interactions – from billing to social events, from blogging to in-person meetings, from CLE and training to regular filings and other client touch points.  And finally, firms need to be aware of the wider world in which they and their clients operate.  As a CI practitioner who often describes my role as bringing the outside world in, this third pillar of leadership particularly inspires me as it positions CI in a leadership context.  Put another way, the firms that will lead the race for client service and  client engagement, will know their role, know their audience, and know their context.
Goleman ended his talk with some tips on how to improve emotional intelligence. These tips can equally apply to firms wanting to increase their wallet share. The tips taken together are a blue print for success and despite their simple message are actually quite difficult to achieve.  Improve emotional intelligence by: articulating a goal, planning for that goal, change habits to meet that goal and making yourself (or your firm) accountable to someone in achieving those goals.  It sounds very basic but when you start to look at even defining a single goal or strategic objective it can become very difficult, and that’s before you tackle setting a plan, acting on that plan, or changing habits (billing by the hour??) in support of that goal.  
Despite all the technological advancement of our time and our ability to do work smarter and faster,  Goleman reminded us several times that the human brain is built for social interaction and the only way to spread enthusiasm is in person.  So while we work on our process improvement plans, firm AFAs, as well as personal and professional mindfulness, always remember to get out of your offices to exploit the best of your firm and explore the parts that may need some tweaking. 

There was an interesting question asked on Twitter this morning by Patrick DiDomenico (apparently preparing for an ITLA presentation on the topic.) At first blush, it seemed to be phrased a bit on the negative side, but it really is something that those of us in law firm libraries do need to ask from time to time. “Tell me what’s wrong with law firm libraries today.”

This isn’t about bashing Patrick for asking the question, quite the opposite actually. It is a legitimate question to ask. This is more about addressing what is wrong, while also addressing what is right in law firm libraries today. After batting the question around with some of my law library and law firm administrative colleagues, we thought that this question could be asked of any of the law firm administrative departments. The Library and the Knowledge Management (KM) groups are probably the most venerable to this issue, but all departments, including IT, Marketing, Accounting, Human Resources, Records, and others are under constant scrutiny from law firm leadership to prove our worth to the firm. If we aren’t challenged, we become complacent. If we come complacent, we fail to see those changes we need to make until it is too late. It could be asked of any department, but this morning, it was asked of us in the law firm library. So, let’s address it.

In defense of those of us that lead law firm libraries, as with most law firm administrative problems, there tends to be a lack of direction in the library as to where it fits in the overall strategy of the firm. For example, the push to “go online” has been the biggest issue for the past 15-20 years, and it has put the library leaders and staff in a situation that is unclear, and quite frankly, unobtainable without 100% of the partners all agreeing to go in one direction. We suffer from the “one-veto” effect of the partnership in that everyone can agree to go with or without a service, but if one partner votes the other way, we tend to get stuck supporting a service that is expensive, time consuming, and duplicate.

 
Hopefully this sets up the stage for a list of (very generalized) things that are wrong with law firm libraries today:
  • We are still debating formats within the library and keeping outdated formats in support of a minority of attorneys (example: formats now include print, e-books, online, databases, and on-demand… each with its own individual cost and demands from individuals within the firm.)
  • Law Firms have not decided how to bring the law library into the modern day structure of a 21st Century firm
  • The primary demands on librarians are to keep costs low, client costs low, and to watch out for the firm’s best interest
  • Librarians are not given the final word on what to buy and what to keep (that causes problems with the previous point)
  • Librarians tend to be the first to feel the cuts when times are bad, and the last to feel the benefits when times are good
  • Librarians tend to be team players and are willing to take a larger percentage of “taking one for the team” than other departments, this leads to libraries becoming easy targets
  • Librarians tend to be very tough on each other (publicly), yet very defensive when attacked from outside (think of it as “I can call my sister a name, but if you call her that, we’re going to fight!)
  • The current Directors of law libraries failed miserably in succession planning. We’ve been waiting for 25 years for the next group of leaders to bring in fresh perspectives and what resulted was the whole library structure got tossed out with the bathwater
  • Libraries (and Librarians) generally have a problem when it comes to the Return on Investment (ROI) piece of justifying their existence

What’s right with Law Firm Libraries?

