Strategy, Tactics, and Rapid Cognition in the Library

Ed.Note.  Brian Dewar, the librarian at Luther College High School in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, returns this week and asks if we can be over-managed and if it can affect our productivity.  What do you think?  Let us know..


I was talking to one of my friends the other day, who complimented my productivity at work. I like being complimented, so I felt a little fuzzy inside. But I started to wonder: why am I being productive? I spent the week thinking about it, and I have a theory.  I want to play with that thought a little bit, and frame it within my pet subject – the military.

Strategy, tactics, and rapid cognition.

One of my favourite authors, Thomas E. Ricks, often talks about strategy and tactics. Ricks defines strategy as goal-setting – hopefully producing a clear definition of the results you’re trying to achieve. Tactics, on the other hand, are the tools you use to accomplish those goals. He stresses that with a good strategy, bad tactics will fix themselves because they produce results that undermine the goal. On the other hand, with bad strategy, even the best tactics can be refined forever, but they will ultimately remain unsuccessful, and bad things happen.

Last week, I talked a bit about my strategy at work. But what was I going to do about tactics? And then I remembered Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell, author of the revered work The Tipping Point, speaks at length of a wargame scenario in his bestselling work, Blink. In this scenario, a Red side fought a Blue side.

The Blue Team: feed the system

What the sides stood for isn’t really important – what is important is how they went about running their organizations. The Blue side had an enormous amount of computational power at its side. It had rubrics, metrics, standard operating procedures, spreadsheets, and meetings. Lots of meetings. It developed its own lingo of acronyms that was incomprehensible to any outsider. It believed it could ‘out-compute’ the opposition by taking the relevant issues and feeding them into a spreadsheet which in turn would tell them the proper course of action.

The Red side took a different approach. The commander of those forces decided to be ‘in command, and out of control’ – he gave his sub-commanders an objective (“attack the navy,” “maintain communications,” etc) but left it up to them about how they would accomplish their goals.

By the end of the first three days of the exercise, the Red team had completely routed the Blue.

Why did this happen?

Gladwell explains the Red team’s success as the theory of rapid cognition. By allowing the Red team commanders a large degree of personal freedom, they could trust their instincts and utilize their personal experience to inform their decisions. The result was that they made better decisions, faster, and more cheaply. They could react much more rapidly to changing conditions.

Paul van Riper, the commander of the Red team. Not exactly what you'd expect someone who encourages improvisation to look like.

Alternatively, the Blue side was slowed down by meetings, spreadsheets, and other tools of management. The Blue commanders’ own reactions and intuitions became discounted by the system. The ultimate result was an overwhelming victory for the Red side, not because they possessed the better commanders or that they had the superior force – they didn’t – but because the management style allowed the Red commanders to make better use of what they did have.

So, back to my original question – what is allowing me to be productive?

Basically, I exist in a black hole of oversight.  Basically, my boss is pretty laissez-faire. He (and my coworkers!) don’t care how I do anything, so long as the library is better for it. I don’t particularly care how I do anything,so long as it helps the library.  Generally, my strategies are good, and my tactics will work themselves out. Justifying myself would slow down and muddle my thoughts. Will I make some mistakes? Darn tootin’. I spend most of my Thursdays fixing one. That’s ok, though. It won’t happen again and my intuition will become more attuned for the next time. But realistically, had I spent my time on the planning, justifying, and presenting, there’s no guarantee I would have done any better and it’s entirely possible I’d have done something worse. Strenuous planning doesn’t necessarily lead to success – just ask the Blue team.

Of course, taking it too far in the opposite direction would be disastrous. I get that. Nobody wants a commando cataloguer. But my point is this: don’t be afraid to shoot from the hip every now and again, maybe even as often as possible. As much as I like to complain about library school (and believe you me, I do like to complain), you do emerge from school with a notion of how things ought to be. We’ve got instincts. We know when we see an opportunity, or when something’s out of whack. Your first instinct is probably the right course of action. Don’t let it get lost in a bureaucratic shuffle.

What do you think?  Would trusting your instincts be more advantageous and lead to more productive and happier librarians? Or, does the process of meetings, proposals and presentations provide a valuable safeguard against rogue librarians bent on bibliographic anarchy?

Brian Dewar is the Librarian at Luther College High School in Regina. He enjoys boxing, baking, and biking.