Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Why How What Now

At MPOW (my place of work), we are about to embark on another round of strategic planning. Before it starts, I wanted to work through my own thoughts on the matter before my simple brain gets too clouded with competing visions of our collective future.

I've been through enough of these planning exercises to know that the matter can be described in a fairly straight-forward manner: first you establish values and from these and an environmental scan, you (being either the management  or the entire organization) set the strategic priorities. Then, if you are keen, you determine what variables you will pay attention to when you get to the point when you are able reflect on the exercise and determine if you have been successful in the tactics that you established to achieve your priorities.

The best organizations are those who embed their values into such a clear mission that it informs all of the decisions made by that organization. Those are the findings of Jim Collins in his seminal book, Good to Great.

Making things simple is hard work. This is why so planning documents are long, ambiguous, and cumbersome. Instead of a core value, they come up with eight. Instead of one priority, they come up with 12.

Now I'm considering the possibility that it might just not be possible to distill the complexities of an organization into one core concept. But even if we are able to boil down the understanding of our work into something distilled, we can come up with powerful magic. Case in point: generations of work in libraries and library science can be described in 24 words, broken into 5 short, memorable laws.

Simon Sinek has tried to distill the lessons of great leaders into a model that he calls the golden circle: in the centre of the circle is why, the circle is how and the outer circle is what. Notice how this model maps quite nicely with the strategic planning process: why=values; how=strategies, what=tactics. And like Jim Collin's, Sinek's conclusion is that great companies and great leaders are those who are able to convey a clear why they do things.

In 2006, Dan Chudnov put down these thoughts in a post called, Because this is the business we've chosen:

If so, then what's the mission of the librarian in 2006? It's not an easy question. I've been stewing over it for two months, and think I've come up with the only answer that works for me. Yours might be different, but this describes what I'm here for, and the thread runs through every disparate bit of work I'm involved in one way or another... My professional mission as a librarian is this: Help people build their own libraries.

I too have been thinking about what's the mission of the librarian and I haven't come up with anything as clear and as powerful as Dan's statement. But I think I'm getting to something that is getting closer to where I would like such a statement to be. Here's what I've come up for our own strategic exercise:

Turn local problems into global solutions.

What I mean by this statement (and the fact that I feel that the statement needs some explanation tells me how weak it is as a mission statement) is that I would like to see libraries break out of the "special snowflake" syndrome and recognize that many small problems that we tackle in an ad hoc basis can be redrawn as larger problems faced by many readers and many libraries and thus, could be met with shareable solutions. It would remind us that we have a duty to make all of our work (research, software development, innovation) open and accessible to all for use, re-use, and re-mixing. It could make our work more meaningful and more important. It could inspire us to tackle important problems so that we can help others as we try to help ourselves.

The odds that this suggestion is going to survive the first stages of our planning process are slim to none.

But there is a good chance that this mission might end up as the work that I have chosen.

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