12 June 2014

Project-focused librarianship: Part 2

After writing yesterday's glowingly positive endorsement of project management as an essential in every librarian's toolkit, I returned to my abstract for NLS6 and realised that my presentation had actually been far more critical! There were actually two more aspects to project management that I covered in last year's presentation so I've decide to make this a small series of three related posts. In Part 2 (this post) I'll talk a bit about some of the personal challenges faced by project-focused librarians.

Roles and relationships with non-project colleagues

One of my PM-focused colleagues put it like this:

You are working with people who are contributing as part of their business-as-usual - getting them to appreciate deadlines & dependencies is very difficult.
I would also add that as a project manager you are often a change agent. While some of your colleagues may be happy with the change that you represent, you can guarantee that others (sometimes nearly everyone) won't be. I can't remember my exact words at NLS6 but I think they were something like "Project management might not be a good choice if being disliked by your colleagues bothers you."

If being part of a stable team over a long period, working mostly with other librarians, and having uniformly cheery working relationships is important to you then project work may not be a good fit. On the other hand, if you like the idea of regularly embarking on a new, and possibly perilous, adventure with a new 'crew' (including lots of non-librarians), you will probably be happy with project work.

Short term contracts and the financial insecurity that goes along with that

I don't have kids or a mortgage so this one is less of a concern to me than I know it is for a lot of people. To be honest, with job cuts and casualisation a feature of every industry now, I would rather be able to demonstrate that I can work in a project mode since when cuts are made to operations, outsourcing and project work often goes up.

There is a generational aspect to this; I've only had one permanent position in my entire working life (20+ years, counting pre-librarian days) yet I have never been out of work except for a short time when I first moved overseas.

One of my PM buddies told me:
I find that I am not at all insecure about the future of my career. In the past, people stayed in one job for 40 years, seeking security in one job. Those days are gone.
Some days I feel my options are a bit limited by contract work; because my partner freelances it is difficult to commit to buying a house in the current climate so that is something that has gone on hold for us. I appreciate that for people with bigger existing financial commitments, the contract work side of project management can seem quite scary and might even be a showstopper.

A lack of defined career pathways, and the push to move into management

One of the challenges as a mid-career librarian is finding opportunities to progress within an organisation without taking on supervisory tasks. I work in an ageing profession and often feel pressure to 'step up to the plate' and get more involved as an operational manager, so that when everyone disappears in 5-10 years time all the libraries don't collapse for lack of managers. But then I think that it's possible to be a leader without being a manager, and that I should focus on my strengths, which are definitely best suited to projects.

I was very lucky to have a mentor in 2011-12 through a very well-organised program between Monash University and the State Library of Victoria, for which I am very grateful. My mentor helped me address this issue of career planning with a focus on projects. She told me about her own career, which had involved working on a range of projects and programs and developing expertise in organisational psychology and change management. She also introduced me to other librarians who had not had to move into management to have rewarding careers but had moved between various programs and projects quite freely.

This was very reassuring at the time, but I can still say without a doubt that the career structures in most libraries are not well-developed for people who want to focus on projects. Working in an organisation with a combined library and IT services division has been very eye-opening for me in terms of the greater focus on project-oriented roles (not just project managers, but other roles such as business analysts and change managers) that can be found in the IT industry compared to libraries.


My friendly PM informants and colleagues identified burnout as an issue, due to
Getting management to understand the need to resource a project properly
but also to the high-pressure, deadline-oriented nature of the work. This may not always be appreciated by all members of a project team, particularly if those team members have operational duties alongside their project contributions:
Having to push people constantly. Would rather just do stuff myself.
In 2012 I had six months away from project work in an operational role in a government department. I felt burnt out after ten years of non-stop project work in emerging areas and needed a break. But within about a week I was bored out of my brain!  On reflection, I realised that the problem might not be project work but my lack of strategies for coping with some of its demands. So while burnout can be an issue, it's also true that many of us thrive under a fair bit of pressure and when it is taken away we get restless again. It is good to be self-aware about these things.

Since that time, I've developed better time management skills (I use the Getting Things Done methodology, one of the techniques recommended by Kate Davis here). I take more seriously signs of stress like insomnia and cold sores, and most importantly, am learning to just say no to things, even things that I really really want to do. This has been hard, and I have to constantly monitor my own thoughts and actions to make sure that I'm not slipping back into old patterns of saying yes to everything and then freaking out quietly under my desk when I realise I've taken on way too much.

In summary, it's possible to develop strategies, either on your own or with the help of friends or professionals, to help you avoid burnout but it's a good thing to be aware of if you are thinking project work might be for you and know that you are prone to overcommitting.