Help! I Inherited a Mess!

Mary Kelly —  September 10, 2013 — 1 Comment
photo credit: massdistraction via photopin cc

photo credit: massdistraction via photopin cc

I teach Excel from time to time. Most of my students are either new in a new job or have transferred departments. Invariably, they have inherited a spreadsheet from someone. The original creator of the spreadsheet is long gone.  Students come in thinking this is a problem because they don’t feel their Excel skills are good enough and that is why that can’t figure out the problem spreadsheet. I have never found this to be true. Of course Excel skills are important, but a crappy spreadsheet is still a crappy spreadsheet, no matter how good you are with Excel. They didn’t have an Excel problem, they had a mess.

Most everyone I know in libraries has taken over some kind of mess.  Even if you are lucky enough to have grown into your job or invent it from the beginning, somewhere along the line you are going to be handed someone’s project, someone’s file, someone’s collection or even an entire library. In my career, in and out of libraries, I have been handed things “to fix”.  Some are small but sometimes a whole library is in jeopardy and needs to be fixed.  So, how does one start cleaning up a mess?

Start with concrete facts.

This can be anything from the bank balance, budget, or shelf list.  Start with facts you can document/prove. Use sources like bank statements, payroll, confirmed meeting notes, or an inventory. Most messes come from incomplete information, guesses and hunches. For my Excel students, once we established the purpose of the spreadsheet, it was easier to decide if the spreadsheet was salvagable or not. Often, it is better to simply start over or move forward from what you actually do know.

Document your information and plan accordingly.

Tell your supervisor exactly what is going on and articulate your plan. Confirm priorities. Review policies and procedures where necessary. What are the most important things that need to be done, so the library stays open, lights are on, patrons are served and staff gets paid. Follow up with emails or notes that confirm your discussions. In short, keep track of your information and its source.

Don’t try and fix everything at once.

Assume that the mess wasn’t created in one day, so you will need time to sort out the situation.  Often the mess takes on a life of its own and employees work around it. Don’t assume that one directive is going to fix everything. Try to understand the workflow process and the employees involved, before making any sweeping changes.  Go slowly and deliberately.

Get buy in.

This is the art of management in a nutshell.  Change is frightening to even the toughest person. Share where you are headed with your plans. Don’t expect perfection or buy in immediately, but do put some parameters on your expectations of employees. Give and get feedback from those involved.

Get support.

I have often talked about having a club of like minded librarians/managers that you can talk to informally. I have my nerd club of librarians that I absolutely depend on to keep me centered. We meet maybe a couple of times a year (usually when one of us needs to talk about a change in plans or needs an idea).  We have a confidentiality rule in place and we don’t really invite others along. It really isn’t as social, as much as group career therapy.

Finally, make sure in these moments of stress you practice self-care. Plan your day accordingly and shut off your email, computer and keep work at work.

Mary Kelly


Co-founder of and library utility player. Lover of: library data, spreadsheets, collection quality, cats and cardigans. Follow me on twitter @librarymary40

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

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