The 7 beauties of project management

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There is an abundance of library literature that suggests we as librarians need to do better in raising our profile to those outside the profession. That we need to increase our visibility, and improve our marketing and communication so that others will truly realise the value of librarians and libraries.

We’ve heard it all before right? So why aren’t we doing it?

Why doesn’t the world already know that librarians are vital to a vibrant and growing organisation, economy and society?

Here’s what I think. Before we can sell the value of librarianship to those outside the profession, we need to do better at selling our work to ourselves. Because after-all if we, as individuals aren’t excited, enthralled and enthusiastic about our work, how can we expect others to be?
This article is not about the gantt chart, the schedule nor the budget. These are tools that project managers, good ones at least, use the world over. But these are only tools. They aren’t the work itself. They aren’t what makes us fondly recall a project we worked on two, five, or twenty-five years ago. Today I want to share with you seven ways to transform a typical library project into something that you will recall fondly; something that challenges you and excites you enough to be memorable.

1. Give Yourself Goosebumps
I know what you’re probably thinking … Goosebumps? At work? Me? With the projects I’ve got? YES.

Think about it this way. Your projects do not exist in a vacuum. EVERY project you’re currently working on contains the entire strand of your organisation’s DNA.

Manukau Institute of Technology Library had plans to turn one floor of the library into a learning commons. As a result, the serials collection needed to be moved onto the same floor as the rest of the collection.

Paula Martin and I were hired in a job-share arrangement to make this happen. We had job-shared together the previous three months on another project for the Library so we had some prior experience of working with each other, and Manukau Institute of Technology. The project began in February 2010 and needed to be completed 8 months later when the contract expired.
Moving collections to make space for other activities is a fairly common library project. And you probably can’t see how it could possibly give you goosebumps. Neither could Paula Martin and I.
We ruminated on this a while and altered the project from being ho-hum to goosebump-inducing. As we would need to weed both collections to make them fit, why not integrate all formats into one sequence? 

Students would be able to find more information in the same place. We couldn’t find any other NZ academic library that had done this. But we knew deep down that this was right. It gave us goosebumps. Implementing that dream created a ripple effect that altered the Library’s genetic makeup. It led to improvements in lending policies, staff workflows, relationships with teaching staff, and a myriad of other things. The overall project didn’t change – we were still moving the serials collection, but our approach to it did. Project Shift was born.

Why not tweak your project to give yourself goosebumps? Start with what would give you goosebumps and see what happens.

2. Sell the Sizzle
Selling and sales is largely neglected in both project management; and in libraries. Selling is not a dirty word. It means gaining support and supporters. And supporters are absolutely vital to the success of any project.

Sell the sizzle is about the beauty of the project through the eyes of the supporter, whether that is the advisory board, team member or end user. What is important to the supporter, what will it do for them, what problem will it solve, what benefit will they gain?

It’s less about the deliverables, the features, or the nuts and bolts of a project, and more about the story. Creating a compelling story that will quickly hook them, pique their interest and beg them to learn more.

Project Shift included a marketing and communications plan for library staff and academic staff and students.

Once again we spent a lot of time thinking about selling the sizzle and gaining supporters – because Paula and I definitely couldn’t do this on our own.

Our overarching message was “making information easier to find” which reinforced the benefit of deselection to academic staff, and highlighted the benefit of an integrated collection. Although this message was essentially an easy sell, it did require a lot of work to gain support and maintain momentum.

We attended every library team meeting, held discussion groups, unmeetings and blogged. We wrote articles for campus publications, and drafted key messages for the library leadership team to present at campus meetings.

In libraries, it may not be as effortless or as charismatic as Don Draper makes it out to be, but it can be done.

3. Dream With Deadlines
We have the dream, our goosebump project. Next we need a plan to achieve that dream. A map that we, and others can follow.

In the movie Sucker Punch Babydoll has been locked away against her will. Determined to fight for her freedom, she urges four other girls to band together and try to escape their terrible fate at the hands of their captors by revealing the map to freedom. Babydoll’s plan is pretty straightforward.

And the plan for Project Shift was also pretty straightforward. We only had three things to do – review the collection, move the collection, and tidy up the loose ends. And the Project definitely had deadlines.

With the majority of the work confined to semester breaks we really had no choice. We reassured library staff with regular communication and contingency plans to cope with the most likely delays.

For example, we allowed 7 weeks for consultation with lecturers, as this was our most likely scenario based on past projects of a similar nature. However, we also planned for our worst case scenario of 14 weeks and the effect that this would have on the schedule.

A dream with deadlines doesn’t need to be complicated. But having and following a plan alleviates stress, optimises productivity and reduces misunderstanding, confusion and conflict.

