Guest Post: Adrienne Hannan, “The Strategic Librarian” – Part II

Following last week’s guest post on what librarians can learn from the 21st century military, children’s librarian and New Zealand Defence Force reservist Adrienne Hannan, of Wellington City Libraries, sets out the ‘ten commandments of manoeuvre warfare for librarians.’

Manouevre warfare in libraries

Adrienne was a guest speaker at the Auckland Libraries conference ‘New Rules of Engagement (PDF download)‘ – now she offers 10 ways librarians can learn from the military’s can-do attitude and take our operations to a new level of efficiency, effectiveness, and panache.


Manoeuvrist theory is a way of thinking about warfare rather than a particular set of tactics or techniques. At its essence is defeating the enemy’s will to fight rather than their ability. The theory emphasises the central location of the human element in warfare. The commandments of manoeuvre warfare are about people – your own forces, a profound understanding of the enemy, and a detailed knowledge of other friendly forces as well as neutral and non-combative groups. The Australian Army has a great description: manoeuvre warfare theory describes war as a competition that is based in space and time, and not on the traditional view of spatial position alone. The ability to maintain a higher tempo of operations relative to your enemy creates the opportunity to defeat the enemy’s ‘centre of gravity’.

In essence, it’s a set of commandments that set your people up for success, and that success is not longer about gaining physical ground, but on achieving a win over hearts, minds and motivation.

Focus on the enemy not ground
In order to be responsive you need to be flexible enough to change as your customer changes. Your policy and practices should be customer focussed, rather than location or resource focused. In order to win you need to focus on the element that changes, not the one that stays static. Plan to provide service to the customer, not the field they play on.

Act more quickly than enemy can react (decision cycle)
Basically – be able to make decisions and act on them faster than your enemy can.
Be quick to move on new initiatives and be ready to offer the customer something they need before they know they need it. Be an early adapter, adopter and initiator; don’t wait for the customer demands to reach a certain level before implementing a new service, policy or platform.

Issue mission type orders
You need to be end-state orientated. Mission-type orders are very clear. They start off by stating what the successful conclusion looks like, therefore everyone knows when they have achieved the mission, rather than the project continuing on needlessly. In military terms this needless continuation would result the soldiers not only winning the fire fight and clearing the village, but then continuing to run over the next hill and the next hill until they are out of sight, because they didn’t know when the objective had been achieved.
Mission orders not only specify the end state of the mission, but also the intent and the overall situation surrounding the mission. This means that if the mission/project starts to go haywire the soldiers/librarians can make sound decisions on the spot to ensure that the intent of the mission/project is still adhered to.
Mission type-orders also cover specifics such as the execution of the plan – who does what, resources, timings, communications and signals, command structure and logistical elements.
They really are a perfect set of instructions for short term projects.

Avoid strength and attack weakness
The best way to translate this to librarianship is: find the gaps in your service and fill them.
Honestly assess your own weaknesses (customer service, knowledge, products, programmes, collections, technology/platforms, physical environment etc.) and concentrate resources on strengthening these areas.
In the military we are required to examine our missions for weaknesses that the enemy can exploit and use to their advantage. It’s important that if any weaknesses cannot be mitigated or remedied, that they should at least not be exposed. In World War 2 there were many cases of smokescreens and mirrors used in order to convince the axis forces that allied numbers were superior or to make them think that something was/wasn’t happening, when the opposite was true.
In this situation you may wish to find out ways you can divert attention away from your weaknesses in order to preserve your reputation. This can be particularly important in times of budget reductions.

Exploit tactical opportunities, reinforce success not failure
Success should be seen as a culture, not the outcome of a task.
We need to focus on creating and celebrating success, no matter how small. Often the consolidation of many small successes over time can create a culture of success with your library system. Small success can lead to large successes as librarians gain the confidence to be bolder. Ensure the small successes are recognised, noted and rewarded and people will naturally try to emulate the conditions again in order to receive more recognition.
The creation of success need not be the result of a massive effort. By recognising opportunities and exploiting them, many small successes can be achieved.
Tactical advantages must be identified, no matter how small. To recognise where advantages can be made, you must know your terrain, resources and your enemy – your communities, your resources (people, budget, knowledge, equipment etc.), your customers, peer groups, competition and your local industry.
By having a sound understanding of your mission and where you can grab tactical advantages, your library system can create many small and large successes.

Always designate Main Effort
Main effort is the key push that achieves the mission – this is usually where you are placing your main fighting force, be it infantry, artillery or cavalry (tanks have replaced horses). Everything else is usually in a support role for the main effort.
The main effort is always clearly designated and defined; as this forms a large part of the understanding of how the mission is to be achieved. If you are not in the main effort, then you are supporting the main effort.
Does your library system have a clearly defined mission? What area of your library service is main effort? Who is part of your main effort, and who is supporting it? Do those in the main effort know what their job is? Do the supporting forces understand what is required of them to support the main effort?

