Saturday, August 15, 2015

A new planning priority: rest

I had breakfast this morning with my dear friend and colleague Monique Sendze, now director of IT and innovation for the Tulsa City County Library. It sounds like a terrific job, a terrific library, and I know she'll be successful there.

She and I wound up having a conversation I've had three times over the past two days, so it might be worth digging into it a little deeper.

The larger frame is that institutions have rhythms: they focus outward, they focus inward. Institutions breathe, too. Sometimes library leaders get curious about their environment, explore it, build relationships, investigate themes and needs. Then they turn in to do something about it - sometimes to strengthen a core that suddenly needs some attention, sometimes to implement a project or vision identified in the outward-looking phase.

Then, after that project is done, the possibilities branch.
  • Institutions stagnate. They remain inwardly focused, incurious about their environment, disengaged with larger themes of change.
  • Institutions immediately launch into the next big thing. On the heels on one enormous project, they feel they must keep up the momentum.
I want to suggest another option.

A few months ago I was consulting for a library back in the midwest. It had just opened a magnificent new building, representing years of public discussion, planning, fundraising, and construction. I asked them what they were proud of, and they were very justifiably proud of their building. Then I asked them which library, in their collective judgment, was a level above them in library development. The idea is to figure out "what's next?"

They really didn't know. They wanted to keep moving, but they didn't know where to. It wasn't that they lacked ambition. They just lacked, in that moment, a clear new direction.

So I gave them permission to do something we don't do often enough: to rest. To take a deep breath and reflect. To look around and see how things have changed.

When a new building opens up, it changes the whole identity of a library. New people show up. Service models get tested - and need to be tweaked. Or as I describe it, you're showing up on the community dance floor with some new moves, and now you need to see what your partner (the community!) makes of it. It's a dance, not a solo performance.

Too often, we think that Vision - a compelling idea of change - adheres to a few charismatic leaders. But I don't believe that. Vision is an iterative and collaborative process. It takes listening, attention, pondering, checking back in with each other.

Ultimately, I recommended to this library planning group that they just show up in their new library as mindfully as possible. They should pay attention to who was new, what people were talking about, how the pattern of use was changing. And I recommended that they start more systematically going around to community leaders in their own environment. That is, don't invite another group of people to the library and ask them what they think of it. Show up in their own warehouses, offices, or neighborhood restaurants. Ask them what they are thinking about. And listen. And think about it, too.

Note that this isn't permission to stop doing anything new. We still have to respond to stuff going on around us, and there are always a variety of things we can do to make improvements, some more or less urgent. But I believe in purposeful change, and few of us are wise enough to move inexorably from one big thing to the next. It makes sense to build in some pauses, some rests, between the important, systemic, strategic changes in an organization. If we do take the time to do that, we avoid "innovation fatigue," or the sense that it's change for its own sake.

We also allow our batteries to recharge, to celebrate our triumphs and to get centered again. It's worth remembering.

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In November of 2018, I left my position at ALA in Chicago to return to my Colorado-based writing, speaking, and consulting career. So I'...