Library Leadership

79. The Importance of Strategic Planning with Stu Wilson

Stu Wilson

We all know that strategic planning is important. But how do we do it effectively? On this show I speak with Stu Wilson, Principal Consultant with Library Strategies Consulting Group. He shares insights on strategic planning and what it does for our organizations. We talk about why the process of writing a strategic plan is important and how to have success while avoiding missteps.

Full Transcript

Nate Vineyard: 

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Adriane:

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.

We all know that strategic planning is important, but how do we do it effectively? On this show I speak with Stu Wilson, Principal Consultant with Library Strategies Consulting Group. He shares insights on strategic planning, and what it does for our organizations. We talk about why the process of writing a strategic plan is important, and how to have success while avoiding missteps. Strategic plans are an integral part of libraries, and this information will help us all. Enjoy the Show!

Stu, welcome to the show.

Stu Wilson:

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here with you today to talk about one of the passions in my life, which is strategic planning.

Adriane:

The first thing you address in strategic planning is the fear that can be associated with it. And, I think that’s common. Can you tell us about this? 01:30  

Stu Wilson:

Well, for me, it’s kind of hard to understand sometimes, because I live and breathe strategic planning. But, I think there’s three big reasons for it. First, it doesn’t sound very attractive. I’ve struggled with trying to rebrand strategic planning, but it is what it is. 

It is a little bit like going to the dentist. We all know it’s good for us, but none of us really want to do it. But, I think it is more positive, ultimately, if we can overcome that fear. 

Secondly, I think we have to recognize that people have had bad experiences with strategic planning. I think there are good ways of doing strategic planning, and less good ways of doing strategic planning. I know early in my career, I experienced a number of strategic planning processes that would last a year, two years, and then it would produce a three-ring binder which then sat on the shelf, because nobody wanted to engage it anymore. There were twenty year plans. They were irrelevant after about three years. And, we don’t really do strategic planning that way anymore. I hope, anyway. 

There is a recognition that people have had bad experiences and we try to overcome that. And lastly, fundamentally, strategic planning is about making changes. And the reality is, many of us are change adverse. For me though, strategic planning is a way to deal with change that’s happening to you, and deal with it incrementally so it’s not so overwhelming. 

In short, good strategic planning doesn’t need to take a lot of time. It doesn’t need to cost a lot. And, it certainly should produce effective results for your organization.

Adriane:

Yeah, that’s the goal. So, as we start what is strategic planning, and what results should we be expecting by engaging in it? 03:29 

Stu Wilson:

Well, obviously, strategic plannings are written documents with clear goals to guide your organization. Typically these days, we like to do three-year strategic plans. There’s so much change happening in the world that more than a five-year plan is not realistic. It should have good strategies and tactics to achieve those goals. But, I think there are some other things about strategic planning that we really should expect. 

One, it should be a people-driven process that ultimately gets support and buy-in from your constituents. That would be your staff, your board, your Friends Foundation, users, non-users, funders—it’s a process to gain support, and a tool to gain that support.

By focusing on that process and including more people, and constituents, and providing input, it also increases the likelihood that those people are going to help you achieve your goals and outcomes. It’s a process to include more people.

Lastly, I really believe in a plan being a way to measure your success. Your success comes from achieving the goals that you’ve stated across a whole organization. And then, gives you markers to measure whether you’ve achieved it or not. In a way, a plan is really a way to let you know if you’re doing the right things, not just doing things. So, that’s really a big part of what I think strategic planning should be about.

Adriane:

Sure. When should we engage in planning? 05:06 

Stu Wilson:

Well, I flippantly say, Always, because I think planning should be a focus of all organizations. But, part of the reason I say that is there is so much change happening today—change happening constantly in library service, certainly in technology, and increasingly we’re seeing that change happening in many of our communities, as well.

So, planning really helps us navigate, manage, provide direction to deal with that change, rather than being overtaken by it. We can’t plan for everything. Two years ago who could have planned for COVID? But, there’s so many aspects of change that we can plan for and help us navigate that I think it’s critical that we look at strategic planning as one of those tools. 

There’s also good reasons to engage in strategic planning, just to continue a little bit. One is that it can really help you be more effective. If you’re experiencing growth, or if you’re shrinking, it can help you deal with that, it can help you reprioritize your resources.  A big one a lot of libraries are going through is, How much do you spend on digital resources, versus hard copy these days? It really can help you have a process to deal with those kinds of issues—helps you get everyone in the organization on the same page. And, it gives you a longer-term direction. So it gets us back to that measurement and helping, you know, if you’re doing the right things.

Adriane:

What does it do, overall for our libraries? 06:36 

Stu Wilson:

Well, I’ve made some points already. But to reiterate a few things, and add a few others—as I said, it helps you manage things, and navigate with a direction, or a purpose. I think that’s really critical. Good planning, good strategic planning involves community input. It should connect you much more strongly to the needs and wants of both your users, and ideally, your non-users, as well. 

