Avoiding Mission Creep

World’s largest Swiss Army Knife

Last evening our president and provost were invited to chat with the faculty about their vision, past, present, and future for the college. It was an excellent event, and I appreciated the opportunity to have genuine conversations with the people making the big decisions on campus. One of the things that really resonated with me was when our president said that mission creep is one of the biggest challenges facing higher education. Everyone brings unique talents and strengths to an organization. This means that people will want to pursue different interests, but if those interests start getting too far outside the mission of the institution or what you’re actually trying to achieve there will be a lot of wasted energy.

In libraries, as a microcosm of higher ed, I think that this can be true as well. Libraries by their nature are a service industry–a helping industry. Because of this we often try to be all things to all people, or we continue things that still serve some people but perhaps not as effectively as in the past. Because we love helping others it makes it really hard to say no. Yet to innovate, and meet the challenges of the future, saying no is extremely important. The late Steve Jobs understood this well:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

Librarians do need to serve, but we also need to learn how to say no. We only have a limited amount of resources, funds, and energy. If we say yes to everything and don’t continually reevaluate services and initiatives we risk spreading ourselves thin. This can lead to burnout and a lot of mediocre services as opposed to engagement and several services that delight and amaze our users.

We shouldn’t be asking “what else can we do?” We should be asking “who are our current and future users as opposed our past users, imagined users, or the users we wish existed?” “What should we be saying no to?” “What is going to amaze our users?”


Andy Burkhardt

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