February 16, 2018

Frenemies 2: The Noisy and the Important | Peer to Peer Review

Rick AndersonIn a recent column I discussed some of the complexities that we have to deal with when trying to figure out which tasks and processes should be performed as perfectly as possible and which ones can be done to the point of “good enough” and then left behind for more important ones.

One of the complicating factors that comes up when we make these decisions is that not all needs and problems are equally “noisy,” and it can be easy to mistake noisiness for importance. In order to explain what I mean by that, let me start by going off on a tangent.

Two Kinds of Character Strength

As a manager or administrator, you have to have (among others) two particular kinds of character strength. The first is the strength to hear good ideas and arguments when they’re presented by obnoxious people. When you’re trying to solve problems or improve services or create and maintain effective programs, you need to be able to hear and recognize good ideas and arguments regardless of whether they come from people who make themselves pleasant to deal with. This is not easy; when someone is a jerk, one of the easiest ways to deal with him is simply to push him to the margins and tune him out. That’s often a mistake, for several reasons. One is that good ideas are no less likely to come from difficult people than from pleasant ones; another is that sometimes what makes a person difficult to deal with is that person’s ability and willingness to question comfortable assumptions and well-established processes—which is an important and objectively valuable ability in any organization.

Some leaders seem to understand this intuitively and do a good job of making sure that people with difficult personalities are given a chance to have their voices heard and their ideas evaluated fairly. When doing so, however, it’s important to bring into play the second kind of character strength I want to examine. This one is almost the mirror image of the first: it’s the ability to resist being swayed by ideas and arguments just because they’re being presented by strong personalities. When an argument or idea is being pushed at you hard by someone who believes in it passionately and is clearly willing to make your life difficult if you reject it, one easy response is to push that person away, but another easy response is simply to let that person have his way. That, too, is often a mistake—not because his idea is necessarily bad (see above) but because when leaders make organizational decisions based on the desire to ease their own discomfort, they usually end up getting short-term relief at the cost of long-term dysfunction.

And this brings us back to the very important distinction between “noisy” problems and important ones.

Obnoxious interpersonal behavior is a form of noise: the abrasiveness of the delivery tends to distract our attention from the relevant content of what is being delivered.

Aggressive advocacy is also a form of noise: the urgency and passion of the person doing the advocating may tell us quite a bit about that person’s enthusiasm and commitment, but they don’t necessarily say anything at all (one way or the other) about whether the idea is worth pursuing and implementing.

One of the constant challenges facing leaders and managers in libraries is separating the “noisiness” of a problem from its importance. This difficulty is compounded because some very serious problems may not be noisy at all—they may be causing serious trouble without anyone noticing (at first) or drawing attention to them. A small and unnoticed water leak inside your wall can, over time, cause tens of thousands of dollars in damage, whereas a sudden power outage may distract all of your attention in the moment without causing any long-term problem. We see a similar dynamic in our libraries: “quiet” problems can percolate along for years, causing serious harm to the library’s effectiveness and reputation, while “noisy” ones can cause distraction far out of proportion to their real importance.

Consider these two scenarios:

More noisy but less important: A patron sends multiple email messages to the head of collection development, insisting that the library purchase his self-published book on the government’s conspiracy to suppress evidence of UFOs. When the collection development librarian declines to do so, the author demands to meet with the library director, then with the provost. This situation may generate a fair amount of noise but probably doesn’t represent a serious problem for the library or its patrons.

More important but less noisy:  Patrons can’t find known items in the catalog because a setting in the discovery layer is putting the wrong items at the top of the search results. If patrons assume that the library simply doesn’t have what they’re looking for (and therefore don’t follow up with requests for help), this problem may generate little if any noise. But over time, if unaddressed, it will significantly degrade both the library’s effectiveness and its reputation.

These scenarios suggest that just because a problem is noisy doesn’t mean it’s important and vice versa. But none of this is to say that noisiness is a completely irrelevant consideration—it may be very important, depending on the nature of the noise and the politics surrounding the issue. But while noise may have serious political implications, it is almost always a poor indicator of mission implications. In other words, a noisy problem may need to be addressed quickly because it threatens to cause serious public relations concerns—you don’t want people going to the provost to complain about the library, regardless of how silly their complaints may be—but those considerations have little to do with whether the issue at hand has anything intrinsically to do with the library’s mission and goals. So rather than saying some problems are noisy but unimportant, it might be better to say that noisiness is not always a good indicator of importance—and that we can never assume that the amount of noise (whether great or small) generated by a problem is directly proportional to its significance.

Rick Anderson About Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson (rick.anderson@utah.edu) is Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library. He serves on numerous editorial and advisory boards and is a regular contributor to the Scholarly Kitchen blog. He currently serves as president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, and a collection of his essays titled Libraries, Leadership, and Scholarly Communication was published this year by ALA Editions.

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  1. Wow, this may be a wake up call for me! Is it possible that my ideas that I feel so strongly about are the half-baked ideas of a loud mouth? Any advice for how to see if my actions and behavior are true leadership for my organization or just me and my ego thinking it knows what is best?