  • Librarians are constantly looking out for the best interest of the firm
  • Librarians have kept very good control on overall costs (most libraries are less than 2% of revenue, some are less than 1%)
  • Librarians keep costs down to the client (usually by assisting attorneys that forget about those costs until they see it on the bill and have to write it off.)
  • Librarians are constantly looking for less expensive, or better resources that fit the needs of the firm’s practices.
  • Librarians are extremely good at risk analysis for the firm and help save the firm from itself (costs, copyright, access, correct resources, etc.)
  • Librarians share their experiences with each other. Most librarians do not have to trail blaze into a new product or mission or strategy, as we can stand on the shoulders of others that have tested the waters before and are willing to share those experiences (without exposing anything confidential, of course.)

Someone told me the other day that Librarians have a fear of strategy. Perhaps that is true of some, but no one that I would associate in the law library world is afraid of being strategic. I responded to this person that they were painting with a very broad brush and that the librarians I associate with have no fear, whatsoever, of strategy. However, I think we tend to be easy targets from other departments and law firm leadership, and that we roll over too easily at times. We’re at the end of a cycle where those in charge of libraries for the past 25 years are rotating out and failed to create an effective succession for the library to bring in those with the experience needed to understand the library structure, but with the fresh new ideas of where it needs to go from here. This left the door open for those outside the library to come in and have to start from scratch and think that the library needs to be rebuilt from the ground up rather than expand those processes that work, rework or remove those that don’t, and begin building new processes that make the library and the firm better prepared for the future.

So, what’s wrong with today’s law firm libraries? It’s a question you have to answer and supplement with what’s right. If you don’t, someone else will come in and answer it for you, and they will not be nearly as aggressive on defending what the law firm libraries are doing well.

Thanks, Patrick, for asking the question. I hope this gives you a few ideas to process.

A consultant recently asked “Are you making this decision for the firm, or are you making this decision for the club?” The question has stuck with me and it is one that I’ve asked others when it comes time to make decisions that are going to cause some people to have to change their habits. It is a pretty straight forward question, but there is a lot of meaning behind it. Do you do something that benefits everyone, and causes pain to a few, or do you do something that has little to no benefit for everyone, but keeps a few select people happy?

Whenever  hear something like this, I immediately think of the scene in the movie Office Space where there is a banner hanging over the staff that asks “Is This Good for the COMPANY?” The Draconian concept of stiffling innovation and individuality and relying upon following every rule and playing your part as a single cog in a great big machine. With “The Firm or The Club” question, however, I don’t think it falls into this “Is this good for the Company?” category. Instead, I think it allows for creativity and innovation and discourages the collective and blindly following the rules. In fact, I would say that this question gets raised whenever new ideas and innovation are shot down rather than when new ideas are accepted. Most times when new ideas are dismissed, it tends to fall under the idea that “we can’t do that because Partner X, who has been with the firm for 150 years, wouldn’t like it.”

So the next time you have a discussion about changing the way you are doing business, and the idea is challenged or dismissed, ask those making the decision if they are deciding upon what benefits the firm, or what benefits the club?

Last week I went to Chicago to sit in on the AALL Executive Board’s Spring meeting. I also crashed a couple of TechShow parties while I was there, just for fun. During the Thursday morning stragegy meeting, the presenter, Paul Meyer, consultant with Tecker International, made a comment that resonated with me. Paul talked about the trap that members of a non-profit executive board fall into, especially one where there is a lot of member input and volunteerism involved. The trap is that whenever a suggestion or proposal is made by the members, the answer the Board has to the proprosal is never a “Yes/No” answer. Instead, the answer is:

“Yes/Maybe/WhatCanWeDoToFixThisSoWeWon’tHaveToSayNo”

Of course, I’m paraphrasing Paul’s actual statement. He went on to talk about why it is the resposibility of the Board to sometimes say No, and explain why we had to turn down the proposal (money, time and resources were the main contributors.)

It made me think back to last year’s PLL Luncheon when a consultant spoke about librarians never saying “No” to anything, but instead saying “Yes, we can do that is we have X number of Dollars, and Y number of People, so what can we do to get those dollars and people?”

