Can, Should and Will — some thoughts on libraries

In Can, Should, and Will. Pt. 1: Because What Libraries Need Is One More Venn Diagram, Rick Anderson discusses a pretty nifty way of management thinking using a venn diagram.

Rather than reproduce his chart , I created my own (for reasons that will become clearer) later.

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What an Organization “Can” do (ability), “Should” do (desire), “Will” do (actual action)

The idea here is that any organization such as a library has clear limitations on what it “can” achieve. Whether due to budgetary constraints, lack of staff (in terms of manpower or expertise) it is patently obvious a library must pick and choose what it can do.

What the library “Will” eventually do is then a subset of the “Can” of course. But how does the library determine which subset of the “Can” is done?

“Should” on the hand represents things libraries “Should” do. As Rick Anderson argues what we “Should” do typically dwarves what we “can” do hence the far bigger circle for the “Should”

Ideally, what the library “Will do (which is by definition in the “Can” region” should be totally contained in the region covered of “Should”but as Rick notes in the real world this never happens.

The imperfect overlap of the “Will” and “Should” circles is where library leaders need to focus most of their attention and concern. The part of the “Will” circle that falls outside of the “Should” circle represents all those things that we do in the library even though we shouldn’t. Clearly, our goal when making decisions and taking action should be to move the “Will” circle as fully into the “Should” circle as possible, though I think it’s extremely unlikely (bordering on impossible) for any organization to make them overlap perfectly.

Part of it is because of organization inertia, which can make it hard to stopping doing something even if it is recognised something should be stopped. I won’t even go into rogue elements defying the will of management….

Still, Rick states that one important aspect of leadership is to ensure as much as possible of what “Will” be done is pushed into the “Should” region.

Bringing in uncertainity — CAN

In the ideal world we know exactly what we “Can” do. In reality what we know we “Can” do is extremely murky. We all know a story where someone high up came back from a conference and saw aninteresting idea and wants the library to implement it.

But can it be done?

It’s not always clear and can be really stressful to mid level managers asked to execute something out of the blue with very little information.

That is why I work very hard to scan the environment , build a broad and deep network of experts to call on, to try to put some bounds on what “can” be done. After all there is little point discussing what “should” be done if it can’t be done.

The #1 mission of management?

I believe that leadership that works systematically to build talent and expand the size of the “CAN” circle will eventually build an organization that is capable of handling almost anything thrown at them. I would even argue this should be the #1 mission of management beyond all others give the current state of our profession.

It is said that wars are won not by the brillance of the generals but by generals building a powerful flexible army that can not only handle and execute the plans of general but more importantly learn to adapt independently.

As Forbe notes about leadership lessons from the Science Fiction Classic Ender’s Game

One of the things I love about Ender’s Game is that Orson Scott Card rejects the chessmaster model of battle commander… In doing so, he creates armies that are capable of quickly adapting to any given situation, because rather than rely on one brain — his own — he instead relies on the 41 brains in his army, all of whom are capable at any moment of coming up with a brilliant idea. Those brains are empowered to do what they need to to accomplish their objectives, and they’re encouraged to be creative in doing so.

Forbes warns against the leader thinking that they are the only ones who has all the best ideas, particularly in industries where conditions are volatile which is what we face in libraries today.

As leaders in our own organizations, it’s easy to be tempted to be the leader. To keep things like a “well-oiled machine” where nothing is out of place and everything plays out according to the vision of the person at the top. But while those types of well-disciplined organizations can thrive for awhile, they start to crumble quickly when conditions on the ground change. That’s because they haven’t created organizational cultures that reward flexibility or adaptation.

I’m sure most people will be nodding their heads in agreement, but it’s easy to agree but tough to do.

I consider myself a relatively liberal manager, people who have worked with me or under me as team members or direct reports will mostly agree I encourage people to explore new ideas , try new things. Yet I sometimes catch myself thinking, my direct report is wasting his time dabbling with say neutral nets to do image recognition. It clearly has no practical implications for libraries right?

It’s just a short jump away from this, to saying this shouldn’t be what he is doing and only I have the experience to know what SHOULD be explored or doing…..

A shrinking in the overlap between CAN and SHOULD in academic libraries?

One of the greatest fears I have in our profession is that the size of the overlap between “Can” and “Should” for libraries has been shrinking in the past 20 years.

Many of the roles we have been trained to do are slowly diminishing in importance.

I look at all the new roles that we are asked to serve in such as open science, reproducibility, open education, be knowledgable on algothrim bias etc things even a relatively fresh library school graduate of 3–5 years would not have being trained in. I saw a recent thread on Twitter which basically said for many new roles in libraries, the jobs were going to new people from outside the library profession because existing librarians lacked the skillsets.

The natural tendency is for librarians to reach for what I call the “rah rah” speech and say that the soft skills we have acquired such as customer service will always be relevant, we will always be able to adapt but this smacks very close to the concept of vocational awe.

Sure libraries do have some scope to hire new staff but what about the big pool of existing staff? Also be very careful of the coordinator syndrome….

I’m not sure what the answer is beyond the cliched saying we have to invest in our staff (but how much is mere lip service?) but I do know what the answer isn’t. Doubling down on trying to make marginal improvements in existing processes, to eke out the last 5% in efficiency probably isn’t given how it’s unclear if such processes will even exist.

The toughest question — SHOULD

Rick Anderson talks about the philosophical difference between “Is” (descriptive questions) and “should” (prescriptive questions) which he poetically calls “Science” (facts) and “Religion” (morals/values).

Arguably, “is” questions get easier if you have more capable staff .

Imagine you can take your pick of anyone in the library world and you have taken the opportunity to assemble the best library team in the history of the world. The best Library Technologists, Metadata specialists, Liason Librarians, Scholarly Communication librarians, Marketing specialists etc. This ensures your CAN circle is as big as you can imagine. Almost nothing (within reason) is out of reach, all you have to do is to ask it be done. Want to know whether something is possible? No problem your expert will be able to tell you.

Does it help you decide what you Should do?

Clearly not, since what you “Should” do is subjective and dependent on what your terminal goals or values are, which are themselves “incorrigible”.

Philisophers also like to say you can’t derive a “Ought” from a “is”.

Let’s take an example Open Access. There is a ton of disagreement on what to do for many reasons. There is disagreement on definitions of Open Access, goals of Open Access (is the aim just achieve 100% OA or should we also aim for lower costs at the same time?).

Having the best Scholarly communication librarian on staff will not help resolve this issue. At best such a person might be able to tell you given such and such goal the best model might be to follow the following strategy (and even that is a stretch as it assumes near omniscience on predicting publisher and other libraries actions).

Achieving a balance

Reflecting as a librarian with some seniority in the profession, it is all so tempting to focus on deciding what the library “Should” do and minimise knowing about the “Can” as something only specialists should know. Part of it is as a leader or someone senior, it seems like we have earned the right to call the shots.

We have paid our dues after all to scale the ladder. Yet part of me wonders, what one “SHOULD” do is ultmately a matter of opinion, there is no way to be proven right or wrong (unless it is a formulated as a prediction,e.g. We SHOULD do X, because Y will happen or and then test the hypothesis)

That’s perhaps why it is sometime so attractive to focus on the SHOULD because you can’t actually be wrong.

The CAN question on the other hand does have an answer (or at least the possibility of a clearer one) and is an equally important question to focus on, even though it might be less sexy.


Of course I’m not saying “SHOULD” questions are not worth deciding on. Obviously someone has to decide. But equally “CAN” is something we should keep our eyes on…..

A Librarian from Singapore Management University. Into social media, bibliometrics, library technology and above all libraries.

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