Getting Permission

Last week, Emily Lloyd at Shelf Check (very funny librarian comic strip and a fine blog, too) posted What would you do if you didn’t need the approval of 15 committees? And mentioned me. Here’s what she said (make sure to read the whole post AND comment on it. It’s good):

“I think of what, for ex, David Lee King does for Topeka & Shawnee. David has lots of talent; David has lots of gear…but a lot of folks who work in libraries have lots of talent and lots of gear. What ultimately matters most, it seems to me, is lots of permission. David has that, I think–at least it looks like it from here–and most of us don’t. Many of us don’t need to be told or taught at conferences how to engage with patrons via social media, how to market our libraries via YouTube or Facebook, etc–we need our administrators to be told or taught that they should allow us to do so … You can’t seize the moment; you can’t seize the day; you’re lucky if you can seize the year. Old Spice/New Spice practically seized the nanosecond.”

She’s right – I DO have a boatload of permission. How do I get that permission? I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that, but I’ll try! Here’s what I do to get that permission:

  • Most importantly, I’m actually trusted to do the right thing … so I have permission in advance. That permission was granted through my original job description, and continues through a ton of talking with my peers and with administration.
  • Did I mention talking? Yes – I actually ask for permission. All the time. I asked for permission to do things at least three times last week – on two smaller things, and on one huge thing that won’t happen for 2-3 years (if at all).
  • I sometimes get permission without asking. I share ideas and direction with other managers and with administration, and back it up with stats, with outcomes, etc. If an idea takes off, I don’t have to ask for permission – instead, I’m asked “when are you going to start?”
  • I make sure everything I’m asking for relates to our strategic plan. Or at least to the goals of the project at hand. When I ask for permission to do something, I make sure it relates to one of our big strategic initiatives. Thankfully, that’s pretty easy for me, because building and growing the digital branch IS part of the plan. But only because a big strategic goal we have is to reach people in the county … digitally.

But I’d be lying if I said that’s ALL that happens. The organization plays a big part in my permission, too:

  • Administration is full of healthy, happy people that I love to work with! Gina and Rob, our director and deputy director, are great bosses (fun people to hang with, too). They know how to give people responsibility and let them run with it. Our other managers are the same way.
  • The library works hard to hire and train people we can trust (so I can get that permission in advance thing). But then, we go one step further – we actually let our staff “do stuff.”
  • My job is a manager-level job, so I have a say at the planning table (actually, everyone who works at my library has a say – mine’s maybe a bit more direct).
  • We have a strategic plan, and we actually follow it.

Not getting that permission? Here’s what might be going on:

  • You’re not working in a healthy organization. Your library director’s not effective, you have bosses that aren’t trusting or are control freaks (or simply don’t know how to manage people and projects).
  • Your library doesn’t have a strategic plan or goals. Or you DO have them, but aren’t really following them. Maybe someone’s scared to act on those plans.
  • The things you’re trying to get permission to do don’t align with the library’s (or your supervisor’s) goals.
  • Or … you’re simply not asking for permission. End all your meetings with some next steps and a timeline.

Something to think about – no, you can’t change administration. If you have a bad library director or bad managers, the only real way to change that is to find another job (or wait it out, if you’re extremely patient, I suppose). Sorry about that.

But did you notice? The other three points under “not getting that permission” are things you can change, or at least have a say in – even if you’re not a manager. Maybe your library doesn’t have a strategic plan – you can still set annual goals for your job with your supervisor, and start working on those things. You can focus on aligning your projects with the library’s strategic goals. And you can ask for permission.

OK – I’m sure I’m missing something here, but it’s a start!

Update – make sure to read the next post, Help Others Get Permission … and make a comment!

pic by Sean Dreilinger

  • Lori Reed

    You are right one with one of the keys to getting permission…make “them” think it was their idea. This always works for me. Talk something up so much that someone says, “Hey why don't we/you do that.”

  • Lesfraises

    very sad to say.. there are too many bosses who simply don’t know how to manage people and projects and don't have a strategic plan or goals :-(

  • Emily Lloyd

    Fantastic post–and thanks for the very kind words.

  • Emily Lloyd

    Fantastic post. Thanks for always being an inspiration, and for the very kind words.

  • Emily

    I really enjoyed this perspective, David. I like that you talk about the strategic plan, because this seems to have a lot to do with futures planning and making sure we are doing things that move our organizations forward (as opposed to sideways, backwards, etc).

