Library Leadership Reflections

112. Making Our Strategic Plans  Learn with Amanda Standerfer and Gerry Vogel

What do you do if you want your strategic plan to grow with your organization? On this show Amanda Standerfer, Consultant at Fast Forward Libraries, and Gerry Vogel, Assistant Director at Avon Lake Public Library, talk about how we can make our strategic plans learn. Just having a plan doesn’t mean success. We can use the information in this podcast to implement plans that are learning-focused.

Transcript

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Adriane Herrick Juarez:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

What do you do if you want your strategic plan to grow with your organization? On this show Amanda Standerfer, consultant at Fast Forward Libraries, and Gerry Vogel, Assistant Director at Avon Lake Public Library talk about how we can make our strategic plans learn. Just having a plan doesn’t mean success. We can use the information in this podcast to implement plans that are learning-focused. Enjoy the show!

Amanda, and Gerry, welcome to the show.

Amanda Standerfer:

It’s great to be here.

Gerry Vogel:

Yes. Thank you, Adriane.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: Thank you for talking with me about making our strategic plans learn. As we start, will you please share with me why just having a strategic plan doesn’t guarantee success?  01:28 

Amanda Standerfer:

I do a lot of strategic plans all over the country, and certainly there’s not one right way to do a strategic plan, but I often find that some strategic plans just end up being a checklist of things that the library wants to accomplish, which is really just more of an activity plan. If your plan is like this you can go through and check things off the list, and so therefore, you’re successful. But if your goal is really to articulate how you want to move the needle to have an impact in your community—that’s what makes it strategic. 

It’s really only by thinking about this aspect—that what goes into moving the needle, like what you’re learning, and how you use what you’re learning—that’s when you can actually show success.

Gerry Vogel:

Yes, sometimes strategic plans enumerate what the library’s already doing, so we can look even better. Also not everything on a list is of the same sort of weight. Some goals are far too rigid, and others are fuzzy and unclear. The right kind of strategic plan will be easily understood by the staff who, I’m hoping, had a part in creating it. They’re either too fuzzy or they’re just a long list, and we don’t really need either.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2: Given this, how can we shift the implementation of our strategic plans to be learning-focused?  02:59 

Amanda Standerfer:

I don’t think there’s any argument that libraries are learning. People who work in libraries are learning all of the time. We’re learning constantly. We’re not disputing that, but our learning is a lot of times just a byproduct of the work that we’re doing at the library—or maybe it’s assumed that it’s happening. So, when a library’s implementing their strategic plan they need to be really intentional in thinking about how they’re creating, capturing, and transferring knowledge throughout the organization.

Gerry Vogel:

If I may add to that, as well—learning is often an aspiration. Like you said, it’s something that we should be doing, but sometimes the things we learn, they come and then they go, just like the breeze. We pay lip service to learning because, well—duh, we’re a library, but we can often get lost in the busyness, and also pursuing the shiny objects, and neglecting the roses along the path. 

The main thing I’ve seen is to make it a space that all can learn and observe, listen, and watch. And it’s even to contribute meaningfully, as well. I want to make sure learning is also not just a top-down enforced, or something that you distribute learning from the top of an organization, it’s got to come from every end. It’s got to be a thing that lives with staff, with how they do their jobs, how they listen, and it’s self-correcting at times. We find the things we learn may not be terribly helpful, and we maintain our course that way.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3: What does implementation look like when we ground our strategic plans in learning organization practices?  04:35 

Amanda Standerfer:

For me the biggest aspect of incorporating learning organization practices is something really simple, and that is taking the time to reflect on what we’re learning. We don’t take that time to just sit back and say, What did we learn from this? What did this mean?

I think that this type of reflection can be done at all levels of the organization by just incorporating it into a meeting. You can also have specific after-action meetings for bigger projects, or changes that you’re implementing on your strategic plans. 

So just take time to reflect, note what you’ve learned, what that means, and how you might do something differently next time. It seems like a luxury. We go from thing to thing. We have lots to do. We’re very busy. But, really the only way you can capture and use that learning, and move forward more strategically is by taking the time to take stock of what you’re learning.

Gerry Vogel:

Yes, correct, if you’re not really taking the time—to make the space to learn something from it, it’s not really being built upon. It’s not growing. I like to think that any training we do, or any after-action, even for a simple thing means that we can pour through these things. We can revise them to do better next time.

