on (tough) decision making

Today at my drop in time I got snarled at by a student. She is an older woman [in her 70’s but her Ebay profile says she’s 59] who got a new-to-her laptop running Windows 98 which she is learning to use with her digital camera. I’ve been trying to nudge her towards newer technology but she’s tight with money and so we persevere with what she has. She forgets things and so every time I show her how to, for example, move all the images off of her calendar, we have to write it down on a piece of paper. She almost always loses the piece of paper, so we go over it again. She always asks me how I’m doing, listens to the answer, and sometimes brings things in for me: an odd bit of jewlery; a tupperware container full of grapes; an adjustable wrench.

She talks to herself while she works. It’s very distracting to me and I’ve tried to suck it up. It’s a big lab and usually we can spread out, but people have been complaining that it’s tough for them to work with her always muttering. I’ve asked her to stop and she sort of waves her hand at me, claims she’s not talking, and usually quiets down. Today, I asked her several times and the last time she just snapped “Why should I have to be quiet when you’re talking to everyone too? I’m just whispering over here, hardly talking at all, you should get cotton for your ears if it bothers you so much!” I was quiet, and went to talk to her later, explained that there were other people besides me who were distracted, and gave her a few options: move to a far corner of the lab, keep her voice down so that it doesn’t distract people, work from home and interact with me via email. She didn’t like any of these choices much, but that’s what the choices are unless we can think of better ones. I’m not sure me playing Iron&Wine at high volumes would help, but it might not hurt….

The reason I’m bringing this up is because I read T. Scott’s post about decision making and what it means to be a manager. While of course we’d like to be able to please everyone with the acute insight of our decision-making capability, sometimes this is just not going to work. Sometimes two positions conflict absolutely, and your job as a manager is to make a choice, a choice that will piss someone off.

I think of this in terms of the signs in the library that so many people have Flickred. While I appreciate that it’s time to put the shushing librarian image to bed, we still have to have a response to people who show up at the library with an expectation of quiet. If the library isn’t quiet anymore, we need to communicate that, not just say “thanks for your feedback” and hope that person doesn’t complain to us anymore. If people on cell phones are annoying other people, we need to make a choice, not just expect the problem to go away with the one loud talker. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have quiet spaces in the library, or no cell phone spaces in the library, or “this is not a good place for your soda” places in the library. Usually our libraries are big enough that we can have those spaces as well as a noisy space, and a phone-talking space, and a soda drinking space. But if we can’t, if we have to make a choice, I would hope that we could make that choice openly and transparently and clearly. Every space can’t be everything to everyone. Good management is about making and communicating decisions about resources and priorities.

[Y]ou should assume that every decision will be criticized and misunderstood. This is an aspect of change management that I haven’t seen discussed much in the libraryland blogs. I believe in having as open, transparent and participative a decision-making process as possible. I believe in consensus building. But “consensus” doesn’t imply unanimity of opinion. The quest for complete agreement, the desire to adjust to everybody’s concerns in making decisions can paralyze an organization.