As I said just a minute ago, it gives you direction for the whole organization. If you have a plan in your head that’s terrific, but if a whole bunch of other people don’t share that plan, or have different plans, it can really cause problems in your organization. So, by having a written document, and a direction, it really puts a whole group, or a network, on the same page.

I also mentioned this—it builds support. So, by gathering authentic input from different groups, staff, board, users, non-users, funders, it might be a zoning board, or a city board—it really builds support. If someone has participated in the process, they’re more likely to support it, and even give you more resources on the backend.

Libraries are very diverse organizations with increasing number of opportunities for different kinds of service. Focusing on the strategies really helps you focus on a narrower group, or range of topics that you’re going to address. I think that really helps you be realistic in what you can achieve.

Then, a really critical part of strategic planning is having goals and strategies that help you evaluate your success. It’s that output, measurement—those kinds of things that keep you relevant and on track that are really critical. So, strategic planning should always include a measurement evaluation component.

Adriane:

You say that the process is as important as the final product. What are the keys to making this so, and how can we avoid missteps? 08:50 

Stu Wilson:

Well, something that I often say is that, It’s better to have a mediocre written document that activates and motivates people than a fantastic document that no one looks at again. By that I mean, strategic planning is a process that involves more and different groups of people. That could include your planning committee across your staff and board. Include a broad cross-section of your community. That’s really what makes a strategic plan work and be useful. It’s not the written document. It’s a tool to motivate and direct people. So, in that way, it’s a key leadership document.

Some of those really strong keys to being a successful plan are that it is people-focused, that it’s relatively quick and engaging. You know, people hate weekly committee meetings that last for six months. If you can do a strategic plan in two to three months—if you’re a small library—four to six months if you’re a larger library, I think that’s realistic, and also really gets people moving into action fairly quickly. They don’t see that they’re just involved in this process endlessly.

Part of that again is, it’s really moving to action fairly quickly. So, I like to see strategic plans where tasks can be started almost the day after the strategic plan’s approved. Then once again, accountability and measures, or outputs so that you can achieve a goal.

I think one of the big keys is accountability of who’s going to do the task, or tactics that you’ve defined. 

Some of the common missteps are trying to do too much. We typically do three to seven goals for a three to five-year plan. That’s a lot to accomplish, actually. Something I haven’t touched on is having a clear mission and vision. If you don’t have that to start with, that’s often a key starting point for a strategic plan—is to define, or re-define your library’s purpose and where you’d like to go, what vision you’d like to see in the long-term.

A flip side of what I just said is that it needs to be realistic, or obtainable. One of the key documents I always look at as a strategic planning facilitator is the budget. The backend’s strategic goals, and strategies, or tactics have to be something that you can afford. It’s really critical that your strategic plan is realistic and attainable, otherwise you won’t be successful.

And lastly, just—reiterating a lot here, but the accountability is really important. Getting buy-in—particularly your board and staff, are critical elements of the strategic plan. The board and staff are really who will carry out a strategic plan. So, assuring that they’re part of the process and, at least mostly, onboard with the process, is a critical part of the whole engagement.

Adriane:

What does good planning address?12:08 

Stu Wilson:

I break it down into internal, and external issues. I think for a long time we looked at primarily internal issues. And by that I mean, statistical trends, Is your circulation going up? What’s your visitation look like? What’s your staffing, and staff effectiveness? Is your budget going up, or going down, or where do you expect it to go? What kind of changes are happening in your collections, or technology? And, what are your potential facilities deficits, or needs. So, those are some of the internal issues that you would look at and you’d try to gather data on.

I think what has become more common in strategic planning—and I think it’s harder, is looking at the external issues, particularly what’s changing in your community, and that change is happening pretty rapidly these days. What are the community needs? We also look at, What does your community need that your library may be able to help address? Why are non-users not using their library and how could you change that? What’s happening in library service nationally? 

You know, I think a few years ago Makerspace was a big trend, and there’s still libraries who are trying to work through and develop Makerspaces. Those are the kinds of big library service trends that are opportunities for your library that are really external to your day-to-day operations that you really want to look at.

So, those external issues are pretty critical to a really comprehensive, strategic plan. Those are usually the ones that take a little more time, and they’re a little more difficult to work through.

Adriane:

Can you share the typical steps for cookin’ up a strategic plan, as I know you like to say? 13:56 

Stu Wilson:

Yeah [laughter], sure. For me, there are seven steps or phases in the process. Sometimes these are collapsed, but I like to highlight these. The first one is reviewing your own data. Obviously your library trends and stats are really critical to look at. You know, Where’s your circulation going in different areas? Do you want to push, or pull, any of those kinds of things that you’re seeing in your own data. But also, community demographics are really critical to look at. We’re going to get new census data, but looking at your community, and how your community has changed may mean that you need to make significant changes in your library service. So, reviewing your data that’s usually pretty much at hand. 