Another main component in doing this is providing a guarantee of safety. It means that when you say you have no fear of failing—there’s no fear of failing, be serious about that. Instead of searching for blame when something fails, or doesn’t work, it’s to sit down with everybody involved and think how we could learn from that and do better next time.

A lot of the reasons why we fail is because we’re afraid to examine them. Nobody wants to be blamed. There is no blame. There’s just contributions to this. Everybody’s contribution is worth taking something from, because situations may be unique, but others may rhyme.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4: Is there a way we can create plans that are adaptive from the inside out—to help our libraries and community grow together?  06:41 

Gerry Vogel:

Yes, there are some conscious ways we can do this. One thing we’ve been doing is systematizing how we share the results, and what we’ve learned from continuing education—professional development. We have logs that our staff complete when they’ve done something. Just as I did something this morning. That way all the staff will find out what I learned—not in huge detail, but enough to go, Oh, that’s interesting, or that sounds like something I may want to pursue. It’s a distributed way to do this. Also then, another way for everything is that people learn to get up the ladder, and be seen, and recognize people for that.

We can adjust our filters and barriers about what we’re not paying attention to if something breaks through once in a while. It’s a distributed way to investigate, to play, to gather the info. If you were a professional development, or CE coordinator you’re not a hub where everything goes through and must be approved before it’s passed on, because often it will just get stuck there. When things get stuck, and people roll their eyes it loses its authority. 

Amanda Standerfer:

I think that Gerry’s library’s done an amazing job capturing and sharing learning within the organization. I like to think about how we share that with the community that we serve? How will the community know that they are getting value out of the investment that the library is making in being a learning organization? How has access increased? How have programs been changed? 

I think there are, again, some simple ways to do this. One is to talk about it, Hey, we heard you give this feedback to the community. We asked for your feedback, and now here is what we’re doing about it. I think it’s a great idea to have some open forums, or focus groups— even if it’s not part of a strategic planning process, but just to get some thoughts on what’s making a difference in people’s lives, and then reporting back. How did we use this? How did we make changes based on the feedback that we received? That really increases ownership from the community to the library, and really completes that loop of learning. When staff is capturing what they’re learning and sharing with each other, then they’re adding that layer of, What does this mean to the community? Why does this matter in the bigger picture? It just makes it a much more holistic sense of being that learning organization.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5: Can you give any examples of what this looks like in practice?  09:20 

Gerry Vogel:

Sure. Earlier I mentioned we have a log where the results are shared and spread around amongst staff. I’ve been kind of a start-in-the-middle person. I saw little things that needed to be solved—little issues, and wondering why we’re not getting value, and then started building out to the edges. We’re getting very close to there, because what I really should be starting off with, and everybody is—if you have competencies, say for roles in an organization. If you have a competency that has been adapted, from say a state organization by your organization, saying, This is what a librarian who’s involved in reference should know. Here’s the things they should be good at, with examples. Then that is something that you can always go do as a guideline to improve your own services, or make sure your department, or your organization is covered. Log it, like I said, so that we can look at it later and repeat it. 

Also, log some of the exceptions. When things happen, whether they’re not just bad things, but good things—that surprised us. Things that surprise us are often what we can learn from and make people not just go, Hmmm, that’s interesting, but it may open the door for coming up with new ideas. So that’s why I have a log for no’s, for bends—whether we couldn’t do something, had to bend a rule, and then that was interesting. So, something that just made your day, made you go, Humm, like the song went. 

Taking staff suggestions in a way that’s safe as well, if they are heard—is another thing that we do. Whenever it comes from—anonymously, in-person. Letting them know that even if we can’t do these things we’ve taken them very seriously.

Going back again to what I had about the comfort, and the safety, and the trust—without any of those things in place, without that, this looks like a cynical make-work exercise from the people actually doing the work and they don’t see the point of it. If they see that what they’re doing is affecting it—if it is moving the needle of the organization in the community, and they have ownership of being part of it. Then the trust grows and they’re willing to examine other things—including things about maybe, myself, or theirselves, or the organization they’re not comfortable with, and want to get better. To be comfortable, maybe, admitting that and wanting to grow is difficult—especially the further along you get in life, sometimes, you get either comfortable, or cynical. I’m striving to let that never happen.

