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, November 16, 2006

November 16, 2006 - Dynamic Organizations Stay Supple

A young friend of mine recently moved to California. She's been sending back thoughtful and astute observations about the public library she works for out there.

Not surprisingly, that library is different from ours in ways both large and small. For instance, we are an independent library district -- the only kind of public library that is directly accountable, not to some other governmental entity with its own concerns (such as a county or city), but directly to the people it serves. My friend's library is within a city with lots of its own problems.

Yet, responding to her observations reminded me that organizations, like the people who make them, are more alike than not.

I've often said about the Douglas County Libraries that we follow a distinct rhythm: 2 years out, 2 years in. It's like breathing.

For 2 years, often around a building project, we have intense and probing discussions with the public. That's how we figure out what people want from us. Breathe out!

Then, for 2 years, we put our plans into practice. More often than not, they are successful, often wildly so. That ramps up our business.

And that's when we find out that the new level of activity requires us to change the way we do things. Breathe in!

Any dynamic organization -- make that "any organization," because an organization that isn't dynamic doesn't last very long -- finds that "changing the way we do things" falls into two broad strategies.

First, you centralize. This happens when you find that there's a lot of inconsistency in the system. There's duplication of effort, some major or minor squandering of resources through inefficiency and lack of standards.

Second, you decentralize. Too much focus on standards and predictability results in, well, too much predictability. To some, it looks like a loss of creativity, or stagnation. (Although predictability in getting the right things done is no vice.) It may indeed result in a lack of responsiveness, particularly when things are changing rapidly in the environment around the organization.

Which is best? Like so many other black or white choices, the answer is, "it depends." It depends on which set of problems your organization faces at the moment. It depends on the people in key spots, and what their own strengths are. It depends on what's happening in the context of your organization.

One of the strengths of our library has been our distinct local connections. That's largely a decentralized process -- our staff responding to a unique community.

But an honest assessment of our operations told us that there were a lot of ways we could give the public a better bang for its buck. We moved our book ordering into fewer hands, and managed to get a lot more efficient with our time -- and therefore get more materials faster.

We established some standards for graphics, taking our program promotions up a notch, and increasing the number of people who came to them. We've worked hard to coordinate a unified strategy for the use of phone and computer equipment.

This year, as we go into our final budget adoption, we're working hard to institute that mysterious quality called "alignment" -- where all the rowers in the boat are pulling in the same direction and at the same time. We're also using more centralized measures of accountability -- benchmarks that tell us what's working, and what isn't.

Breathe out; breathe in. Centralize; decentralize. Flexibility is a sign of life; rigidity is the distinguishing feature of death.

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