The second part is conducting some research, and that may be seeking out other data that you don’t have at hand. So, finding more out about your community. Benchmarking your service compared to some of your peer libraries may not be something that you do regularly—exploring more of what innovative libraries are doing nationally, potentially, and especially in service areas where you’re interested in moving forward. So, spending some time on doing research that you don’t do as part of your normal operations. 

Then I think the next two are really about gathering input. I divide these, because again, I think they’re easier and more difficult parts. The first one is internal stakeholders. That’s usually getting input from your staff, board, and Friends of Foundation. That can be surveys, or could be meetings to get their input on where the library should go, and what kind of goals they’re looking at. But then, there’s that external market input as well. So, get information from users. And, what’s more difficult is getting input from non-users—is also really critical.

And that’s typically done through surveys, focus groups, community listening sessions, outreach to particular organizations, community retreats. So, there are a variety of tools that you can use. But, that external input, I think, is critical to a comprehensive strategic plan.

Then, the last ones are really pretty straight forward. Drafting and approving the plan, putting a work, or implementation plan—where you get down to the tactic level, deciding who is going to be responsible for particular strategies, or tactics. And, defining some measurement, or output is really the last stage. So, those would be the seven steps, or phases that I like to see in a good strategic planning process.

Adriane:

Good steps. Anything else you would like to share? 16:51 

Stu Wilson:

Well, there are two things I’d like to share about strategic planning that I’ve found key. One is to really right-size your process. Particularly, having worked with a lot of smaller, more rural libraries, it’s pretty common that people get an idea that there’s one way to do strategic planning. I certainly don’t believe that. I think the process needs to be flexible, and it needs to be right for your library. The size of your library is going to affect what your process looks like, how recently you’ve done strategic planning, what’s happening in your organization, or community can really affect how robust a process you want. So, it’s critical at the beginning to sit down as a leadership group and say, What do we really want out of strategic planning? And then, What’s the kind of process that works for us—that’s right for our organization, and right for our community?

And so, the other one I really want to emphasize, and I’ve touched on this already, is a strategic planning process about building a culture of planning. It’s one of the key tools in having cultural planning, where planning is almost part of your daily existence—that the board and staff are paying attention to your goals, and where you want to go, and that remains relevant on a regular basis.

So we, for instance, recommend that boards review the strategic plan briefly—five minutes at virtually every meeting. It helps with accountability. It helps with really being—thinking about goals, and direction, and what you’re trying to achieve on a daily basis.

So, that cultural planning that fits into your library—as I said, almost on a daily basis is really what good strategic planning is about. It’s kind of a circle of, you plan, then you plan to plan some more. And, I think, that’s where libraries can really make some advances.

Adriane:

Do you have a favorite management, or leadership book, and why? 19:03 

Stu Wilson:

Well, I have a maybe a strange answer to that. The reason for that is in the last couple of years I’ve moved out of leadership and management positions and am just serving as a principal consultant to libraries. So, I haven’t been reading many management books lately. But, having been based out of the Twin Cities for twenty-five years, and working in so many diverse communities, what I’ve really been spending a lot of time on are books related to race, and equity, and diversity, and inclusion. I think these days with what’s happening in America, it’s critical that leadership look at race, and diversity, and equity issues, and have an empathy towards that. 

So, the book that’s probably had the most influence in that area for me in the last few years, which I would highly recommend, is the Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. It’s a little old now, but it’s journalistic story-telling about the black migration out of the south to the rest of the country. And, it really is a great piece of history, but also journalism. And, as I said, it’s great story-telling, as well, so I strongly recommend The Warmth of Other Suns.

Adriane:

Thank you. In closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally? 20:30 

Stu Wilson:

Well, in terms of use, a couple of things. One is, my mother was a librarian. She was a business librarian. So, it’s been part of my blood forever. It’s interesting to also see how much my library use has changed over time, from college where I used it intensely, to—there was a period where I pretty much chucked out videos, to now I have grandkids who I’m taking to the library, almost on a weekly basis. So, there’s been this evolution of how I use libraries. I think that’s common for people. But for me, more broadly speaking, it’s one of the American institutions that really offers an opportunity to make the lives of both individuals, and communities more fulfilled and improved. And so, it’s been wonderful to have a career in supporting libraries and to really see how libraries can make a difference in people’s lives.

Adriane:

Well said. Thank you, Stu. And I love the family legacy story in there. Sounds like you’re passing it onto the next generation, too. 

Stu Wilson:

[laughter] Exactly.

Adriane:

Well, I appreciate you being here today and talking to us about strategic planning. This is something we will all be involved with at some point or other, so this is incredibly valuable information. And, I’m so glad you shared it with us today, thank you.

Stu Wilson:

Well, thank you for the opportunity. As I said, it is a passion of mine and I hope that people really take it seriously and that it really helps advance your library, whoever’s listening out there.

Adriane:

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into https://libraryleadershippodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to have monthly updates 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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