I’m about to do a webinar for Jane – actually for The Partnership’s Education Institute; this is part of a “Conversations with Leaders” series Jane initiated in which she interviews people about their experiences with particular issues.  I certainly don’t consider myself a leader, but I’m fortunate that my business partner  (that would be Jane) is and so many of our friends and colleagues are leaders. So do check out this series.

I’m going to talk with Jane about Thinking Strategically: How to See the Big Picture. I’m not being glib when I say to see the big picture, you have to look for it — and you have to want to see it. Seeing situations strategically is about learning, curiousity and questioning. It isn’t analogous to playing chess or war games as many think it is.  Those games have predictable outcomes.  It is really about purposefully looking at what is going on in the broader context around your job, your department, your library, your community or campus or organization. It’s about identifying and detecting relationships, connections, trends or even non-trends. And it’s about 2 of the scariest questions for organizations, including libraries: Why? and What if?

Most libraries look for the “big picture” when undertaking planning. Well, ok…..better late than never. But to think strategically, scanning needs to occur regularly and really become a habit.  As service organizations, Libraries must be keenly aware of what’s impacting their patrons or clients, their stakeholders (a.k.a. decision-makers and impactors), and suppliers. Library staff are usually pretty strong at following the library blogs and literature, but the events, trends and issues impacting clients, stakeholders and,yes, even suppliers is best found in the blogs, literature and places these groups frequent.  The environment impacting libraries is outside libraries — and our binoculars and radar screens needs to take this into account.

People love the analogy about “not seeing the forest because of the trees”.  Jane is great at getting clients out of the trees.  Thinking strategically is looking for who may be interested in buying the forest for redevelopment, or pruning part of the forest for a new faculty building, or realizing that some trees are being eaten away at by a new beetle; and (just to take this analogy a BIT further) if the library is a plant relying on those beetle-beset trees for shade and nourishment, it had better start to make plans – quick!

The usual techniques related to strategic thinking are environmental scanning and scenario thinking.

Scanning the Environment: Most people are quite familiar with environmental scanning, and put on their scanning glasses to prepare for strategic planning. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that the scans need to happen regularly, and become a habit — a way of running operations and doing business. Many scan the usual suspects: the economy, demographics, society, culture, political trends, traffic patterns (highway and public transport extensions), legislative patterns, etc.

And while it’s advisable to monitor these environmental elements and consider their implications, this scan is too narrow. Libraries need to look at other service organizations and other players in their sector, not just other libraries or book stores.  People use libraries to solve problems, make decisions, learn something, for entertainment and as a gathering or reflective place.  We see libraries as offering clients experiences.  Well, guess what? So does Starbucks. Guess who said this: “we are people-based, dependent on human behavior…..build on the experience we offer people and based on their trust in us, not on marketing….”  Are those the words of a public library CEO? A university librarian? Nope. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in the July/Aug 2010 Harvard Business Review.  Reading HBR, or having feeds from non-library blogs and sites, is looking for the big picture.  Then thinking about what these things may mean for your library — what the possible implications are — the “SoWOT?” (as opposed to just the SWOT) —  that’s strategic thinking.

Creating Plotlines that Depict the Possible Future: Another technique organizations use to see “beyond” is scenario planning.  Luckily there are lots of scenarios out there for libraries to use, since the building of scenarios – or stories – takes a great deal of time and effort.  Saint Paul Public Library is using scenario planning for their strategic planning and has very kindly published all of their work. Fabulous! Have a look, learn and leverage.  ARCL has recently published Futures Thinking for Academic Librarians — a set of scenarios for the future that all library staff, not just those in post-secondary environments, should consider.  Those in government libraries can look to IFLA for examples of scenarios developed by libraries all over the world. The real potential of scenario planning in extending your thinking is to consider these stories with a cross-section of people with different experiences in the library and in other sectors or functions.  Strategic thinking isn’t about a manager sitting at their desk, reading a range of blogs, sites and literature, asking themselves “WHY?” and then shouting “eureka! that’s an implication for us!”  We have to see the big picture with others — they add to the picture we see, and the understanding of that horizon keeps extending.

Strategic practice: Thanks to Dave Rushton at Aurora Public Library for suggesting that when I suggest that people need to practice thinking strategically, it’s really that they need to undertake strategic practice.   Thanks Dave.  You are so right. It’s all well and good for people to monitor Stephen’s Lighthouse or Fast Company or design blogs (David Seah is a favourite of mine), but that’s only getting input.  You then need to create a culture of questioning by:

  • making it clear that asking “why?” and “what if?” is healthy, not hurtful or accusatory
  • asking “how did we get this situation?” as a way of exploring the elements of a situation, and articulating base assumptions, not to identify scapegoats
  • celebrate “Ah ha!” moments and every small finding of factors that aren’t obvious, of analogies that help others understand, etc.

Strategic thinking is really about understanding what the big questions are — and realizing there’s no easy big answer.  It’s really about exploring and conversations with people with different perspectives to create new possibilities, new types of thinking, and new futures.

By the way, the next Conversation with Leaders is Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director with Information Today, Inc.  and Co-editor & Contributor, Dancing with Digital Natives: Staying in Step with the Generation That’s Transforming the Way Business is Done.