Facing Critical Uncertainties

We’re all facing a lot of big, scary questions right now. What if I’m furloughed or laid off? What if I or someone I love gets sick? What if the economy causes me to lose my savings?

Meanwhile, many of us are feeling the pressure to innovate. I know as I’ve been working from home, I’ve had a small voice in the back of my mind urging me that this is the time to revolutionize my field, to take the lessons we’ve learned in the past month(s) and use them to change the way we’ve been doing things.

We’re all trying to anticipate what happens next and how libraries can best rise to it. Honestly, however, it’s been enough of a struggle to wake up, sit down at my desk, and keep working on some of my old, familiar projects some days. I can create resources and guides to help my community in the here and now, sure. But how am I supposed to know what to do in a month or six months while organizations are facing many of the same unknowns as individuals? What if we need to furlough staff? What if staff members get sick and are unable to work? What if we face massive budget cuts due to a plunging economy? How do we predict and innovate when every day feels a little bit like someone accidentally pushed the button of Douglas Adams’s improbability drive?

I want to preface the rest of this post by saying that everyone is responding to our current situation differently. If you find comfort in resting and finding peace, please do so. There is no need to push yourself to be extra productive right now. If you’re like me and you find solace in structure and planning as well as rest, read on.

Last quarter, I took one of my favorite courses of my degree so far: Information Innovation through Design Thinking. During this course, my professor told me about Liberating Structures. Liberating Structures are a set of 33 collaborative templates for guiding meetings and conversations. These structures are meant to enhance relationships, trust, and collaboration as groups work towards organizational growth. Now may be a good time to test out one of the structures: Critical Uncertainties.

From the Liberating Structures website

What is made possible? You can help a diverse group quickly test the viability of current strategies and build its capacity to respond quickly to future challenges. This Liberating Structure prepares a group for strategy making. It does not produce a plan to be implemented as designed but rather builds resilience: the capacity to actively shape the system and be prepared to respond to surprise. This means being better able to see different futures unfolding, better prepared to act in a distributed fashion, and more ready to absorb disruptions resiliently.”

While Critical Uncertainties won’t help us to make specific plans, it can help us to learn to navigate and respond to unknown territory a little more readily—plus it satisfies my urge to DO something. Here’s an overview:

Like all Liberating Structures, this is meant to be done with a group, so I recommend gathering a team together. (Digitally, of course.) Full instructions can be found on the Liberating Structures website, but here are the basics:

  1. Ask the group to name uncontrollable, unpredictable factors greatly affect our ability to function. For example, we might choose reopening time, budget, or staffing. My personal job involves staff training, so I might get together with a group and look at whether trainings will be sought out, or put aside for other priorities. Additionally, will everything be face-to-face, or online? As we’ve established, we’re facing no shortage of uncertainties.
  2. Choose two of these factors to be represented as continuums. Designate one as the x-axis and one the y-axis, thus creating 4 quadrants.
  3. Separate into four smaller groups if you have enough people. Those groups:
    1. Come up with a creative name for their quadrant
    1. Write a brief scenario for that quadrant
    1. Brainstorm three strategies that would lead to organizational success during that scenario
    1. Share with the rest of the group
  4. Together, review which strategies show up in multiple quadrants and which may only work in one quadrant, but with great success.
  5. Debrief about what changes you might make with this knowledge.

While this exercise certainly takes some time, it could be used to help organizations and departments practice change responses and scenario building. It can also help us to feel like we’re regaining some control over factors we cannot change.

If you’re working from home in addition to going to school, try this out and let us know how it went in the comments! I’d also love to hear any other methods you’re using for planning for the future.


Kerri is an MSI LIS candidate at Drexel University Online. She has spent her quarantine time working on creating eLearning, helping to teach patrons about online resources, and baking and eating far too many cookies. She tweets occasionally at @klmillik.

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

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