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Reflections on strategic plans that are neither strategic nor plans

It’s Christmas morning and I have some quality blogging time for the first time since returning to California late October and starting my new job. I pick up Sandy in four hours, and between now and then, I will drink hot chocolate, go for a nice walk, and write about strategic plans.

I have been giving a lot of thought to some issues Steven Bell raised in his comment to my last post about the challenges of directing small, private, tuition-driven university libraries.  One of the first things I did in my new job at Peanut U (as I think of it, and I mean that fondly, being a bit of a peanut myself) was read through previous “strategic plans” and related documents; I continue to consume as many internal documents as possible, not just library-related. (When people ask me what books I’ve read lately, I get a little vague.)  I did this for my own library but also for other libraries that fall in our range (easy enough to find these docs, given how comfortable we “lesser libraries” are with Google).

One of my conclusions — and it may be a no-brainer to many of you, but I cheerfully admit I haven’t thought about it quite this way before — is that particularly for smaller libraries, funding (good or bad) is often labeled a cause, when it is at least partially (and sometimes overwhelmingly) an outcome of leadership. I specifically target smaller libraries because larger libraries with bad leadership may have the momentum of size, reputation, and legacy services to carry them along, sometimes even for decades, whereas smaller institutions live closer to the bone.

Over and over, my head in hand (when it was not sinking to my desk), I read “plans” that instead of projecting a vision of where the library should be, let alone explain what the library currently does quite well, began with stating that the libraries do not have enough staff or funding, and then proceeded in page after stultifying page (written in ghastly Biblish) to compare the library to “peers” that are better-funded.

This is not to criticize peer comparisons, which can be extremely useful. I had an unexpectedly wonderful moment two weeks ago when in the middle of a presentation about the library’s short-range strategy I displayed a photo of Dominican‘s lovely popular-reading room.  This image completely bowled over the room in a way I hadn’t anticipated.

It’s one thing to show a photo of Georgia Tech’s gorgeous East Commons (which I did). I know it wasn’t a straight shot to creating that commons, not by far, but from the perspective of Peanut U, it might as well have been handed to them on a silver platter. Ho-hum.

But showing what a peer library did–a peer library known to have been, as several put it, “dumpy”–was a spectacular success. It took five minutes to get to the next slide, and not for anything I was saying. I have an expression, “I made money today,” that means I had some kind of strategic “win.” I came back from that presentation and those were the first words out of my mouth.

Note that the change-making image from Dominican wasn’t a comparison of what money can do. That photo was a comparison of what leadership can do. These so-called “strategic plans” that fail to project either a strategy or a plan are extremely frustrating to read, as a professional who wants all libraries to be wonderful, but they do end up being useful for understanding where leadership has failed in the past. It is  diagnostic that these “plans” rarely compare services or outcomes, but instead fixate on comparing raw resources — without clearly demonstrating what they would do if their resources were increased. Most of these plans don’t even pause at the beginning to explain how the library fits within the university’s mission and goals.

And I repeat, for emphasis, that these plans rarely explain what the library currently does quite well, perhaps even uniquely among peer institutions, beyond the occasional reference to “key indicators”–including those things that aren’t necessarily funding-related.

In one of the conversations I had with a peer director last week, we agreed that even with very spartan funding, we can focus on providing the best possible customer service. Improving the sheer quality of service by student workers is one of our spring goals at Peanut U; we are spending the break developing training materials, and I plan to personally meet with every student worker to share our library’s customer service philosophy and our expectations for their role in delivering customer service (aka the “Fear of God” talk, delivered pleasantly, of course).  They are very good kids (Peanut U seems to spray its students with Niceness when they matriculate), and having worked with 18-year-olds who were responsible for ensuring airplanes were fit to fly, I am confident this group of student workers is perfectly capable of learning just enough LC to get by, where the remote-access instructions are for the library portal, and what the phone number for the circ desk is.

To train our student workforce  to a fare-thee-well is part of our strategic vision, simple as it might seem (just as changing the database pages so they now open to basic search, instead of advanced search, took a modicum of effort and is also part of our strategy to improve customer service). There’s a slide for it in my talk. But customer service rarely comes up in the dead-on-arrival non-plans I have been reading.

It takes a village to improve a university library’s funding. As a department within a larger institution, the university library has to continually make a case for its relevance and value within the context of what are, quite frankly, worthy competitors.  Right now it’s evident, from our key indicators, that many at Peanut U have adjusted to the idea that the library has minimal relevance to their personal success.  I need to change this perception, and this will happen more slowly than I like and with more setbacks than I want, and of course, in a framework of very limited resources. But if I fail at this endeavor, asking for more funding won’t work, and why should it?

