admit it’s a problem, and start from there.

Gamers talk a lot about tactics versus strategy, and managers talk about strategic planning just as often. I get tired of both words and all their iterations, and the fact that I decried the lack of strategic leadership in library directors doesn’t help my plight — people send me things they suspect I’ll be interested in reading, and the words jump off the screen as I scan the news on my own initiative.

This morning I was supposed to be reading and replying to the 25 new messages in my inbox, working on budget planning, and doing some housekeeping tasks around the libraries, but in true “it’s summer! there is no pressure!” fashion, I got distracted and fell into the rabbit hole of the Harvard Business Review blogs and then the McKinsey&Company website. And I found this, which is one of the most interesting pieces I’ve read on strategy in ages.

The Perils of Bad Strategy.

A few pull quotes:

“Too many organizational leaders say they have a strategy when they do not. Instead, they espouse what I call “bad strategy.” Bad strategy ignores the power of choice and focus, trying instead to accommodate a multitude of conflicting demands and interests.”

“A leader may justly ask for “one last push,” but the leader’s job is more than that. The job of the leader—the strategist—is also to create the conditions that will make the push effective, to have a strategy worthy of the effort called upon.”

“A final hallmark of mediocrity and bad strategy is superficial abstraction—a flurry of fluff—designed to mask the absence of thought. Fluff is a restatement of the obvious, combined with a generous sprinkling of buzzwords that masquerade as expertise. Here is a quote from a major retail bank’s internal strategy memoranda: “Our fundamental strategy is one of customer-centric intermediation.” Intermediation means that the company accepts deposits and then lends out the money. In other words, it is a bank. The buzzphrase “customer centric” could mean that the bank competes by offering better terms and service, but an examination of its policies does not reveal any distinction in this regard. The phrase “customer-centric intermediation” is pure fluff. Remove the fluff and you learn that the bank’s fundamental strategy is being a bank.”

“This template-style planning has been enthusiastically adopted by corporations, school boards, university presidents, and government agencies. Scan through such documents and you will find pious statements of the obvious presented as if they were decisive insights. The enormous problem all this creates is that someone who actually wishes to conceive and implement an effective strategy is surrounded by empty rhetoric and bad examples.”

I love it, and it makes something else clear: When I say that library directors should have strategic plans or have done strategic planning, I don’t mean bad strategic planning. I mean the good kind. The usable kind. The kind that can drive you forward to an actual goal, change, or state of being.

I spent part of my misplaced morning mapping out on my whiteboard the libraries’ upcoming projects and then linking them to specific communication and outreach efforts with one of our most important constituencies, the faculty. After reading this, I can see that I need to start over. I had made a list of the projects we’re going to do — weeding, changing focus on information literacy, etc — and then mapped out communication tactics. But after reading this that feels like a halfhearted response. We — libraries, librarians, humans, whatever — shy away from identifying our problems and naming our challenges openly. I think we fear that it will make us look bad, or be insulting to others, or some other something born of a desire to be collegial and supportive.  But my list on the whiteboard starts with “Weeding” and is linked to “Faculty survey: open-ended questions on collections and perceptions and values thereof, followed with targeted position paper from JPR to address our position and their concerns.”  Not a bad idea, as it stands.

But what could I accomplish if I started with baldly and boldly stating the problem, and therefore forefronting it in my planning process? To whit, “faculty have different ideas about the goals and values of a Library than the realities, values, and goals our college libraries operate under, and that perception gap causes problems for us when we undertake innovative projects. If that perception gap is not directly addressed with clear communication, our relationships with our valued colleagues are damaged.”  In that case, what’s our guiding policy, and what coherent actions will we take?

So. A new place to start, and the ideas are spinning in my head. It’s fun — I suggest you try it. 🙂

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