    One thing though, is that if individuals encounter obstacles, it's not always easy to just find a new job these days. Moreover, what happens when obstacles result in lack of interest or mojo? (Yes, I'm being self-referential.) Working around obstacles can be politically dangerous for those of us who are in entry-level bottom rung jobs.

    Do you have any tips about how to try to move forward and get permission and get things done in an organization that has its issues? How can we be proactive without having to leave our organizations to be able to do good things?

  • Lori Reed

    Emily, I would say sometimes it is important to go outside your organization. I have become very active with the Learning Round Table of ALA initially as a way to get leadership experience now it's just fun. Once I did that work outside it helped to prove my skills within my organization.

    Best of luck to you!

  • Lori Reed

    That's why it is important to create your own goals. I am a firm believer that everyone should have a personal and professional vision, mission statement, and goals. You are the director of your own life and career. You can't always count on someone else to be there to lead you.

  • davidleeking

    I like that idea, Lori! And it's VERY true – you don't have to rely on your boss or your organization to build your career for you (in fact, you shouldn't).

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  • Andromeda Yelton

    Useful stuff :).

    On “what might be going on”, I speculate also:

    * You're asking for stuff without having first built a sufficiently strong relationship with permission-givers that you have credibility with them. Yeah, it would be great if people would evaluate ideas on their own merits even if they're coming from totally out of left field, or from someone who doesn't spend much time hanging around the water cooler, but so it goes.

    * Your idea is complex, or makes sense only in a paradigm that the permission-giver isn't familiar with. They're saying no because they have a knee-jerk reaction against the unknown (as many people do), or because they have an incorrect picture of what you're trying to do, or because your idea is simply incoherent from their perspective.

    #1 seems like it could be addressed by applying social skills and asking again later. #2 might be solved by a better explanation (in particular, starting from a better starting point), but probably requires some sort of long game — slowly educating people on a relevant paradigm, getting permission to run a related but much smaller pilot and building from there, networking with other people doing something similar so you can both demonstrate the value of your idea and provide concrete (hence more comprehensible) examples…

  • Kathy Dempsey

    As I recommend in my book, The Accidental Library Marketer, getting permission and / or buy-in for projects can be much easier with one thing: Data. Evidence. Proof that something works elsewhere.
    Rather than just saying, “Can we try this?” gather your data first to make a strong case for permission. Then you can say, “I'd like to try this. I've already found evidence that it worked in 2 other orgs that are similar to ours. X and Y did it, and they [increased circ by x percent] or [they won a referendum on their budget] or whatever the goal is.
    Many administrators (who, don't forget, are also accountable to higher-ups) don't want to take chances. Prove that what you're doing has a good chance of working, and you increase your odds of getting the green light.
    This means that we all need to help each other by actually measuring the success of our efforts (in real numbers, not in feel-good cred) and then share the evidence with others. Often, our profession is great at the “doing” and we sort of slide by the “measuring / evaluating” part. That, too, is essential for moving forward!!

  • Susan

    Sometimes I've found getting permission can be either a matter of timing or a matter of being willing to bring things up more than once…timing is hard to judge, I can just tell you that sometimes a suggestion is meet with a no and later it will be yes, but only if I am persistent and keep at it. Which brings me to the second, sometimes you have to keep asking–of course the key there is how much is enough without becoming irritating, etc.

  • Susan

    Sometimes I've found getting permission can be either a matter of timing or a matter of being willing to bring things up more than once…timing is hard to judge, I can just tell you that sometimes a suggestion is meet with a no and later it will be yes, but only if I am persistent and keep at it. Which brings me to the second, sometimes you have to keep asking–of course the key there is how much is enough without becoming irritating, etc.

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  • David W

    I think another challenge to being creative in a bureaucracy – whether it is a healthy one or all gummed up and dysfunctional – is keeping creative energy around a project or proposal that should be short term, but winds up being very looooong term. When you pitch something again and again and again to gatekeepers who either don't get it or even have antipathy towards it, and then finally – sometimes years down the road – everything opens up and the thing you've been struggling for is suddenly getting interest from the top – it can be so hard to recover the initial enthusiasm and motivation behind the proposal. In more jammed up situations, and in cases where former opponents pull a 180 degree turn and adopt ideas or assume authorship of them, there can a real freight of baggage and resentment that needs to be unpacked and defused. Or your creative people have moved on to other more promising or timely ideas, leaving the organization always out of step with itself. Our own ability to hit the reset button, and to find the comfort in two-steps-forward-one-step-back is crucial, I think.

  • Mmacdonald

    Great post from this senior administrator's point of view. I look for staff who actively seek permission by brigning forward ideas that fit with our mission…

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