Avoid predictability
Predictability equates to death and mission failure in the military. The enemy will gain the initiative if they can anticipate your actions. Or in library terms – your customers will get bored and stop using your services.
Capture your customers’ attention by doing something new or something they don’t expect. Predictability gets boring and you risk your library system becoming background noise. Show that you are a mover and a shaker in the literary environment.
Host an event in the library that is not a ‘traditional’ library event, or reduce lending or overdue fees (they won’t expect that). Make yourself exciting.

Dark Night cabaret at Auckland Libraries - unpredictable, effective library service!
Dark Night cabaret at Auckland Libraries – unpredictable, effective library service!

Remember, though, that some of your customers take comfort in predictability and have certain base expectation of what a library is and provides. Identify what you can change and introduce, and what is your ‘bread and butter’.
For example, we wouldn’t exchange our rifles for a stick of salami in order to be unpredictable – there are certain things that must remain the same, like soldiers carrying rifles. Usually is it the tactics that change – the resources are often the same as they don’t change as quickly as the missions require, but the tactics on how they are utilised change.

Support movement with fire (manoeuvre)
This one is quite specific from a military point of view. Basically – move soldiers or resources forward under the cover of suppressing fire. This is what’s happening when the movie’s hero yells ‘COVER ME’ and dashes off. He is manoeuvring while his bewildered buddy sprays bullets in the general direction of the enemy,
When applied to libraries, there are a couple of aspects to this commandment to explore:
Firstly, ensure your projects are adequately resourced. There is no point setting out to achieve something if you do not have the ability to see it through to a successful conclusion, or to have it fail at a later date due to a lack of on-going support. You cannot provide cover without the weapons to do it, and throwing stones is usually inadequate.
The second aspect is the coordination of your forces and resources when achieving the mission. Make sure the ‘movement’ and the ‘support’ elements happen simultaneously.
In a practical sense, this could mean that someone could help a colleague out with their workload to enable that colleague to work on a project or initiative of theirs.
Basically, back each other up and support each other in a coordinated way.

Command from the front
Your libraries’ leaders should be setting the example. The traditional image of the officer with sword on horseback leading the charge from the front comes to mind (rather than the officer urging his soldiers forward by poking them in the backs with his sword).
In order for library leaders to effectively lead and set direction, they need to ensure they have a working understanding of the frontline environment. I believe it’s essential for leaders to spend time amongst the collections and customers and behind the library desks. Not only does this give them an understanding of the requirements of the frontline positions, but also allows them to demonstrate the standard required, or set the example.
Seeing your commanders and leaders working around the frontlines and demonstrating a high skill level and ability to do a soldier’s job is the most effective way in military to earn respect. The frontline is where your missions and objectives are achieved, so it makes sense for your leaders to be positioned there. The emphasis here is on leadership, rather than management.

Act boldly and decisively
In the military we say that often it doesn’t matter what decision you make so long as you make a decision. More losses are made through indecisiveness, than the wrong decision being made.
Decide what you are going to do, then boldly do it. However, be flexible enough to make a new decision and change tack when required. ‘Boldness’ is a willingness to get things done, even despite risks, and is therefore broadly synonymous with bravery.
Going back to reinforcing success over failure, ensure that praise is given for making a decision, regardless if the decision was a good one or not. You take the chance of becoming a stagnant and risk-adverse organisation, that trips over its own red tape, if your librarians are reluctant to make decisions.

This whole picture can be summarised thus:

Ensure your librarians understand the intent and mission of your organisation and they understand where the main effort is.

Be exciting and unpredictable, but keep the focus on your customers rather than your collections or facilities (which, naturally, will follow suit if this focus is correctly placed).

Set your librarians up for success and praise even the small victories.

Resource your main effort appropriately and make sure everyone know what their role is, either in the main effort or supporting.

With an understanding of the intent, mission, their roles and the resources they have, allow your librarians to take advantage of tactical situations and make decisions at the front, rather than creating a delay as permission is sought for up and down the chain of command.

And, of course, all of this is set in place by the library managers and leaders who are at the front with their sword and horse demonstrating and setting the example, rolling up their sleeves and helping to lead the charge and dig the trenches.

For more thoughts on librarianship as a kind of cultural warfare, follow Adrienne on Twitter as @adriennehannan.

7 thoughts on “Guest Post: Adrienne Hannan, “The Strategic Librarian” – Part II

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