80/20 for librarians

At the ETIG pre-conference camp at CLA 2009, a couple people suggested that what the library world needs right now is something like Google’s 80/20 time to kindle and kick-start all of our imaginations onto new and wonderful projects. It’s hard to be against such a proposal and frankly, I’d love to see it done in any workplace I do (or will) set foot in. 80/20 time would be a boon to any organization, be it library science or googlizing the world – sign me up and count me in.

I’ve been giving some thought to how 80/20 time could meaningfully work, though. A friend of mine works – in spirit, if not in hours – in an 80/20 labour situation. He decided to take on an MPA while holding down his full-time position. To facilitate this, he played around with the length of his lunches and the time that his days began in order to ensure he always had Friday off to get some school work done. Three years later, he finished a two-year degree with a thesis in hand. That took a lot of hard work on his part, but since his organization was willing to bend, he came away with a lot more practical knowledge that has been useful to the workplace since.

Whether any 80/20 time would be spent on professional development or on developing little side projects that might turn into bigger projects for the organization (e.g. like how the Gmail side-project turned Google from a simple search engine to a social gathering space), the logistics and the evaluation of the outcomes are outside the bounds of the everyday work experience. How does one plan for a certain number of individuals to accomplish new goals that on the surface might appear tertiary to the organization’s main focus, and then how does one judge the work when its complete? The former takes skills, knowledge, and experience in strategic planning and management, of course, but the latter requires faith on the part of leadership. Organizational leadership would have to sit back and understand that for the long-term health of the organization and its professionals that the side-projects would have to be allowed to both stumble and succeed over time. After all, one is going to get dirty when playing in a sandbox.

I don’t think a cynic could work with the concept of 80/20 time. If one is more likely to say “give a man an inch and he’ll take a mile” than, “teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for life” (*), then the thought of giving staff time to work on their own projects might not ever work out. 80/20 – in any organization – requires a healthy dose of faith and optimism on the part of the leadership for it to succeed.

(* – I know the metaphors don’t match. My point is that for 80/20 to work, a certain amount of time and labour-hours must be freely given to the staff. There can’t be reservations about this, and it must be given with excitement for what the time might bring to all involved.)

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