Sunday, August 3, 2008

Appreciative inquiry

Recently, my good friend Eloise May (director of the Arapahoe Library District) and I took a day to talk with the Board of Trustees of another Colorado library and engage in some strategic planning. Our agenda looked like this:

* Introductions.

* Trends. Eloise and I identified some of the big trends we're seeing in the public library world these days, among them merchandising, self-service, library as place, library as community asset, and the growing diversity of our clients/customers/patrons.

* Appreciative inquiry, stages one through three:

-- Values -- a second round of introductions that focused on what got the board members to the table in the first place. This helped some relative newcomers learn something about each other and begin to establish some common ground.

-- What do you do RIGHT? This is a so much better place to start than, for instance, "what's WRONG with us?" It helps identify strengths, assets, and real achievements. It begins to acknowledge and build a history of success.

-- How can we refocus those assets to move to the next level of library development? This discussion generates some strategic directions for the future. FROM these, it's relatively easy to generate goals and objectives.

* Revisit mission statement. Eloise said something that struck me as wise. If a mission statement is to be useful for the focusing of library efforts over the next planning period, there should only be TWO major thrusts. Not four. Not six. Not even one so large that it can't be done (eliminate poverty, for instance). I emphasized that one of the tests of a mission statement is what it lets you say "no" to -- a mission should provide real guidance, not be so broad that anything and everything is OK. On the other hand, there will always be some infrastructure issues that may not have direct connections to the mission: replace the HVAC system, make the building cheaper to operate, etc. But when you're spending all your time on infrastructure, then you're not getting to the bigger issues, and that's what boards are needed for.

The trustees chose two main emphases: promoting a love of reading, and building community. The final wording wasn't voted on; the concepts were clear.

The day ended up with a discussion of some issues in library law that new boards wanted to know about. That last might not have been the best way to wrap things up, but it made more sense to have the livelier conversations in the morning, when people were fresh.

But by the end of the day, I realized again how much I like our Colorado library community. Directors frequently team up to help each other. The people that sit on our boards are sincerely driven to make their communities better places. And planning that builds on strengths is better -- more effective, more successful in building motivated teams -- than planning that is endlessly obsessed with fixing what's wrong.

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