In May, when I learned about the strategic leadership frameworks VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and VUCA Prime (vision, understanding, clarity, agility) that are often used in business, I began to better understand the ways in which library staffers responded to COVID-19 building closures.
I noticed that youth library workers were, understandably, operating in reactive mode. But a quote from Bob Johansen, the author and futurist who introduced the VUCA Prime model in 2007, helped me realize this may not be the best method: “You have to be very clear where you’re going but very flexible in how you get there.”
VUCA Prime is a natural jumping-off point for forward-thinking response during uncertain times. It can be a way to move from reactive to proactive practices in our libraries. Those working with youth and families seemed to be reacting to the volatility of the pandemic. There was a feeling that libraries needed to pivot quickly to offer virtual services, which often translated to livestreaming storytimes, hosting teen advisory groups via Zoom, and bringing a variety of other programs online. It must have seemed impossible to do anything else—and it’s understandable that staffers would want customers to have access to services that are similar to what they provided face-to-face.
However, emergencies can be a time to set forth a new vision for services. For example, if the vision is to prepare all teens for successful futures, staffers might ask themselves how they should change the ways they plan to achieve that goal in a time of social distancing and building closures. Examining the library’s mission for youth services can help staff gain new focus even in challenging times.
With a vision in place, it’s possible to move from uncertainty about a situation to an understanding of how tactics need to realign. You can take this understanding and begin talking about it with others—colleagues, community members, decision makers, families, and youth. By building on these conversations, it’s possible to gain clarity on which activities and services will help you meet the needs of youth in a changing world.
Being proactive can take more time than being reactive, but it will enable you to build services that support a community’s changing needs.
How do you develop that clarity? LaKesha Kimbrough, student success coordinator at Washington Middle School in Seattle, suggests working with knowns. For example, if you know that your vision is to make sure all youth have successful futures, and you know that you need to work toward that goal in distanced or virtual environments, then you know you need to learn about the digital access that youth have—and don’t have—in your community. Because COVID-19 has moved school online, school systems and local government likely have data on what percentages of youth and families have access to broadband internet or networked devices at home. Then keep going, expanding upon knowns and communicating with stakeholders until you recognize which services can accomplish the library’s vision.
This method helps you develop a game plan; you are no longer jumping into programs because they replicate physical services and are easy to get off the ground. Yet, as you work with knowns, be mindful of agility; always analyze and adapt practices as you progress. For instance, you may have used demographic data to determine that you need to bring summer learning materials to a school meal site. But once there, you might find that items aren’t being checked out. Instead of thinking, “We know these families need these materials,” ask yourself, “Why aren’t families interacting with us?” Talk with them and meal-site workers to learn more about their needs.
Being proactive can take more time than being reactive, but it will enable you to build services that support a community’s changing needs. If you start by examining your vision, it’s more likely you’ll be equipped to provide quality services during periods of crisis.