I came up with the diagram below while I was thinking about library management during a recent lull in traffic at the reference desk. My original intent was sort of wryly humorous (it is hilarious, don’t you think?), but the more time I spend looking at it, the more I think it’s a potentially valuable tool for helping give shape to conversations about priority-setting and decision-making in libraries and maybe in other organizations as well.
Let’s tease out a few of its implications.
First of all, some assumptions underlying the diagram are these:
- We will not do anything that’s impossible (that’s why the “Will” circle is entirely contained by the “Can” circle).
- There are things that we arguably should do that are not possible (which is why the “Can” circle is not entirely contained in the “Should” circle; more about this below).
- Of the things we do, some will inevitably be the wrong things (as represented by the portion of the “Will” circle that falls outside the “Should” circle).
Now, it may seem strange that the circle defining what “should” be done is so big and that it overlaps only partially with the one defining what “can” be done. Does it really make sense to say there are things that should be done but can’t?
Yes, I think it does—and anyone who has spent time in library meetings will probably understand why. Sometimes we find ourselves spending meeting time on discussions of things it would be nice to do but which are impossible. These discussions are usually prompted by someone who says something beginning with the words, “If only we could….” The temptation to start down this topical road is intense, because talking about “if only” can offer so much bittersweet pleasure. “If only we had another $500,000 in our materials budget”; “If only we could hire one more full-time staff person to work on the institutional repository”; “If only the faculty cared more about open access”; etc. Since there’s a functionally unlimited number of things we arguably “should” do, and since we can actually do a relatively small number of those things, the “Should” circle is larger than the “Can” circle and the two overlap only partially.
Now to be clear, I’m not saying that we should simply sit back and be content with our current options and capabilities; on the contrary, we need to be constantly working to enlarge the borders of the “Can” circle. Doing so is often possible if we’re intrepid and resourceful and if we give our staff room and permission to try things out, innovate, and make mistakes. So talking in terms of “if only” is not necessarily a waste of time, it can lead us in fruitful directions. But it’s also important not to pretend that the circle of “Can” is infinitely expandable. It isn’t, it never will be, and we need to make sure we deal with that fact in a hardheaded and pragmatic way, even as we seek to push its boundaries. This reality is to some degree concrete and to some degree determined by mission. All budgets are limited, for example (that’s why they’re called “budgets”). But on a deeper level, it is also an inevitable reality of librarianship that we are always spending someone else’s money in support, ultimately, of someone else’s mission, and that imposes certain obligations of responsibility and pragmatism on us. Talking in blue-sky terms can be useful and rewarding, but it can also be a waste of time. Maintaining the proper balance between responsibility and vision is one of the toughest jobs of a library leader.
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. No matter how hard we try, we will almost certainly end up doing some things we shouldn’t. When that happens accidentally and despite our best efforts, it’s a problem; when we (or members of our organization) do it more or less intentionally—either out of philosophical opposition or willful negligence—it’s a much bigger problem. In any case, the verb tense here is significant: certain things will always get done; inevitably, some subset of those things will be the right thing. We want that subset to be as large as possible. And, of course, the “will” circle itself is going to be bigger at some libraries, and at certain times, and smaller at others; sometimes we get more done and sometimes less. But it’s inevitable that it will never fall entirely inside of the “should” circle.
Those readers who are paying close attention may be experiencing a nagging sensation in the back of the brain. That nagging sensation is saying, “This whole conversation assumes a coherent understanding of what separates that which is from that which should be.” That is indeed a big assumption, and I plan to discuss it in more depth next time—so stay tuned for “Can, Should, and Will. Pt. 2: Science and Religion in the Library.”