Thursday, July 01, 2010

Change Management and Risk Taking for Librarians

Change Management and Risk Taking for Librarians

Michael Lorenzen


There was no doubt about it, Parker Brown was in trouble. He had been denying this for a few days but as he walked to an impromptu scheduled meeting with the Provost, he finally admitted to himself that he was in for it. And he knew what had caused the problem too. It was those damnable periodicals!

Parker Brown reflected on how he had come to this situation. It had started innocently enough for the five-year Library Director of Southern Michigan University. Due to severe budget cutting by a cash strapped state legislature, Southern Michigan University had been forced to slash hundreds of thousands of dollars from the library acquisitions budget. At the same time the funds were taken away, he was informed by his Director of Collection Development that increases in periodical pricing would total 9.3 percent more for the next academic year. With less cash and higher prices, there would be no choice but to cancel a large number of periodical subscriptions. He knew that the faculty at Southern Michigan University would not like it but it would have to be done.

However, as he had reflected on the situation, he began to think of another possible solution. Parker Brown had been noticing for years that the library was paying twice for many periodical subscriptions to get the content in both paper and electronic forms. Doing some number crunching, he discovered that if he cancelled 60% of the paper periodical subscriptions which were also received electronically, he could avoid cancelling any periodicals at all.

Pleased with himself for coming up with such a novel plan, he had discussed the idea with his senior staff. There were a few concerns expressed on how the move might be perceived, but other than that they all seemed positive. Brown asked his Head of Public Services to prepare a marketing campaign targeted at faculty and students and told his Director of Collection Development to come up with a list of print periodicals to cancel. He sent an e-mail describing the plan to the library staff and asked the bibliographers to work with the Director of Collection Development to help target the best periodicals for electronic access only.

Parker Brown heard nothing about the plan at all for a few weeks. His staff was working on it and he thought all was going well. He told his Provost this as well, who also seemed to be happy that the library would not be losing access to any periodicals despite the steep budget cuts. And then the proverbial waste material hit the fan…

Brown had a meeting with Dr. Miland Jones of the Psychology Department. Dr. Jones was a big supporter of the library, and Brown was not surprised when he scheduled a meeting with him. However, he was stunned when Dr. Jones attacked him about the print periodicals cancellation plan. He wanted to know why the psychology librarian was asking him for suggestions for cancelling print journals in psychology. Jones informed Brown that this was unacceptable as he required his students to only use print resources for class assignments. He was also concerned about long term access to the journals if they were only available electronically. Jones had asked, "Can you promise me that we will have all these journals online five or ten years from now, no matter what?" Dr. Jones also offered advice on how to deal with the budget reduction. He suggested that the library lay off staff and cancel journal subscriptions that were for departments without doctoral programs.

A week later, Parker Brown was horrified to see the periodical print reduction plan on the agenda of the Faculty Senate! And then, two days before the Faculty Senate meeting, the campus paper ran an article on the plan as well which was critical. The headline read, "Library to Kill Journals." The article had quotes from students, faculty, and even a few of his librarians expressing concern or outrage over the whole idea. And then he had the emergency meeting placed on his schedule by the Provost.

Parker Brown had no doubt what the provost wanted to talk about. He was in for it over those periodicals, and he had yet to cancel a single print subscription! If he could not implement this plan, he would have no choice but to actually cancel access to a lot of periodicals which would also outrage the faculty. There were no easy answers to the problem but he expected that the Provost would demand one anyway. Brown thought about a job advertisement he had seen the day before for a Library Dean position at a university in Ohio and decided maybe it would be a good idea to apply for it.

Change Management and Risk Taking

Change is constant in the world. Very little stays as it is for long. This is true in the workplace as well. Any manager who becomes too comfortable with the way things are stands the risk of being left behind. The Bible even notes in I Corinthians 10:12 “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” Sometimes change can come gradually but others times it can become necessary quickly.

The world in which libraries operate has changed dramatically in the last several decades. For centuries, the basic operational structure of libraries remained unchanged. Librarians from different eras could have easily adjusted to working in libraries from different times. However, the advent of the World Wide Web and the shift of information resources to electronic format have resulted in a revolution in the ways that libraries are operated and how patrons are taught about library resources. This change in the information distribution has been compared to the alteration of the publishing industry by the invention of the Gutenberg Press.1

The world of education is constantly changing as well, which will further stretch the ability of the library leader. Robert Starratt wrote about this when he compared being an educational leader with being a ship captain of previous centuries.2 He wrote that these captains had to constantly scan the environment to look for signs of storms and other problems. By being alert, the captain could safely steer the ship to safety.

