Jane and I will be focusing on Thinking Strategically and Building the Future at SLA’s Annual Conference on Sunday June 8th. As I think about the points we want to cover, the case study, and questions we’ll use to prompt participants’ discussions and reflection, there’s one issue Jane will have to keep me from harping: strategic thinking takes time, discourse, reflection, and time. Yes, I know I repeated time. And I know I used a no-no word regarding a learning environment: harping. Bear with me. Having been involved in 100+ strategic plans as a facilitator, a manager, a volunteer and a staff member, I know that the factor of time can’t be over-emphasized.
Too often leadership teams, staff and, in the case of public institutions, boards view strategic planning as an activity that can be accomplished in 2 or 3 meetings of a few hours each or a weekend retreat. Yes, so long as they have been preparing for these meetings with deep research, reading, and reflection it is possible for them to make strategic decisions in that time frame. But the sad truth is that management, staff and boards seldom commit the time and energy needed to come to terms with a very uncertain, unfamiliar future. They will review the trends and developments occurring, and probably complete a thorough SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats), but will be reluctant to go the next mile (yes, MILE) of doing the strategic thinking by asking, considering and debating, “SoWOT? So what does this mean for us? What are the implications of these trends for our communities? our campus? for faculties’ research grants? for employment in our region? for our services? for our interactions with various community segments?” And yet it is only through these types of intensive debates – sometimes rather heated “discussions” – that further strategic thinking occurs. These discussions should be heated; they should turn up the heat on the the library and force those responsible for the library (or any organization) to truly and strategically think through the various answers to these probing questions. And if it is too hot for someone then they need to get out of the kitchen.
Thinking strategically is not for the faint of heart. It is about looking forward into the unknown. On my lunch today I flipped through the most recent Fast Company and chuckled that there was yet another advertisement for a firm in the protection business using a photo of a man standing on a ladder scanning the horizon. Ever notice how most strategy-related images are of people staring into the distance? I always think we should use images of lifting yucky rocks, or schlepping through a swamp. Researching current and evolving developments can be scary. We find things we aren’t really comfortable with, or we don’t know what do to with – they don’t fit our service model or how we see our role in our community, campus or company. But we need to know where those pesky pests are and “think” about them. Think about what they mean for our programs or technologies. Think about how to avoid them or how to harness them. That’s strategic thinking.
And that peering off into the distance? Well that isn’t about looking in the usual directions. Strategic thinking really depends on looking in swamps you wouldn’t ordinarily go near. Like that issue of Fast Company. I read as many things as I can that have nothing to do with libraries and yet everything to do with the world impacting and influencing libraries and the information sector. The May 2013 Fast Company has articles about Bill Gates’ strategy for education, ReDigi.com (should digital goods be treated like physical goods?) and how techie entrepreneurs are working to revitalize downtown Detroit. These all make me think.
During the next several weeks Jane and I will be writing about strategy, thinking and planning. And I’ll really try not to harp. Just so long as you remember that strategic thinking is about discomfort, digging, probably getting a bit dirty, and time. But it is a good time – a GREAT time, and well worth it in the long run. And the short run too.