What You Touch You Don’t Feel

I am fascinated with the term “creative destruction.” Joseph Schumpeter, the economist associated the concept, described it as the way industrial progress destroys the processes that preceded it. But to me, it sums up my approach to project management, for better or worse.

On the worse end of things, I have a tendency to start projects (such as blogs or websites) with a lot of enthusiasm, then tear them down as soon as I am dissatisfied with the direction they are going. But on the better end of things, pulling something apart is the only way I can fully understand how it works. And sometimes, by breaking up the old systems, I can build something more efficient and thoughtful in its place.

When I began to manage my office’s data collection a few years ago, I took a hard look at the software we were using in the collection process. It became very clear that there were a few problems with not only the software as we had set it up, but the process itself. I decided the best way to move forward was to stop using the software and restart the process from scratch.

Obviously, I had to work hard to convince my office’s leadership that this was the right approach, especially because I was creating a massive workload for myself. But I thought that by ditching the old process, we could get a better sense of how our posts collect and manage their data, and we could rebuild from there.

My first step was to ask posts to email me their data in the format that they used themselves. This turned out to be a really interesting endeavor. While we were dictating what we wanted to collect, most posts either already had their own processes in place or had taken their cues from our original requests.

Using all of these reports, I built a stop-gap process involving Google Sheets. It was built around each fiscal year and organized by country-specific tabs, divided by space, and broken down by month. For various reasons, this stop-gap turned out to be our long-term method of data collection. It’s not ideal, because a series of spreadsheets doesn’t really equal a database, but through creative use of Google Sheets formulas like IMPORTRANGE, I built something that was a lot more useful than the elaborate software system that it replaced.

Yes, I am bragging. Just a little bit.

The other aspect to our data collection process that I changed was a bit more simple. We used to grumble in our office that our data was frequently incomplete. When we did training sessions or meetings with staff, we would stress the importance of submitting their reports. I remember one session in which a library director asked if we could set up reminders to input their data. Our response was to remind staff to set up their own reminders. This seemed wholly unsatisfactory, even at the time.

It occurred to me that we should be requesting the data we want from everyone instead of expecting everyone to just send it to us. So after that initial data call, I just started to email everyone reminders on a regular basis. And pretty soon we ended up with as complete a dataset as we could expect. Sometimes if you just ask nicely, you can get what you want.

Yes, I am bragging again. I am proud that I was able to take my destructive nature and turn it into something constructive and ultimately pretty useful. That said, it is time to move into something a bit more sophisticated, because I manage a lot of spreadsheets now. But I may still send out those reminders personally. I kind of like having that connection with everyone from around the world.