This is an apt analogy for library leaders today. The organization a leader is running can be seen as a ship being tossed around by turbulent waves and outside forces. How can the leader best pay attention to the changing environment and steer the institution to safety? As new technologies and political forces come to bear, this steering will often entail hard decisions about the future of the library.

Few activities create fear in the hearts of library managers like that of contemplating taking a risk or making a change. There is good reason for this reaction. However, managing change is an important job function of every manager in libraries, and those who can not perform this task when it is needed while fail in their role as a leader and endanger not only their jobs but perhaps their libraries as well.

This need for change will not end anytime soon. Continued changes in technology, funding formulas, laws, etc will dictate continued opportunities and obligations for library managers to initiate and implement change. As the consequences of these changes will be unknown, there will be an element of risk in every change endeavor. The world will change even if libraries do not, and the library manager will have no choice but to make decisions about change whether the outcome is certain or not because failure to change has almost certain negative consequences.

Resistance to Change

One thing that is certain for managers is that no matter how necessary a change is there will be resistance to it in the library and perhaps in the broader community. The opposition to change may be based on good reasons or it may be generated by those same people who oppose all change initiatives. The larger the library (and the change being proposed) the more likely that significant resistance will be encountered. This friction can sometimes be strong enough to derail a change or to make the change less effective than was intended by management.

This resistance to change is not unique to staff in libraries or even to modern times. The Roman Republic (510 BC - 27 BC) is a good example of this. The Roman people had a major problem with the concept of change. They did not like it; in fact, they were quite resistant to the idea. Tom Holland wrote, “Novelty, to the Citizens of the Republic, had sinister connotations. Pragmatics as they were, they might accept innovation if it was dressed up as the will of the gods or an ancient costume, but never for its own sake.” 3

Machiavelli noted that leaders were at the greatest risk when they attempted to make changes. He wrote, "And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.” 4

Almost five hundred years later, this tendency to resist change can be found in most organizations including libraries. Every change a leader introduces in a library will threaten someone's position in the library. These people will instinctively fight change (actively or passively) as they feel the changes can only take away from what they already have. Conversely, those who would benefit from a change probably do not realize all the implications of the change and will be slow to rally behind the library administration in making the changes.

Inertia is another reason why change may be necessary and why it may be resisted. Often it is the library manager who is responsible for slowing down needed change. Harari noted that managers often recognize that change is imperative to the organization’s future yet the status quo remains.5 One impediment to change is managers who tolerate mediocrity. Mediocrity can work its way through every part of the organization leading to a state of inertia. The result can mean no change within the organization or instead a burst of activity that satisfies the managers' need to do something, but fails to actually change anything.

Harari wrote, “Breakthroughs begin when we as leaders accept the fact that good intentions are not enough. Let's also accept that simply pouring money into this quarter's reorganization or business fad will not yield the results we seek, either. The primary challenge before us is to confront the basic impediments to real change, which means ousting both cultures of mediocrity and obsessions with the quick fix. This demands a new type of leadership role, a new set of decision rules, and a new perspective on dealing with employees.”6

Often it is the leader who is the most resistant to making changes. Black and Gregerson noted that organizations often fail to change for three reasons. First, they fail to see the problem. Secondly, they fail to act on the problem. Finally, they fail to follow through with a needed change. All three of these failures can be seen as additional barriers to making change. Black and Gergerson wrote that a failure to make needed change could be nothing less than catastrophic for an organization. 7

What is certain is that library managers will have to manage many changes during their careers if they are to be successful. This will mean overcoming resistance in the library, the community, and from their own desire to avoid conflict. However, the resistance is likely to always be present in any library when change is proposed. There are tactics and strategies that a leader can use to smooth over this resistance, but change management is always going to have an unpleasant side. Since resistance of some sort will always be present, all attempts at change management constitute some form of risk taking.

Risk Taking

Successful managers usually have to take risks in the course of their careers, just as organizations have to take chances in order to survive. As risk taking is a form of change management, it is not surprising that risk taking also is feared by many in organizations. It may well be the risk taking itself which causes library leaders to fear change.

