Thinking Small

It’s a couple of months since I last wrote a post – it’s an understatement to say that it’s been a busy time! Across the libraries, museums, and higher education, sectors we’ve been redesigning services, combining in-person and online approaches for research, teaching and public engagement, and doing all that faster than we’d probably ever imagined we could. No wonder everyone’s tired.

It’s been such a whirl that it has felt hard to think strategically – or to plan much beyond the next government announcement or the next month or two. At the same time, though, it’s clear that we need to start working out what our sector and our work might become, so that we can see that there is a path out, and a future beyond the current crisis. Setting objectives and plans for the next couple of years is where the challenge is: how ambitious to make these? I suppose the temptation for some leaders might be to create big changes, or to try to keep up the pace of the last few months. But ever since I read it, I’ve been struck by this HBR article about stretch goals which encourages a more considered approach.

What we have achieved in the last few months has been the very definition of a stretch goal: extreme difficulty and extreme novelty. But, the article is clear that for a new set of stretch goals to have a chance of working, you need a team that is building on recent success, and that has slack resources. So, do we have both of those things? Looking at key performance indicators on a page, read with understanding of the context, the numbers can look like success, and they are certainly the result of extraordinary hard work by many people. And I tell my team that, often! But, even so it’s hard sometimes for it to feel like success.

That might be because we still have a sense how our libraries and museums should be, or used to be, in combination with a worry about whether things will ever go back to how they were – or a worry that things will go back to how they were, and that important things that need urgently to change in our sector, won’t. Some people are happy now that libraries are much quieter spaces again, with more rules, but my library team mostly aren’t. Perhaps the only visitors who think museums are better now than they were pre-Covid-19 are the ones who prefer one-way routes through displays, or used to complain about the crowds at a big blockbuster exhibition but now get plenty of space. Me? I miss the buzz – and the way libraries and museums are spaces that bring people together, as active and sociable spaces.

If there have been successes, but they don’t always feel like it, and we definitely don’t have slack resources (you didn’t need to read this blog to tell you that), perhaps now is a time for small wins instead of big goals.

To start our thinking towards setting out a new forward plan to take us out of the crisis and beyond, I’ve started by talking with people in my teams about which of the temporary changes to our work are actually better than what we were doing before, and should be made permanent rather than unwound when all this is over. We’ve also been talking about things we had stopped doing as a result of Covid-19 and its impact on our libraries and museums, and put them into two lists: don’t look back, or don’t let go. Identifying which things we used to do that we could happily leave behind and never restart, as well as reminding each other of the things we can’t do but will make sure we hold close and come back to later, are simple things to do, but they lift our eyes to the horizon and help us think about the future beyond the current crisis.

Those lists of things to leave stopped, of things that are important and we should make sure we restart, or of things to continue after the crisis is over, are where we’ll find some small wins. My natural leadership style tends towards big ideas and ambitious plans, so it’s taking a good degree of self-control to hold back on that for a while longer. But it will be worth it when the small wins start to add up, taking us towards where we’re going next step by step.