I understand both consultants’ meaning here and know that the difference between saying “No” and saying “Yes, with conditions” is really determined by the audience to whom you are talking. The thought that’s been lingering around my mind over the weekend has been focused on whether many librarians are overusing the “WhatCanWeDoToFixThisSoWeWon’tHaveToSayNo” option and not using either the “No” or “Yes, with conditions” options at all? We do not like saying no, and we are not all that fond of saying yes, with conditions either. However, it would suit us well to brush off our “No’s” every once in a while because in order to be a leader, it is necessary from time to time to understand that leadership sometimes means saying no.

 

My wife works for Lighthouse International, a terrific non-profit dedicated to empowering people who are blind and visually impaired. Last week we attended an “experience” developed in partnership with the Lighthouse. Dialog in the Dark is called an exhibition, and is produced by the company that produced the Bodies Exhibition, but calling it an exhibition or a production completely misses the mark. The experience begins with a brief video explaining how to use the cane they’ve just handed you. Then you are led into a small room with light boxes along the walls, and you’re instructed to take a seat on one of the boxes. Another video plays describing the daily experience of people who are visually impaired in New York City and the light boxes begin to dim. As the screens wink out the boxes finally switch off and you are left in the dark. The organizers have taken great care to remove all light pollution so that the rest of the exhibit is entirely pitch black, which means your eyes never adjust. For the next hour you experience something like blindness.

We sat in the dark for a minute or so; my wife squeezing my hand tightly. Then we heard a door open to our left and a man’s voice said, “Hello, I’m Pedro, what are your names?” After the preliminaries, he gave us one directive, “Don’t be a one-armed zombie. Use your cane to navigate.” With that, Pedro took us on a tour of New York City as experienced by people who are blind. We went to Central Park, to Fairway Market on the Upper West Side, and we took the Subway down to Times Square. I’ve lived in New York for nearly 20 years and I have done all of these things many, many times, but this was a different world. It was an immersive experience for the senses except for, obviously, sight — and as Pedro pointed out, there was actually no tasting on this tour. But they took great care to recreate the feel and sound of the city. In the subway set, they either pumped in the smell of stale urine, or my association with the subway is so strongly correlated to that smell that I imagined it.

My wife and I stumbled through the set, bumping into trash cans and mailboxes, benches and trees, while Pedro danced around us with ease. He would come up beside me, put a hand on my shoulder and work down to my wrist, grabbing it and placing it directly on an object in front of me, or on a wall. “Ryan, do you know what this is? What do you think that is?” It was incredible. He didn’t fumble or guess. It was clear that he knew exactly where we were at all times. He would say things like, “Oops, no you’re facing the wrong way, turn around.” How did he know? His voice would suddenly come from a new direction and he would say, “OK, we’re going this way now, follow my tapping.” And he would tap his cane on the side of the wall, or a nearby pole until we felt our way over to him. Most remarkably, he would occasionally say, “No one-armed zombies.” just as I raised my left hand to feel in front of me. At one point, I was convinced that we would come to the end of the tour, turn the lights up and find out that Pedro was fully sighted and wearing infrared goggles of some kind.

At the end of the tour, there is a Q&A session and the lights slowly come up as you are talking with your guide. Pedro sat across the table from us. No IR goggles. He was definitely visually impaired. Suddenly I felt a wave of guilt for even having a fleeting thought that it wasn’t completely above board. Since my wife began working at the Lighthouse, I have met many people who are visually impaired and I have seen hundreds more leaving the Lighthouse building as I waited outside for her to come down after work. I realized I’ve never seen any of them do the one-armed zombie as they navigated the real world.

I have now spent several days reliving Dialog in the Dark. I wanted to write this post because I feel like there are many lessons to be learned from this experience. The metaphors and analogies abound; from issues of leadership and faith, to prejudice and fear, to recognizing individual capabilities rather than focusing on inabilities, to navigating the “new normal” or planning a personal career path. I could go on. But suffice it to say, that a very good piece of advice, in nearly any endeavor is “don’t be a one-armed zombie.” Take that to mean what you will.

And if you happen to be in New York City, forget the lights of Broadway, go experience the Dark.