This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

April 27, 2006 - for positive change, think positive

Someone told me about a recent study of long term survivors of open heart surgery. They were surveyed to find out what motivated them to recover. The reason was not, as you might suppose, "to avoid death."

It was for some more positive outcome: to spend time with their grandchildren. To tour Europe. To learn to play a musical instrument. To finish the garden.

It makes you think. Many people work in businesses that have problems, too. At some point, the question becomes, "how do we get better?" In some cases it might well be "to avoid bankruptcy."

But it's hard to for people to really enjoy their jobs with that attitude. You may work hard to avoid losing your job, but you're probably not doing your BEST work.

One typical planning exercise has the friendly acronym of SWOT. What are the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats faced by an organization? And when I've participated in or even lead such exercises, I find that people often relish the weaknesses and threats discussion. We're in trouble! We're in terrible, terrible, trouble!

You can almost see the energy drain from a group.

Just possibly, the way many organizations choose to plan, undercuts the best motivations for accomplishment.

I'm willing to bet that most of my readers work in places where MOST of their time is spent solving "problems." Maybe the focus is on one cranky customer, or one surly employee. That customer, that employee, almost certainly represents a tiny fraction of the whole business -- but they somehow get first call on your resources.

That approach minimizes the aspects of the organization that work well. It says that what's wrong is more important, more worthy of managerial attention.

A new alternative is emerging, called "Appreciative Inquiry." Appreciative Inquiry, or AI for short, is based on the idea that creating positive change is easier when you take a positive approach.

So instead of a SWOT exercise, the exercise begins with this question: what are we doing RIGHT?

I've tried this with a couple of groups, now, and the difference is striking. With this question, you begin to discover the things that people are justifiably proud of, the real accomplishments.

The next question is: what could we do better? It may sound like a small difference. Isn't this just like, "what's wrong?"

No. Now people have just described things that they're good at. And they can see the gap between the things they did right, and things they haven't brought that same level of care or attention to. But now they want to.

I've tried to carry over this insight to other parts of my job. When somebody brings me a problem so dire that it strikes to the very heart of the organization, I try to sit back long enough to see if the essentials of the organization are still right. It puts things in perspective.

Any organization will have things go wrong. And those things do have to be dealt with, preferably when they are still small enough to fix relatively easily.

But we need to remember that most of our customers are terrific. Most of our employees are bright and painstakingly conscientious. The more time and energy we spend with these people, the more we'll enjoy our jobs, and the more we'll get done. We'll let those people know that THEY are the ones we value most.

Most of the time, the issues faced by an organization are nowhere near as life-threatening as open heart surgery. But the lesson is powerful.

The right question is not, "What are you afraid of?" It's, "What's worth living for

Thursday, April 20, 2006

April 20, 2006 - generations need to talk

When I was growing up, there was a lot of talk about the "generation gap." Mainly, it was conflict between the GI generation and the Boomers -- the Veterans and the War Protesters. Nowadays, the conflict isn't quite so obvious.

But you know it's happened to you.

You're a Gen-Xer talking to a Baby Boomer, who is being so maddeningly circular that you have no idea what she is trying to tell you. Or you're a Boomer, wondering why the Gen-Xer doesn't seem to have any loyalty to the company.

You're a grandparent, a member of the "Greatest Generation," uneasily aware that all of the public institutions you fought to preserve and build upon, are being dismantled before your eyes.

You're a member of the "Silent" generation, the generation that never had a president -- but did have Martin Luther King, Jr. -- and whose dreams of social justice seem submerged by our culture's consumerism.

Or you're a Millennial -- whose lives of technically assisted multitasking (iPod, cell phone, Instant Messaging) and overscheduled days seem utterly new.

The generation gap is alive and well, gumming up communications within your business, flummoxing family discussions, and leading to mixed messages, hurt feelings, and all-too-frequent dysfunction.

It doesn't have to be like that. "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it," said Santayana. When it comes to generations, each believes that it is unique and alone. And each is mistaken.

In fact, there is a rhythm and a logic to the generational cycle. Once discovered, it enriches those encounters between the generations, and provides a strong connection to our national history.

On May 5, 2006, I'm going to be giving a public lecture on this topic. I call it, "Four Generations: How to Talk ... and to Listen ... to Everybody." The talk will be held at the new Sanctuary of the Christ Episcopal Church, 615 4th Street, Castle Rock, from 7-9 p.m. There is a modest donation at the door -- $10 for one person, $15 for two -- which goes to defray the construction costs of the church. (I'm not a member of that church, but I do admire this beautiful new addition to the architecture and cultural life of the town.)

After my talk, which I hope to keep lively with audience interaction (questions and comments welcome), we'll have a short break for wine and snacks.

The second hour of the evening will be devoted to live music. The theme is simple: what are some of the distinctive songs of each generation throughout American history?

My research into this has been fascinating. The songs most associated with a generation were most frequently written by .... the PREVIOUS generation.

When you look at a list of those songs that most influenced you as you were growing up, you realize that you discovered them in the first 15-20 years of your life. There are few successful musicians who are 15-20 years old, so you are of necessity listening to your predecessors in time, who somehow had the ability to capture the emerging spirit of the culture.

Our musical performances will feature a number of talented locals, of several generations.

