I’ve been in my role at Rochester for just over two years now, and the nature of my portfolio has altered pretty significantly in that time. Initially the team comprised of the department heads for the Humanities and Social Science Librarians (and head of Outreach), the Science and Engineering Libraries, the Art/Music Library, and our public services unit. Now add to that the Directors of the Digital Scholarship Lab, Assessment, Research Initiatives, a terrific data analyst, and I have a connection to the Director of the iZone. It’s a pretty big group with a lot going on, but working with this particular mix of people gives me an opportunity to dive head first into developing and maintaining organizational harmony. Organizational gardening, as it were.
In the first few months of looking at where the obstacles and pain points were within this group, what emerged first was a need to understand lanes. A lane is a scope, where responsibility lies, where the organization is expecting your leadership and innovation. It also helps to define where you’re a consultant, collaborator or partner, a participant, or observer. Understanding your lane, and the lanes of your peers, means you have a good sense of where you can drive your creativity and innovation with wild abandon. It’s the space in which you can always expect to hear “yes”, the space where others will defer to your judgment, because it’s your responsibility and you know it best.
A shared understanding of lanes is critical to good collaboration. Everyone has to have a lane, even when they’re next to each other or merge a little here and there. If someone doesn’t have a lane, how do they understand their role in the organization? How do they derive a sense of the value they’re bringing? How do they know when they should jump in with both feet, or when they should proceed with some caution? How do they know when they’ve done what’s expected of them? How do they deploy their creativity in ways that they, and we, can all celebrate? And how do your collaborators know how to call on you if no one fully understands what lane you’re in?
And critically: if I as the AD for the portfolio don’t know how to articulate the lane someone’s in and how that lane intersects with others in the organization, am I not failing as a leader? Should I have a department or an individual in my portfolio if I don’t understand their lane?
So the first thing we did was look at job descriptions and talk about expectations, roles, and our relationships to each other. How do different units interact? How do we lead a cross-departmental project, how do lanes merge, and what do we do when that happens? How do we communicate across projects and departments? And we keep having those conversations as new projects and complications emerge, departments shift and grow, or as the departmental connections develop and change. What’s been super interesting is seeing how lanes that seemed very far from each other suddenly join up; Art and Data, for instance: data visualization as art is a theme we’re going to be following this year that I am so excited about. Metadata and faculty support, another spectacular one. Entrepreneurship and library service design. Getting good at making unexpected connections is critical for building flexible, responsive services and support to the university population. We need to know how to face ambiguity with confidence, and this is one of the ways we’re learning how to do that.
I wonder if my lanes conversation would be easier if everyone in the portfolio had an exactly equivalent role. We are a mix of department heads, service coordinators, functional experts, and new initiative leaders. Oftentimes, a project leader is directing the work of teams with several different direct supervisors. If everyone were a department head with direct reports, would it be simpler? Is this a situation demanding a re-org to make the lines of work clearer and simpler?
As much as you want to tend your organization to French topiary perfection, you’re pretty much always in the middle of a meadow full of wildflowers and former pet bunny rabbits instead. At a certain point messiness is probably a sign that something isn’t working, but I’m not sure all messiness is that sign. You can tidy the organization up to the point that each unit is completely autonomous and is completely clear about exactly what it needs to do, never needing to negotiate with another group or leader, but is that ideal? It’s cleaner for us, certainly, less confusing, but aren’t we missing some creative friction? If something is less confusing for us, is it more confusing for our patrons?
True collaboration is messy, and defies lanes and boundaries in the end, as it should. But I think you need both. You need a solid understanding of your lane to give you confidence and clarity in your work, to define your voice and your role, and I think you need the possibility of messiness to allow for growth, change, ambiguity, and something new.