Four ways to avoid the “transition trap” in your strategic planning

Even well-developed, regularly updated strategic plans are subject to short-term crises and changes in the environment. For the last 18 months, we’ve seen that take place as the world and libraries reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic. But beyond keeping day-to-day activities going, library leaders have also been considering how to manage the pandemic’s effects on strategic, long-range issues. Recent tactical decisions need to be balanced against longer-term strategic aims.

It’s important, as we move further into a post-pandemic planning mode, not to confuse tactical, transitional plans with long-term, transformational strategy.

1. Differentiate transitions from transformations

For example, most libraries, along with businesses in many other sectors, saw the use of online options increase dramatically. And many leaders are now evaluating how to work that trend into their long-term strategic planning. But increasing your library’s digital activities and services based on demand is a transitional move, a reaction—not a transformation in what and how services and content are delivered.

Libraries have been delivering digitally for some time. The pandemic has forced already existing behaviors into focus. Lockdowns and closures of the physical library with no access to collections increased the visibility of digital options. In our collections strategies, we make a mistake if we place print and digital in opposition to each other. While they may require different internal processes, we should understand them both as “content,” adjusting how we think about them within the wider scholarly publications environment.

Increased use of digital content is an intensification of trends recognizable across many industries. It is not an acceleration of a move in libraries from print to digital content, as we were already there. Rather than reducing libraries and their work to a two-dimensional phenomenon, where what we do is measured as a movement through space and time, we can see this intensification as three-dimensional. We can adapt and evolve within and beyond ourselves, even if, at a practical level, we are confined and constrained by a finite resource base.

What is needed is a genuine transformation of services where, for example, we operate at the network level first. Where we change what we do and how we do it, and stop congratulating ourselves on a job well done if we believe that “running faster is running better.”

2. Focus on results that impact your community and institution

“Running faster” is often easier to measure. But strategic transformation means directing your efforts based on tangible results that are important to the people, institutions, and communities we serve. For example:

  • Scanning special collections based on changes to your budget, unexpected gifts, or random requests relies on transitional planning. Therefore, how many items you scan or how many clicks and views they get are tactical metrics.
  • An ongoing, on-demand scanning strategy that addresses collections-based teaching modes from your faculty or other stakeholders involves transformational planning. It requires you to understand others’ objectives—to see if more clicks (“running faster”) actually meets their goals.

From an external standpoint, it helps to take into account goals that are widely shared within the profession and across other industries and geographies.

For example, many libraries and partner organizations are aligning plans with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). OCLC has hosted a series of five webinars on SDG topics geared to help you understand how to apply them within library contexts. A better understanding of how other libraries and organizations use the SDGs can help your planning stay transformational, externally relevant, and more strategic.

Stuart Hunt on how to avoid the “transition trap” when doing strategic planning. #OCLCnext #LibraryManagement Click To Tweet

3. Adjust your strategy, not your results

Awkward question: Have you ever adjusted your results so that they better meet a change in circumstance? I don’t mean fudging numbers. But that thing where we reword what we actually did to look like it was part of the plan all along. That’s a case of reframing transitions to disguise them as good planning.

If, instead, you adjust your strategy when circumstances change, you’ll address the transformations necessary to engage with the new environment successfully. That’s a lot better than pretending your results are meeting needs that no longer apply. So, whether you use an external set of guidelines like the SDGs or some other criteria, going back to change strategy helps keep shorter-term adjustments on track.

4. Ask yourself, “Start, stop, or continue?”

Tactical decisions can have a direct impact on strategic results. When implementing services rapidly to address the pandemic, the decision-making was immediate based on addressing short-term needs. However, new decisions taken, on reflection, may align with or adjust or supplement strategic decisions.

Any program or policy has, at its core, three options:

  • Start something new
  • Stop doing something current
  • Continue with something current

If you have a transformational strategy in place, you can schedule benchmarks whenever appropriate to ask those questions about any activity. All you need to ask is, “Does this tactic get me closer to my strategic goals?”

Transformational planning may seem like a lot more work. But the results are worth it. Not only will you make changes based on values that are aligned with important outputs and external ideas, but you can then make transitional adjustments much more quickly as you go.

Getting stuck in a “transition trap,” where your plans are all tactical, may address short-term needs—but it won’t help your library transform itself to meet your users’ challenges. Long-term, fundamental changes require transformational strategic planning. This holistic approach means thinking about all the ways your entire organization can (and should) change to support the goals of people, groups, and partnership organizations.

As leaders, we need to understand the difference between strategy and tactics, and keep moving our eyes back-and-forth between them.

Note: Another great source for information on concepts that are being widely shared and discussed is the “Research Areas” section for OCLC Research. You can drill down on a topic that’s important to your library’s strategic planning to get some great insight!