Submitted by Lily Sacharow, MS Student, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Graduate School of Library and Information Science

Great Expectations: Decision-Making Unpacked at ALA

A program review of “Beyond Brainstorming: Making More Effective Decisions”

My ALA 2013 started off with a bang when I attended “Beyond Brainstorming: Making More Effective Decisions,” an ASCLA-sponsored program given by library consultant Joan Frye Williams on Saturday afternoon. Williams, a change management guru and a member of ASCLA herself, broke down the decision-making process from a leader’s perspective. The talk–relevant, encouraging, and dotted with anecdotes–placed emphasis not only on asking the right kinds of questions throughout the process, but ensuring that the questions are asked in response to the right problem.

The broadening of options was highlighted as an important takeaway: starting with a simple “yes” or “no” isn’t likely to push people to test their assumptions and begin thinking critically. Among the most intriguing approaches here was Williams’ reverse-brainstorming tactic. Even in situations where it seems that every possible element for success has been identified, she suggests considering what would make the end goal completely impossible to reach. “If x elements must be true, try eliminating them,” she urged. When you can anticipate issues that will block progress (or kill a project altogether), regardless of whether they have a clear chance of occurring, the overall probability of success becomes easier to see. This may come in especially handy when working with ideas that may be out of one’s comfort zone. “If none of your options makes you nervous,” said Williams, “you don’t have enough options.”

Another key point was to avoid “canonizing the past.” This includes sticking too closely to ideas that have been working steadily since the good old days, and also being open to what defines a “normal range” of behaviors so that space is left for new norms as well as new exceptions. Unfortunately, we cannot always be overzealous with implementing new possibilities. Williams was wise to include a number of ways to stay grounded in hard data, realistic odds, and the life-cycles of change, including the very popular “just because there’s a grant….” Additionally, including time for distance and reflection on any significant change allows for consideration of how you (or, say, your successor or a new hire) might be likely to react to such a major decision a ways down the road.

Williams concluded by reminding us that the process deserves a positive approach–heck, we deserve a positive approach–and that following best practices in decision-making should prepare us for what is sometimes unimaginable at the get-go: being right! By responding to concerns while assuming positive intent, we stay focused on the results that stem from making decisions. This means that those responses should be framed to behave like open-ended questions: for example, saying “yes, and…” rather than “yes, but….” As Williams remarked about one of her favorite questions in response to an objection, if you can’t think of a way to finish the sentence, “good point–how can we…?” then perhaps you’re not ready to make a decision at all. In the end, at least a few viable options should be developed based on input stemming from multiple parties and directions, often ending up as the best of many suggestions and ideas.

The program was well-attended, with participants filling to capacity a large McCormick Place hall. Williams’ numerous quotables throughout the talk were a definite hook for some of the conference’s avid note-takers, myself among them. I left the session determined to finish out my library school degree with a management course, something I hadn’t originally planned on but was by the end convinced I needed to explore further. I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for Williams’ sessions at conferences to come.