Try this as a thought experiment. It's a Friday evening and you're relaxing with friends at the local saloon; or it's Sunday morning and you're mingling with the members of your church over coffee and sweet rolls. Whatever. You're talking with people that you know somewhat, but some not all that well, and people start talking about their jobs. With pride, you say, "oh, I work at such-and-such a library. It's a great place!" Somebody asks, "What it is that makes it so great?" What would you tell them?
When Pat brought Jim Collins' Good to Great to us a few years ago for a series of book discussions, I found it intriguing, and some of the concepts to be quite useful, but it seemed to be limited in its application to our situation. I was impressed with how data-driven Collins is, and how much serious research he and his team had brought to their analysis of what differentiates great companies from those that are merely good. But in the business world that he was analyzing, it was possible to come up with a clear and quantitative definition of "great" -- you looked at a company's financial performance over an extended period of time and had a series of clear metrics to use to make the distinction. That is not the world in which we operate, and I just wasn't sure how well those concepts would apply in our setting.
Collins was one of the speakers at the AAMC meeting in Seattle last October, and it turns out that he's been wrestling with those same questions -- how do you apply his Good to Great concepts in the social sectors? So he's written what he refers to as a little monograph to supplement the book, and it tries to address some of those issues. I've found it to be pretty compelling and we are pulling many of the concepts to use as we settle into some serious strategic planning.
He tackles the problem of defining great straight off, and breaks the concept of greatness into three elements: superior performance, distinctive impact, lasting endurance. He uses the example of the Cleveland Orchestra very effectively to break these down into specifics that one can, to some degree, measure.
He is very clear that in the social sectors it is a mistake to think that we need to "act like a business" (the subtitle to the monograph is why business thinking is not the answer) and he acknowledges that the measurements that we use to assess ourselves are not going to be as neatly quantitative as those that measure the performance of a for-profit company. But we still have to have clear goals, and strong discipline, and a way to tell whether or not we are moving toward those goals.
And it starts with how we define our greatness. When our leadership group met yesterday I was also very clear to emphasize that we are trying to define the greatness, not of our "library", but of our "library organization". The issue is not what our library is, it's what we, as a group of dedicated, energetic, creative and skilled people do. If we start from the premise that what we want is a great library, we are already limiting ourselves. I want us to be much more than that. I know that we can be.