Professionalism, organizational structures, and the fog of war

Shortly before I bugged out of the library and New York for the holidays, I had a conversation with a friend about organizational structures and how to revamp them. I said that I think that major structural overhauls require an external facilitator rather than being led by the current department head or the current department staff. I was reminded of that today, reading interesting words from interesting people.

Jason Griffey posted an interesting reflection on the organizational and staffing changes at his library, and Kendra K. Levine replied with her own reflection. I read both with interest; two very different libraries, two very different but equally passionate librarians… and a lot of “Hrm. Interesting problem we’re stuck RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF, I wonder what the right answer is?” from both of them.

Noting that there’s much discussion of a shift away from hiring librarians and deprofessionalization of libraries in our libraryland discourse, Griffey observes “… when we started examining our own structure, and the changes that have been happening organically for years now, it was somewhat of a shock to see that our library is doing the exactly opposite of this.”

And Levine concludes her piece describing the radical downsizing of her library with, “We’re not done with the transition yet, but it’s be pretty painful and I really wish we had more wisely focused our efforts when we had the staff to help”.

And so I say… fog of war.

Why can’t either library administrators or library staff do an awesome job of restructuring their own libraries while the need is pressing down upon them? Fog of war.

Our friends at Wikipedia tell me the phrase came from Carl von Clausewitz in 1837, the key bit translated as “(War is an area of uncertainty; three quarters of the things on which all action in War is based are lying in a fog of uncertainty to a greater or lesser extent.” I encountered the concept for the first time playing the original Blizzard-produced computer games Warcraft and Starcraft, which implement the concept as an obscured map that only reveals itself to you as you venture into it, leaving you to fight an obscured enemy on mysterious terrain.

Either Clausewitz’s way or Blizzard’s, it’s pretty apt for what I see our good library leaders doing. We look at the situation around us — whether opening a new library, downsizing an existing one, or just hiring for skills to replace a retiree — assessing our position within our institution, our existing financial and human resources, our goals, our weaknesses, and the big-picture landscape. And then we use that assessment to make a decision. But those decisions are always informed guesses. We’re guessing. We’re not flying blind, but we can’t see clearly, either. Those forces are all shifting and changing and resolve into a fog of war that prevents us from seeing more than a few steps ahead of us.

Perceptions of who our people are and what they’re capable of (and not capable of) are running on one flank, predictions about the technology horizon are floating in front of us, our financial forecast rides on the other flank, and institutional needs, pressures, and politics are driving us from behind. We can’t see through those things, and we can’t see what’s on the other side of them. We just do our best, make a good guess, and move forward, hoping they move, expose new ground, lead us forward, or just generally don’t result in teetering on the edge of a cliff.

Sometimes it’s a great tactical and strategic move. Sometimes… not.

And so sometimes, specifically when you’re dealing with big picture organizational structure issues, I think you have to call in a mercenary. Someone who has no loyalty to the things you can’t see around. Someone who can cut through your history and your misconceptions and your predispositions and your politics and say, “This is broken and your proposal doesn’t actually fix it.” (I think of this as “someone has to have the trait Ugly Truth“, but that’s a different post with different metaphors.) I think the fog of war metaphor still applies; von Clausewitz continues his definition with “The first thing (needed) here is a fine, piercing mind, to feel out the truth with the measure of its judgment).

Neither the administration nor the staff can see through their own fog of war, feel out the truth, predict what the right answer is, with much certainty. That’s not to say that we’re all screwing it up left and right; many of us are making smart decisions with what we have to work with, and doing okay. As Levine says, we’ll learn to swim when the ship sails, and as Griffey notes, we’re all playing the game to the best of our ability within the rulesets we’ve each been given.

At my place, we’ve made a lot of changes in the past three years.

  • We re-hierarchized (totally a word, shut up) our two-decades-in-the-making flat administrative system, adding more teams with Team Leaders, and putting a level of management between the Director and the librarians and staff on the front lines of daily work.
  • We’ve hired a few additional professional staff members — one brand new position, one librarian position transitioned into a professional archivist who is not a librarian — and are rewriting job descriptions for the other professionals, who all sit somewhere on the interesting and emerging spectrum between “librarian” and “clerk”.
  • We’ve filled every clerical vacancy that’s come up, maintaining a skilled and trained staff who do the work that keeps the blood of the libraries flowing. We’re also considering how we might adjust the workloads, workflows, and work product of all areas with clerical support, with a lot of enthusiasm from the staff in those roles.
  • We’ve replaced all of our retiring librarians, and created new job descriptions based on current and emerging needs for each new hire.
  • We created an Associate Director position to manage half the staff, relieving some of the management burden that I was drowning under.
  • And, as you might imagine, we’re crafting workflows to address how issues should move through and work within these new staff, new structures, new organizations.

And it’s been rocky. People who were hired to do Things arrived and I realized that though I had planned and prepped, I didn’t have a job description for them beyond Do The Things. Staff expectations of How Things Were are running smash up into How Things Are Now, sometimes with cool fireworks and sometimes with something more smoke-and-flames sinister. Things that I thought were obvious to everyone turn out to be … not so obvious, actually, at all. A few murky hollows of unsolvable issues remain mysteries to most of us, with no clear answer to the question of how to drain the swamp (and while it’s suggested to me more often than I’m comfortable with, I refuse to nuke the swamp). And I sometimes just do what I think is best because that’s my responsibility, and as a result I pray that as my scout moves forward on the game board the squares revealed beyond it aren’t scary as all hell.

But I also know this:

I made one of my smartest reorganization steps because a librarian who knew nothing about my organization, upon hearing me describe our hierarchy, said, “That’s insane.” And in that moment, as she pointed to my crappy line drawing of the uber-flat hierarchy and told me why she thought it was unsustainable, the fog of war lifted, and I could very briefly see the whole board. A lot of things clicked. I would never have gotten there on my own.

So. A lot of crunchy thoughts in my  head right now, about what I’ve done, what I hope to do, and what I can learn from what others are doing.

But in conclusion, I have one incisive thought: The fog of war is a bitch on decision-making. Hire mercenaries.


  1. Totally exhausting. 🙂 One of my colleagues also pointed out that the metaphor stretches further, because a good administrator has recon and intel units in the field, watching, learning, listening… Smart observation, that one.


  2. You have got your hands full! I hope that I can help you and any of your readers with crafting workflows and making them impactful. What I recommend are organizational structure tools that are dynamic and easy to use, update, and collaborate on, with everyone. By mapping the flows out in a graphical,flexible way, I hope you can foster an engaging and functional work environment.

    Cheers, G


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