Who sold you this then? Ten strategy writing tips for small libraries by Matt Holland

We are all strategists now. How do we write a strategy that goes beyond box ticking? Here are ten ideas taken from the experience of writing strategy for a small health library.

Before you proceed, you need to read the science bit.

Attending a course on strategy writing is good for you, as is sharing with a senior colleagues and listening to their feedback.

With that over let’s see what experience tells us.

One. Waiting for all the planets to align

… still waiting. Well that’s because they never will. Apart from the odd eclipse. In the same way there is never a perfect time to write strategy. A major upheaval is either about to happen or on the horizon. So it’s good to approach your strategy with a degree of humility. You will miss things. You will get things wrong. A game changing document will appear just as you Save your final version. To save face it’s helpful to include a section identifying the key documents that form your our own organisational strategy universe. It’s an aide memoire for you and a guide to your reader. You can update this as and when you need to. A flexible approach is essential. It helps to build in some wiggle room to review and revise. Good version control, a note of when and what changes you make is also essential. That way there is a chance your strategy will survive its planned lifespan.

Two. A PEST analysis won’t tell you anything you don’t already know

When Aguilar[1] started to think about horizon scanning in the 1960’s it probably was hard to see which forces would effect change in your environment. A task that required the refined skills of the business school educated consultant/analyst. Aguilar’s insight that you could structure your analysis, he used ETPS, has made analysts of us all. He couldn’t see the amount of information, commentary and analysis that you can get any day on the net. If you keep an eye on the social or mass media you already know what forces are at work. The tables have turned. Anyone reading your PEST analysis is going to assume it’s all there. Probably they are looking to see what points you have missed. So the aim of the PEST is a tool organise your thoughts and get into a strategy writing mindset. Share it with someone outside the Library world if you can. If you just ask Librarians you might become victim to that other great management insight of the last century groupthink[2].

Three. Read your organisational strategy

This is not the first item on the list, but it is one of the most important. Having read your organisations strategy you need to weave its mission statement, aims and objectives into your own strategy. A perfect strategy that does not engage with your wider environment is wishful thinking. However, linking to your organisational strategy can be messy. Organisations tend to be broad brush, written in the language of delivering services direct to patients. There is no guarantee either that your organisational strategy is a good one. Health care libraries and other providers of services to the organisation can find it hard to make that direct connection to patients. But you have to try. The direct approach is best. Take the organisation objective show how your objective will support it and the specific actions you will take to make it happen. It also has the benefit of giving you a ready made structure.

Four. Not too short, not too long

Longevity is a good thing in a strategy. But not too long. The current fashion is for five years: the NHS five year forward plan, a five year parliament and five year plans from the departments of central planning. At the risk of being overwhelmed by the tide of history, five years is too long. Three years is a more sensible time frame. Long enough to achieve larger projects and meet realistic objectives. Short enough to allow a rethink as the environment changes.

Five: Write a good story

The overall narrative is how you are working to deliver your organisational strategy. Senior Managers and Board Members might not have a clear idea of who you are or what you do. They will know the organisational strategy inside out. Their hearts will be warmed by the fact that you have read it and are making your contribution to delivering it. The sub narrative is the particulars of what you want to do, how you are going to deliver it over three years (See Point 4) and how you are going to know you have achieved it. Anything you feel obscures this should go in the appendices.

Six. The SWOT Analysis plays to your dark side

Strengths, WEAKNESSES, Opportunities and THREATS. You can see how this works. Give any four by four box the Weaknesses and Threats fills up first and the Strengths and Opportunities usually come down to a few generalisations. Try this simple plan. Confronted with the tidal wave of doom that the PEST may offer you. Put your happy hat on. Fill out the Strengths and Opportunities first. It won’t make any difference to your completed analysis, but approaching it this was round will make it more balanced.

Seven. Present your strategy clearly

Presentation is about making the message of your strategy clear to the reader. Ways of presenting information that summarise and structure what you want to say are good. So bullet points, lists, tables, indents, a logical and consistent use of headings and short meaningful sentences are in. Out are dense paragraphs in 10 Point Times. If you find the substance of your strategy straying over more than six pages, excluding the appendicies, then either it’s too long or the points you make require too much explanation. If it is going to last three years it is worth the extra effort.

Eight. Strategy on a page

In television advertising they have long adverts and cut downs carefully crafted short versions of the longer advert. The strategy on a page is the cut down for your strategy. The one page summary on a side of A4 you can post on your website, print off and hand round at meetings, even post up on the library notice board. The interpretation I place on it is that it is the end of the process not the start. In other words an attempt to create a one page strategy from a standing start is going to lead to some very abbreviated thinking. Give your strategy the room it needs (not too much) and then pull out the headlines for the one page version.

Nine. Tell people about it

Your strategy may only be read by you and your LQAF assessor(s) if you don’t tell anyone about it. If you are proud of your strategy and you want people to know it. Tell them. Put it on your website, broadcast it through social media. Invite comment and feedback. Share copies with stakeholders. Make a noise. Present it at meetings. Share it with your staff (if you have any).

Ten. Make use of your Strategy

The strategy is part of a suite of documents that form the reporting structure of your library. They include an Action Plan to deliver the strategy and an Annual Review to say what you have done. Possibly a User Analysis or Survey to underpin your analysis. Planning them as a single project, linking them together gives a coherent structure. There is another advantage of being able to reuse and repurpose text from one document to another. Ideally you want to be able to trace your strategy from mission statement to objective to planned action to review.

[1] Bright Hub Project Management, 2015. PESTLE Analysis History and Application. Available from: http://www.brighthubpm.com/project-planning/100279-pestle-analysis-history-and-application/ [Accessed 19 March 2015].

[2] MindTools, 2015. Avoiding Groupthink. Avoiding Fatal Flaws in Group Decision Making. Available from: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_82.htm [Accessed 19 March 2015].

Matt Holland,
Librarian, NWAS NHS Trust,
BA, DMS, Dip Lib, MA, MCLIP
Mobile: 07747456736,
E-Mail: Matt.Holland@nwas.nhs.uk,
Website: http://www.networks.nhs.uk/nhs-networks/nwas-library-and-information-service
NWAS LKS is supported by NW Health Care Libraries Unit (HCLU)

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