4. In Teams We Trust 

As I mentioned earlier, Paula and I couldn’t have done this on our own – we didn’t have the expertise or resources. We negotiated staff time and used their knowledge to guide our planning.

For example, based on our deselection criteria we selected a sample of 25 items to predict the percentage of items to be kept or withdrawn. The two most experienced subject librarians thought this was would provide a biased result and suggested we use another sample of 50 items. Based on this advice and despite the small sample size this method provided a reasonably accurate prediction [the sample test indicated we would withdraw 58% of all items we reviewed. In practice, we withdrew 62%, just a 4% difference.]

Trusting people to do the job they said they would do, and trusting their expertise are absolutely vital to a project’s success. Trust makes it easier to collaborate, solve problems, and produce backup solutions quickly.

5. Eyes On The Prize
When the end of a project is too far away to imagine it is easy to become distracted, unmotivated and disheartened. But in order to reach the end we need keep our eyes on the prize. We need to focus on the progress we make each day so we don’t become overwhelmed, just like Lisa Carrington, New Zealand Olympic Canoe hopeful does.

In Project Shift there were many instances where we were either spending too much time perfecting the details or becoming disheartened because tasks were taking much longer than anticipated.

As we checked progress against the schedule on a daily basis we were able to determine whether we had done enough, or needed to persevere and adjust timelines.

For example, in order to shift the collection without requiring additional shelving, we needed to remove 316 shelves or just over  10500 items. Our deselection criteria identified nearly 13000 items for removal.

Rather than attempt to evaluate and remove all 13000 items we focused on the prize of 10500 items and 316 shelves. As a result not all potential items were evaluated or processed. But our project did achieve the desired outcome.

“It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward.” Chinese Proverb

6. Toast Tiny Triumphs
Nothing gets you further in a project than recognition and appreciation, especially a project running on the smell of an oily rag as most library projects do.

And we all know that librarians + food = win. Paula and I made sure to celebrate whatever wins we had, as often as possible.

Aside from chocolate fish and shared lunches we also held ‘ripping parties’ to recycle books, recorded daily progress on the staff whiteboard, thanked people at team meetings, and shared the project triumphs with a wider campus audience. As one library staff member said “Rewards and feedback from the Project Team were great, makes one feel appreciated”.

How well, and how often do you show your appreciation? What harm could it do to include it in your project’s daily to-do list?

7. Keep Calm and Collected
It is not easy to keep your head about you when those around you are losing theirs. Projects are stressful enough without adding a panic attack, or emotional outburst. The world isn’t perfect, people aren’t perfect, and project plans aren’t perfect. Something is likely to go wrong or an unanticipated event will occur.

The stress point for Project Shift was the shifting of the collection. Because not only were we shifting the collection, but we were also creating a new shelving layout and attempting to standardise the shelving at the same time. With a mix of imperial and metric shelving, end-posts of different heights and aligning logical breaks in Dewey with shelving bays you know how stressful this can be.

Our shelving plan hadn’t allowed for these (or many other important details such as room for more boxes at the end of serial runs) but it was enough to keep us from confusion and misunderstanding. It was enough to move over 40,000 books, 3000 serials, 3000 videos and dvds, dismantle and rebuild shelves within two weeks.

And that’s all we needed to do.

I don’t think librarians need to change what we do at all. Librarians will continue to work towards improving society through facilitating knowledge creation in our communities for many years to come. The difference will be in how we approach that work.

It won’t be easy, but as you no doubt know, nothing worth doing ever is. It will take time to consider new approaches to work when you’re so used to doing what you usually do. It will be daunting to step outside your comfort zone, at least the first time. But if you want to fondly remember your current project two or five years from now, you must do memorable work. And if you want others to know about the valuable work of librarians, you must be excited, enthralled and enthusiastic enough to share your work.

And now is the perfect time to start.

I encourage you to share your work with others. I ask that you think about how you can ‘sell the sizzle’ on your current project. And I implore you to find one other person, just one, who will encourage you, assist you, and support you in your work. They don’t need to work in the same team or in the same organisation but if you share the same dream of raising the profile of libraries and librarians outside the profession through your current project, it becomes so much easier to achieve it. And as a result it can only be as David Tua once famously said ‘O for Awesome’.


1 thought on “The 7 beauties of project management

  1. PM Hut (@pmhut)

    Hi Sally,

    The word “beauties” is rarely associated with project management.I really love this post, and I would like to republish it on PM Hut where many project managers will benefit from it. Please either email me or contact me through the contact us form on the PM Hut site in case you’re OK with this.


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