Ramsey wrote that managers must decide whether to choose and define their own risks or simply be victims of the random risks that that the world presents at every turn. He argued that good managers favor being proactive by deciding for themselves when to risk, where to risk, and what to risk. Responsible risk-taking implies taking carefully calculated chances and being willing to get out of the comfort zone to accomplish worthwhile goals. Since change is inevitable, the manager must decide when the right moment is to take chances. 8

The role of the manager in deciding when to take risks is also evident in the writing of Brian Tracy. He wrote that managers must take the right risks for the right reasons in pursuit of the right goals. Managers who are successful in business carefully calculate every possible risk, think about what they would do should a particular situation happen, and they also have a backup plan. In addition, they minimize risk by continually questioning assumptions and asking themselves what they would do in the event of unanticipated developments. Tracy also identified five types of risk that people face and advice on how to assess risk levels. 9

Tracy wrote, “So why would any sensible supervisor risk risk-taking? The easy answer is they have no choice. We all know change is the unchanging condition of business leadership. And every change involves some risk. The question for managers and supervisors is whether to choose and define their own risks or simply be a passive victim of the random risks life in the business world presents at every turn.” 10

People have different ways of approaching risk taking according to Hyatt.11 Tolerance for risk appears to be a stable personality aspect that impacts everyone and their daily decision making in various ways. Low risk tolerance in a person tends to go along with worrying and pessimism. People like this tend to live very carefully. People with high risk tolerance feel open and act freely. They seek change and novelty and like to live on the edge. Hyatt argued that since life is unpredictable everyone has to take risks anyway. No one group can be classified as risk-takers, but some may be better at handling it than others.

Hyatt’s advice is a good reminder that a manager needs to be flexible when assessing situations. As people have different preferences towards risk-taking, the manager will need to keep the potential of different responses to risk-taking in mind. In addition, the manager has to be aware of the environment and take risks based on the situation as well as the personal risk-taking style.

Most people attracted to careers in library management are not what Hyatt would describe as liking to "live on the edge." Library managers tend to gravitate more on the low side of his risk tolerance scale. However, successful library leaders move more to the center of this risk tolerance. Worrying and pessimism do not lend themselves well to a successful change management philosophy anymore than seeking change for the sake of novelty does. Managers should be wary of taking risks, but they also must be willing to take them when the situation calls for it.

What is New is Old

Library leaders may have to face change and risk management. One helpful technique when proposing change is to cast the new initiative as being a continuation of what is traditional in the library already. No matter what a library leader has planned it can be made to appear to fit Ranganathan's Five Laws of Library Science. Further, any change can be connected to actions and beliefs which currently exist in the libraries' culture. It is the job of the library leader to make any proposed change (no matter how new or novel) appear as a continuation and enhancement of past library traditions. Those leaders who can connect new changes with past practice will be the most successful.

Julius Caesar is a good example of a successful leader who was able to make significant changes by using tradition and history. One reason for this is that Caesar understood well the culture of the Roman state. It had flourished for almost 500 years before he took power. As such, it had developed a complex set of traditions that were not to be trampled upon. As Deal and Peterson noted, every organization has a long past which has shaped its vision, purpose and values, rituals and ceremonies, stories and history, and artifacts and architecture.12 This was true of the Roman Republic, and it is true for every library as well.

Tom Holland wrote, “Conservative and flexible in equal measures, the Romans kept what worked, adapted what had failed, and preserved as sacred lumber what had become redundant. The Republic was both a building site and a junkyard.”13 This is a key concept when contemplating the actions of Julius Caesar as he brought about the end of the Republic. The government of the Roman Republic had lasted almost five hundred years (half a millennium!) despite wars, constitutional crisis, and territorial expansion. This is twice the length of time of the history of the United States of America today. During this time, the government of the Roman Republic changed very little. As such, the change process initiated by Caesar has to rank amongst some of the most significant of all change sequences in history.

Caesar did not visibly change the Roman Republic when he took charge. He refused the title of king. He kept the Roman Senate intact (stuffed with his supporters, of course). He also kept intact the appearance of the system of rulership of having two annual consuls. The pomp and ceremony of the Roman Republic stayed in place even after the Republic ceased to exist. Caesar successfully connected his changes to make them appear to be a continuation of the past, and as such he made use of the existing culture of Rome to change it dramatically.

Getzels and Guba wrote that successful organizations often have areas that die out and are then reborn.14 This as well can be seen in Caesar’s restructuring of the Roman state. Many of the institutions of the state (the Senate and the consulship for example) literally died and were reborn as the same entities with new roles. This regeneration may have been bad for democracy, but it was highly successful in the change to one man rule for centuries to come. As such, Caesar’s actions can be seen as a successful example of what Getzels and Guba were referencing.

