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Strategic Planning: Go Big or Go Home

by on February 15, 2013

Boston Public Library successfully completed a strategic plan at the end of 2011, something we call the BPL Compass. There is a lot about the structure of our planning process that would sound familiar to other organizations in the midst of developing their strategy. But in the year that has passed since the library’s Board of Trustees unanimously approved the BPL Compass, three things have emerged as unexpected keys to our success.

  1. We stopped in the middle. The BPL’s strategic planning process began in September 2009, and just three months in, planning efforts collided with a challenging annual budget that predicted steeps cuts in funding sources. For a short while, the library tried to keep the planning going amid the budget talks, but community members and other stakeholders asked that the strategic plan be put on hold. The library agreed, and the benefits were enormous. The budget process inspired thousands of Boston residents to articulate the importance of libraries to elected officials, to the library, and to each other. This generated a wave of care for and interest in the library that helped steer additional funds to the BPL. That same wave was then channeled into the strategic plan when it restarted, bringing many more people into the conversation.
  2. We excelled in uncertainty. Few people like to present an unfinished draft, but doing exactly that became the hallmark of the Boston Public Library’s consensus-building model. Creating a strategic plan is supposed to be a dynamic and iterative process. Staff at the library let go of the notion that every community or staff meeting had to be a perfect presentation and instead focused on how to generate the most conversation about whatever stage of planning the organization was in. We shared the very latest drafts of the plan’s strategic principles and outcomes, constantly updating documents to incorporate the latest comments. It was dizzying work at times – involving untold numbers of markers and post-its – but it made for a much more authentic way to demonstrate that the library was genuinely listening and ready to revise.
  3. We fell in love with feedback. The amount of ideas and suggestions coming from our users and even some of our non-users (whom we now like to call potential users) was tremendous. This was due, in part, to all the channels we opened in order to collect it: 82 convenings over two years; 15,632 completed surveys; 10,000 postcards distributed to non-users; blogs; online chats; email; letters; social media; and more. The surprising thing was that we grew to love having the input, even thrive on it. Not only was it a measure of engagement, but it was truly helping us create a better plan and challenging us to find creative solutions throughout the organization.

Looking back, it is clear that none of these milestones were on our planning roadmap. No one suggested these steps to use. What’s more, no one takes credit for them – that’s how to be sure something occurred organically. Without these unexpected keys, however, the BPL Compass would be a lesser document.

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