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  1. “They are very good kids …” — one of the habits I’ve worked hard to acquire is never calling the Boy Scouts “kids”, even though they are between 11 and 18. I call them “Scouts”, like the 18 year olds on the maintenance crew were “Airmen” (even the women are airmen, as I understand it).

    Picking something for success in the first semester is a really powerful way to start. Go for it.

    Sunday, December 27, 2009 at 3:05 pm | Permalink
  2. stevenb wrote:

    Having written a few it’s always a challenge to develop a coherent strategic plan that is a reflection of strong leadership. You write it knowing that you’ll encounter unexpected change that will require a change in direction, or at least will present a bump in the road. I tend to think of the strategic plan as a political document that communicates to the institution’s leadership what progress the library has made but more so what challenges lie ahead and what is needed to create a first-class library for that institution. I agree that it can be pretty pointless to serve up examples of what the peers have. Any department could do that, and it’s hardly likely to convince the administration why you deserve a larger share of the pie than any other office. It also must be developed hand-in-hand with the annual budget. The budget is the real planning document. For the library staff I worked with them to create a tactical plan (as opposed to the strategic one) that laid out our goals for the year, with quarterly targets. That gave the staff something more concrete to contend with, and from which we could derive regular small victories and a few failures.

    Sunday, December 27, 2009 at 4:14 pm | Permalink
  3. That’s an excellent point, Walter–it underscores the presumption of maturity which is why 18-year-olds can be trusted to sign off maintenance on aircraft. They are adults, and treating them as such (including vocabulary) is important. I need a better noun but “assistants” is one way to go.

    Monday, December 28, 2009 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  4. “The budget is the real planning document”–absolutely. It needs to begin early and it needs to be multi-year. There should also be various versions of it, so that you can always dial up and down depending on cuts or sudden windfalls, and I’ve experienced both in the same year more than once.

    Quarterly targets are very valuable. One thing I’ve stressed (having learned this elsewhere) is that stakeholders like visible achievements. You may have a large, important, but highly abstract project that is in fact the “real” work you need to get done, but while that’s going on you need something people can see and touch. We had a first-quarter (first-my-quarter…) achievement with Food for Fines, which was led by Access Services, and we’re moving forward with the rezoning project. Staying on top of progress toward these goals and frequent clear communication about progress, limitations, etc. is really important.

    Monday, December 28, 2009 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  5. Maia wrote:

    I really appreciated this piece because throughout the business world strategic plans are rarely either. This isn’t a challenge constrained to the library sector. By working as a team under the Malcom Baldrige principles, and with terrific leadership from our CEO, we have created a (constantly evolving) strategic plan focused on perfect patient care. Everything evolves from or supports that concept or it is stricken from the plan. What strikes me as key to the success of achieving our vision is leadership that is inclusive and embraces change, not for change’s sake but as a constant state of refinement: “How can I do what I do better?”

    Monday, January 4, 2010 at 10:18 pm | Permalink
  6. Kathryn Deiss wrote:

    Many library strategic plans are operational plans where every work area in the library is represented. Long lists of goals and objectives are included and people treat the plan as a place to park all the things that need fixing or that people wish for – like painting the walls in the reference area, or starting a recycling program, etc. My litmus test is: if it can be done by somebody tomorrow it probably isn’t strategic – if it is just something someone has to get resources or permission to do it is probably not strategic.
    Plans like these display a singular lack of strategic thinking, which by its very nature is the ability to make choices. I like to recommend very short and discrete plans with only a handful of strategic areas described. And these should help the library move (emphatically) into its desired future. But that very issue – the desired future – turns out to be extremely elusive for most libraries: what do we want to create? How can we conceive of a reality that does not yet exist, etc. etc.
    I really have liked the concept of “strategic directions” rather than a plan. I think this allows for flexibility over the two-three years the document is in play. I like the document to be written in lively plain English – not corporate speak (when did we learn to write like that?!). And the document can act as a vetting tool for every big decision: will this help us expand into the areas described by our three-five strategic directions?
    And, yes, it is a political document as well (as Steven points out) so it needs to be able to be understood by people who are not librarians. It needs to be 99.9% externally focused.
    Strategic thinking is difficult but not impossible. It requires the discipline to choose among a number of potentially competing good things (choosing between one good thing and another good thing is more likely to be the challenge than choosing between good and bad).
    Good luck with this, Karen.

    Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 1:43 am | Permalink

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