I think Caesar’s organizational changes to the Roman state are instructive to the library today. Both Deal and Peterson and Getzels and Guba have points that are important to ponder today for leaders, and studying Caesar can help them understand. How can a leader alter an organization and yet recognize that the culture of the organization values its past, its ceremonies, its rituals, and other expressions of what the organization has become over time? Caesar shows that change is possible and the best way to do this is to make the changes mesh with and seem to be a continuation of the organization’s growth over time.

Change Management Models

Schafer wrote that some managers should consider creating their own change model based on their own organizations.15 He argued that although managers can adopt change ideas that have worked elsewhere, change is most successful when managers create their own change model through experimentation. He gave an example of this with a change model that was designed and implemented by Eagle Star Insurance. Schafer’s approach is contingency theory based, putting the impetus for designing the change model with the manager based on the manager’s judgment of the organization.

Wrote Schafer, “For decades, CEOs have been looking for the holy grail of corporate transformation. Management consultants and academics have been working overtime to supply the answer. They haven't succeeded, however, because the search is a futile one. Every organization is unique. Leaders can adopt ideas that have worked elsewhere, but they need to create their own one-of-a-kind change model through experimentation, learning, blueprint creation, and, most of all, a strong focus on results.” 16

Huggett wrote about the strategic management of organizational change in the face of organizational resistance. He argued that the key to achieving meaningful change in an organization is to align every thought, action, and behavior with the clearly defined and communicated vision. While not a cure-all for change resistance, it can help to ease many resisters through the process.17

In 1967, Wrapp wrote about a change management approach which he called "muddling with a purpose." He envisioned the manager being patient and engaging in intense environmental scanning. When the moment is right, the leader then launches his plan with overwhelming intensity. If the leader has read the situation correctly, he is likely to be successful in ushering in change. 18

The Kotter and Cohen Eight Step Change Model

This chapter started with a scenario where a library directory got in trouble trying to initiate change in the collection development process by switching exclusively to more electronic only journals at the expense of print. While I am not going to help this unfortunate director get out of this situation, I will offer some advice on how the director could have avoided having problems in the first place. A different strategy could have perhaps avoided the controversies and drama.

I am going to base my change initiative approach on the model suggested by Kotter and Cohen in their 2002 book The Heart of Change. They wrote of an eight step plan for change that I think could be easily fit to this change initiative. These steps include creating urgency, building a guiding team, getting the right vision, getting buy-in, empowering supporters, creating short-term wins, following up victories, and making the changes stick. 19

Creating a sense of urgency is important. Right now, many libraries have to deal with huge cuts to their budgets. This usually translates into big cuts in acquisition budgets. At the same time, publishers continue to raise prices and usually sell the same periodical to a library twice in both paper and electronic form. This model has led to a large reduction in the number of periodicals that can be purchased each year. I would make sure that this is communicated to the library staff and the patrons of a library so that the urgency to make a change in collection practices is understood.

Secondly, I would build a guiding team to help me push this initiative through. Clearly, I would need to have the right department heads and bibliographers involved and supporting this measure from the beginning. In addition, I would seek out others among the library staff who wield influence. As Barnard noted in 1938, often times those with the most power are not on the organizational chart.20 I would include these people when I could identify them and had a reasonable assurance I could get their cooperation. Finally, the patrons of the library have to ultimately agree with the change as well. Thus, I would seek members of the university administration and faculty to also become involved in helping to guide the initiative to success.

After this, I would attempt to get the vision right. Why exactly do we need to do this and what is the right percentage of periodicals the library should receive in electronic format only? Where do I want to lead the library with this plan? As is noted in Isaiah, without a vision the people will perish. If there is no coherent and attention grabbing vision for success, it is very likely that there will be no success.

Fourth, I would communicate for buy-in. As often as possible, the guiding team and I would present the plan to library staff and library patrons and ask them to support it. This would give opportunities to answer questions, address valid concerns, identify those who oppose the change, and find new allies. Ideally, significant people will begin to agree to the change. As Black and Gregersen noted, change happens a person at a time. They also postulated a 20/80 rule that if the right 20% of an organization’s members accept a change, the other 80% will as well. At this stage, I would hope that the communication would get the right 20% to buy-into the change. 21

At the next stage, I would empower my bibliographers to act. How can they use their expertise in the subject matter to select the right journals to only get electronically? Which ones are really needed in paper? Also, I would ask them to identify those faculty most likely to support the change and get their support to make changes.