Amanda Standerfer:

I think there’s a couple of components here. Gerry has talked about those systems that they’ve set up at his library to log these things, and really integrate learning into all of what they’re doing. That’s one piece, right? The other piece is finding the time and making sure people are doing it. That can be a real challenge. As I mentioned before, one way to practice being a learning organization is to make sure you’re taking time at meetings to talk about what you’re learning. It doesn’t have to be long—maybe just ten minutes that you’ve set aside that you’re talking about specific projects, or changes, or how you’re adjusting, or what’s happening within that project. But, I also think that setting aside that time to talk about what you’re learning is critical. If it just happens within particular groups then that’s not extremely meaningful. You want to think about how you’re connecting that learning across departments. That’s why, again, Gerry’s logs are so awesome because anybody can look and see those. 

I also like to think about what other groups within the library might need to share what they’re learning. It’s not just that administration is taking that time, but maybe you’re getting your program staff together across Children’s and Teens, and Adults—and they sit down and say, Let’s look at our program evaluations. Let’s look at them across the entire library.  Maybe there’s patterns that we’re seeing with what people are saying, or suggestions that might emerge from different levels that make opportunities for some inter-generational type program. 

By putting different groups together within the library to talk about what they’re learning, you’re not learning in silos, right? If the goal is to be a learning organization and to be more strategic about learning it really has to be done in lots of different ways. Really it comes down to putting systems in place to allow that to happen, and then getting the time set aside to actually do it.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6: Is there anything else you’d like to share?  13:57 

Amanda Standerfer:

What I’d like to share is that being a learning organization is a practice. There’s not a final destination. Learning is constantly changing. The way libraries use that learning and report to their communities, what that means for them and the impacts that they can see—that’s constantly evolving. So, being a learning organization is an iterative practice, an iterative process that libraries can just continue to practice.

Gerry Vogel:

I could add when I was given more of this as a role in my position to encourage the growth of learning—you can never be too careful when you get to the basics of people trusting each other and being unthreatened by changes. Especially if you’re somewhat sensitive about not wanting to get into it with other people, or make them feel excluded, or hurt—or, they’re going to push back at you. It’s all part of the growing. Nobody’s born a whisperer of change in education into a library. I certainly wasn’t. I aspire to be, and I try very hard. Part of it is knowing that if you have a culture that, more or less, works, don’t take a backhoe to it if it’s not necessary. Just a few little spades here and there, maybe some watering, and some sun.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7: Do you have any favorite management, or leadership books, or resources, and why?  15:21 

Gerry Vogel:

A book I’ve recently become aware of, and the author, is The Chief Reinvention Officer Handbook: How to Thrive in Chaos. The author is Nadya Zhexembayeva. She is a consultant and a professor, and has created a very lovely visual look at dealing with an organization as if it were the Titanic. Are you going to sink, or are you not? How do you sail smoothly through this? Like I said, it’s very lively and graphic, and a lot of data is presented in a very good way. I’ve gotten a lot of good ideas to relate to from this book.

Amanda Standerfer:

I love The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge. That’s my go-to resource on learning organizations. It’s a little tough to get through, but definitely worth it—so persevere. I also just read The Coaching Habit, by Michael Bungay Stanier. I found that it was really, really useful, and had some helpful tips if you’re coaching employees, someone who works for you, or even if you’re working with a group. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8: Amanda, and Gerry, in closing what do libraries mean to you, personally?   16:28 

Gerry Vogel:

A library is not just a building, or an abstract resource. It could not happen without the people who make it, maintain it, and use it. They’re all needed. There are formal systems to keep everything together in a community, and in a library, and in the organization, but we need the space for these informally shared experiences, tidbits, and discoveries. Everyday somebody is going to find something through a library that’s going to get them to turn a corner and change their lives, whatever that may be. To me that’s the most exciting thing about working in a place like that.

Amanda Standerfer:

What libraries mean to me, what they represent to me, is all that’s good about our society. It’s the place where people come together to learn, to feel like you belong. Libraries have enormous power to help people live their best lives—and what an amazing thing to offer to 

people.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Thank you both for being here with me today. It’s been wonderful to talk about the fact that just having a strategic plan does not guarantee success. We need to make them learn and work for our organizations in a way that continues to help us grow and develop to benefit our communities. So, I really appreciate this discussion.

Amanda Standerfer:

Thank you.

Gerry Vogel:

Thank you for inviting us.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into LibraryLeadershipPodcast.com where you can now subscribe to get episodes delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership Podcast, or our sponsors.

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