So if you're interested in learning more about the people dear to you, and in exploring the cultural contributions of the generations, do consider bringing a friend or family member to the evening.

It should give you something to talk about.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

April 13, 2006 - O'Hern is "just" a teacher

Several years ago, I was visited by Duane, a friend of mine from back in Illinois. Before I came to Colorado, Duane and I worked together in a group called Illinois Writers, Inc. -- a motley crew of poets from the central part of the state.

While Duane was here, we were visiting about important early influences in our lives. Duane started talking about one of his teachers back in elementary school. "Dr. O'Hern was incredible!" he said.

"Interesting!" I replied. "We have a Dr. O'Hern who writes a column for the paper. Come to think of it, he is from Illinois, but I think he was a superintendent."

I dug up a paper, Duane looked at O'Hern's picture, and said, "It's him!"

So we went over to visit Dr. O'Hern, and Duane got to see what had become of one of his favorite teachers.

Recently, O'Hern published a book on much the same theme. It's called "Just a Teacher: How One Person CAN Make a Difference."

A good deal of the book, as you might expect, has to do with O'Hern's experience with public education. Yes, he was a teacher. He was also a principal. He wasn't a superintendent, but he ran for, and handily won election to, the Board of Education in Galesburg, Illinois.

These days, O'Hern spends every day at either Sand Creek or Eagle Ridge Elementary schools as a Senior Volunteer. The children are lucky to have access to an ace geographer.

Along the way, he's gathered some opinions, and sometimes, some strong ones. For instance, he starts one sentence, "When Colorado began its CSAP program (Colorado Student Assessment Program, or 'C-Crap' as I prefer to call it)...."

But he also does something of inestimable value for this community. He presents slices of the history of Douglas County Schools. Some of that history is from a hundred years ago.

But even more interesting to me is more recent. O'Hern was a close observer of a lot of former Superintendent Rick O'Connell, former Assistant Superintendents Pat Grippe and Bill Reimer, Denny Hill, the former District long range planner. There are many others: principals, teachers, volunteers, and more.

Douglas County has grown so fast that it's easy to forget that just a few years ago, things were very different in this county. O'Hern manages to give a vivid sense of those times as a contemporary and participant.

The Douglas County Libraries have bought a handful of copies of "Just a Teacher." You'll find them in our collection.

O'Hern is an original, and this is a book with character. If you'd like to buy one for yourself, call 1-877-843-1007, or order it online at www.authorstobelievein.com.

Let's face it: O'Hern is right. The people who have made the big differences in your life probably weren't famous politicians or movie stars. They were teachers. It's worth remembering.

Thursday, April 6, 2006

April 6, 2006 - LaRue's Views

Effective today, this column has a new name. It's not just a title. It's a disclaimer.

First, I thought about adding a more formal statement to the end of each column. It would read something like this: "The opinions expressed in this column, unless stated otherwise, are not the official views of the Library Board of Trustees."

Does that mean some of the things I say are NOT endorsed by the Trustees? Yes.

While I have never tried to push a position they have voted against, the Trustees simply haven't reviewed what I write ahead of time, so shouldn't be held responsible for it -- particularly if it irritates or angers members of the public.

That doesn't happen as often as you'd think. But it happens sometimes.

I might also point out that my thinking doesn't necessarily reflect that of other library staff, either although Lord knows life is easier when it does.

Now that I think of it, even I don't always support the arguments I make here. Sometimes, I'm just trying on an idea for size. A week later, I may have learned something new, seen the error of my ways, and moved on.

Or I may discover there is a deep thread of truth, and that leads me on.

There's no denying (indeed, it is my great pleasure) that I am the director of the Douglas County Libraries. In my columns I try to set an administrative tone: about our commitment to service, about fundamental values affecting our operations, about my expectations for myself and staff.

Sometimes I also report on our budget, our statistics, and our plans. When representing the institution I serve, I strive to be as accurate and forthright as possible. Often I even solicit public comment on some service, or potential action.

On occasion, I do indeed represent the decisions of my bosses, and am proud to say so.

In all those ways, this has been, and will continue to be, a "library column."

But the reason I started writing this column in the first place is that, for me, libraries just won't stay put.

Public libaries connect to everything: urban planning, arts and culture, local history and global politics, public education and small business development. The deeper I get into librarianship, the richer those connections become.

My "views" are often based on something I believe in whole-heartedly: the EXERCISE of literacy. I read a lot, listen to and watch a lot. I talk to a lot of people.

To me the exercise of literacy also involves writing: making judgments about the information I sift through, trying to fit my conclusions into an always changing, but I hope always more coherent, worldview. I do this in a newspaper column; others may write blogs or websites.

One of the things I abhor about our current culture is that too many people are frantic to categorize everything into one of two camps. Something is either liberal or conservative, blue or red, black or white.

How small! How confining! As if our thinking, our lives, can, or should, be reduced to a binary choice.

One of the signs of our time is the idea that there must be a profound conformity of opinion -- in just one or two camps. But my own understanding of the world suggests that all the transformative ideas in our culture come from outside the norm.

Cleaving too close to one camp or the other means that you'll miss those big ideas.

So consider this both disclaimer and a promise to continue to poke around in the ocean of ideas. Isn't that just what a librarian ought to do?