Next, I would look for short-term wins. I want to show that this plan will be successful. I would look to find bibliographers and academic departments who were eager to try the change. There are always departments in the sciences who are clamoring for more online access, so I would probably go to them to convince them to change their periodical holdings in the library to 60% electronic. I could then point to this as an example of progress in making the change across the entire library periodical collection. I could also cite the happiness of faculty in those departments who made the change to counter criticism to further change.

As the short-term wins started to pile up, I would shift to following up the victories by making the change across the board to the entire library periodicals collection. As more and more wins accumulated, it would be clear that this is not an experiment or a failed collections policy but instead the new model that the library will be following in the future.

Finally, I would make the changes stick. Once the change was accomplished, it would be easy for bibliographers or faculty members to argue that certain journals should be bought in paper as well as electronically. Individually, these requests would have little impact. Collectively though, it would undermine the entire completed change and could make it unravel eventually.

I believe there would be opposition to this plan from both within the organization and from outside it. Many library staff members and faculty members prefer paper holdings to electronic. Some faculty refuse to even allow their students to use electronic periodicals when writing papers. It is important to make sure that there is not an option for some staff and faculty to choose the old way while everyone else adopts the new. Making the changes stick provides resolution to the change management plan. Faculty in particular will need continued education and mentoring to help them make the transition. The continued transformation of the periodical collection will force the change whether it is accepted or not. If faculty insist on paper only in writing assignments, the students will eventually be unable to complete many of the assignments forcing a change in the reluctant faculty members.

Lewin in 1951 argued that leaders should look at a process called force field analysis when analyzing an organization. 22 One of the factors he wrote that should be looked for are restraining forces that can prevent an organization from accomplishing a goals. In this case, what restraining forces in the force field may prevent the library from being successful? I predict the analysis would identify many of the special interests on campus (in and out of the library) who would attempt to prevent the change. Hopefully, the steps outlined in my plan based on Kotter and Cohen would help the library to neutralize the opposition.


Change can be hard to manage; yet change management is an integral part of being a library leader. It is hard to be successful managing a 21st century library if you are unwilling to lead your library staff and the larger community down new avenues. Fortunately, many leaders have been successful in managing the change process and there are many examples that a leader can examine for ideas. There are also a lot of theorists who have written on the topic as well and their advice can be helpful too. The process of change management may be challenging, risky, and unpleasant but it is also worthwhile and the changes library leaders oversee today will hopefully make a better future for our libraries.


1. Michael Lorenzen, "Teaching and Learning on the Web. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 7, (2003) no. 1: 3.

2. John Starrat, (Ethical Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004.)

3. Tom Holland, (Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic. New York: Doubleday, 2003), 4.

4. Niccollo Machiavelli, The Prince. 1515. (2 January 2007).

5. Oren Harari, "Why Don't Things Change?" Management Review, 84 (1995): 30-32.

6. Harari, "Why Don't Things Change?", 32.

7. J. Stewart Black and Hal Gregersen, (Leading Strategic Change: Breaking Through the Brain Barrier. New York: Prentice Hall, 2003.)

8. Robert Ramsey, "Responsible Risk Taking for Supervisors." Supervision 65, no. 1 (2004): 3-4.

9. Brian Tracy, "Taking Smart Risks." National Public Accountant (September 2003): 41-42.

10. Tracy, "Taking Smart Risks", 41.

11. Ralph Hyatt, "The Art of Healthy Risk-Taking." USA Today, (September 1, 2001): 52-54.

12. Terrence E. Deal and Kent D. Peterson, (Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999).

13. Holland, Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic, 4.

14. Jacob Getzels and Eton Guba, "Social behavior and the administrative process." School Review, 65 (1957): 423-441.

15. Robert Schafer, "Build Your Own Change Model." Business Horizons 47, no. 3 (2004): 33-38.

16. Schafer, "Build Your Own Change Model," 33.

17. James Huggett, "When culture resists change." Quality Progress 32, no. 3 (1999): 35-9.

18. H. Edward Wrapp. "Good managers don't make policy decisions." Harvard Business Review 45, no. 5 (1967): 91-99.

19. John Kotter and Dan Cohen, (The Heart of Change: Rea-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.)

20. Chester Barnard, (The Functions of the Executive. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1938.)

21. J. Stewart Black and Hal Gregersen, Leading Strategic Change: Breaking Through the Brain Barrier.

22. Kurt Lewin, (Field Theory in Social Science; Selected Theoretical Papers. New York: Harper & Row, 1951.)

No comments: