Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Rewind: Strategic, Not Strategic

I’ve been thinking about this 2012 post recently. Our work in museums and for our communities is challenging, even if very rewarding. Challenges are plentiful enough without also slowing our thinking, confusing others, and excluding others with fuzzy meanings for words we use. What do we mean by the words and phrases we use frequently in our work? Strategic is one of those words used often, casually, and ineptly. Because museums need strategic thinking across the organization, this can be a problem. Distinguishing between what’s strategic and what’s not strategic is invaluable at  ever level of the organization, among trustees and staff, in marketing and finance, in development and visitor experiences.


No Wind

Long ago a simple children’s television cartoon illustrating the basic concept of wind caught my attention and has stayed with me. First came a simple drawing of a child whose hair stood straight up when squiggly lines vibrated along with a whoosh sound; a voice from nowhere said, “wind.” Next a frame showed the same child with neat, tidy hair. No squiggly lines vibrated. There was no whoosh; the voice said, “no wind.” Several "wind", "no wind" repetitions followed. This clear, simple demonstration of a concept and its opposite appealed me. I vowed to find ways to use it to illustrate challenging concepts.

Applying this simple method has been helpful to me and to museum staff and boards I work with to contrast strategic and non-strategic. In museums and during planning work, strategic, and its parent word, strategy, are often tossed about freely and in exceedingly casual ways. Considering how frequently the words are used, it's surprising how little they are clarified for the context they are used. Strategy is used in military as well as business, academic, education, healthcare, and non-profit context. It is used to mean plan, positioning, ploy, pattern, and perspective.

Should you be in a planning session, an interview, or budget discussion, don’t pick a possible definition of strategic and cross your fingers that others share it. A situation that occurred repeatedly in one museum suggests why not. An executive director would tell her senior managers to “be strategic” in developing a platform or an initiative. Several weeks later when they presented their work, she felt they hadn’t really been strategic and she repossessed the assignments. I’ve wondered what she thought strategic meant and what her managers thought it meant given that dynamic.

It’s not easy to define these words. Recent checks–on-line, in planning books and journals, and in my notes and files–re-confirm this. A few paltry definitions exist like, “…of or relating to strategy.” There’s an abundance of military definitions and references to strategy. Strategic describes innumerable efforts such as strategic planning, thinking, awareness, management, and communications. 

Not surprisingly, these words feel big, impressive, and intimidating. Being strategic is frequently confused with an interest in big ideas, being bold or intellectual. The overlap is not automatic. Equally often, being strategic is buzz. The result often is staff pursuing small, unconnected actions or boards captivated by big fuzzy ideas. 

A Working Definition for Strategic
After gathering, sifting, and distilling definitions of strategic, here’s my working definition for strategic in a museum context. It’s not a big, fancy, conceptual idea, and that’s the point. Strategic is:
An integrated perspective that ties explicitly to a larger intended effect.

• Integrated means spanning the museum’s functional (or departmental) areas and serving both internal (organizational) and external (community) interests and factors. This is a systems perspective on the organization as a whole and its interconnecting parts. What goes on outside the museum–the community’s vitality, other culturals, even the weather–impacts the museum.

                • A larger, intended effect might mean advancing the mission, vision, sustainability, or achieving a competitive position. It involves stepping back and viewing things from a broader vantage point. Concern is more with the gap between today’s reality and intent for the future than with today’s reality.

Several implications follow from this working definition. First, a strategic perspective differs from an operational, or tactical, perspective. Focusing on things running more smoothly or efficiently, operational concerns might involve extending a best practice, integrating software systems, or updated safety training for staff. Being strategic is not better than being operational; but it is better to know the difference, use each as appropriate, and coordinate them.

Second, being strategic is an ongoing perspective applied to everyday decisions. It is not just confined to a strategic planning process every five years. Knowing the overarching reasons for what a museum is trying to accomplish is necessary and front-and-center. There’s no reason a working definition of strategic shouldn’t be developed and shared plainly, broadly and frequently within a museum. Critical to where every museum is headed, strategic is integral to discussions and decisions about everything from shaping goals, developing budgets, setting targets, allocating staffing, deciding on outsourcing, working with partners, and cultivating funders.

Finally, a perspective that encompasses a broader, longer view and takes into account the interaction of forces is more likely to create substantial change every museum is interested in. That, rather than small, incremental progress, is the value of being strategic.

Strategic, Not Strategic
Applying the wind, no wind method, here are some examples that may be familiar in museums. While some are strategic and others are not strategic, there are also situations when something leans into being strategic just as there can be some wind, but not much.

•  Interested in increasing attendance? Many museums are. A typical goal is to get more visitors to the museum. Alone, that is not strategic. Focusing on getting more of the right visitors to the museum is strategicWho the right visitors are relates to the museum’s larger interests, its mission, and its community. Increase the number of visitors in a target audience group, underserved members of the community, family groups, or a mix of visitors who can pay full price and those who can’t also helps the museum reach other goals. Getting more of the right visitors relies on marketing, education, exhibits, and visitor services all working together.

• Even when budget trimming is essential, cutting the budget 10% across the board is not strategic. It may seem bold and carry the aura of being more strategic than it is. Slicing 10% everywhere makes no distinction about where services affect visitors most, where resources are accomplishing more (or less), in what areas the museum is over-extended or off-mission, where risk accompanies cuts, or where cuts hobble efforts to grow income. Finding cuts amounting to 10% of the budget is strategic when they factor these considerations and serve the highest priority, the long-term health of the organization.

•  Expanding the museum’s physical footprint is not strategic. It might just be a case of building envy or ambition. Creating a larger community footprint, however, is strategic. A bigger building may be necessary to accommodate a museum’s increased and established community leadership role; a new function like a science preschool; or increasing access to parts of its collection relevant to the community’s past.

•  A digital dashboard of indicators looks cool. If it’s an exercise in counting attendance and membership, it's not strategic. On the other hand, it is strategic if the metrics are counting what counts. Meaningful metrics track a museum’s performance across key areas; they are monitored, shared, factored into decisions, and inform new goals that make progress towards larger goals such as sustainability, community engagement, or being a recognized and valued resource.

•  Reorganizing staff happens often and in small ways. Adding an assistant position to development, increasing hours in guest services, or combining marketing and public relations can be efficient, enhance communication, or serve visitors better; this is not strategic. Restructuring staff based on results of a MAP (Museum Assessment Program) report or to implement a strategic plan is moving towards strategic. Realigning staff to act on the museum’s mission of life-long learning to provide a continuum of experiences across the life span is strategic.

•  Prototyping is a best practice; building capacity to prototype in-house to test and redesign exhibit components leans into being strategic. Connecting prototyping to a long-term museum or learning interest becomes strategic. When an in-house prototyping team develops expertise in extending visitor engagement, actively involving parents, or increasing conversation in family groups, documents it, and recycles it into exhibit development and design–now that’s strategic.

• Strategic is not always big. Small experiments can be strategic. Interest in better serving or growing the upper end of the age range in a children’s museum can, for instance, be explored in a series of steps as a strategic experiment. Such work might: observe exhibit areas where this age group already has a greater presence and spends more time; interview them about what they like about the activity or area and why; develop and add similar layers in other areas of the museum; observe for changes in the presence of this age group in those areas. Repeat for another area of the museum. Monitor for changes in the presence of this age group in the museum. 

A Change In the Weather
Wind, no wind. Strategic, not strategic. These simple pairs shift the possibility of seeing in new ways: seeing the organization in a long view; noticing the interconnections between parts; and following how individual actions feed into a larger system or story. While nothing, in fact, really changes, looking at things differently, looking at them strategically, leads to making different choices. Making different choices, strategic choices, creates long-term change. Now that’s strategic. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

New Year’s Readings: My Blog Roll

As we approach 2017 you may be considering New Year’s resolutions, either professional or personal. Maybe your travel and conference budgets aren’t big, but you want to find ways to grow in your job or explore more widely in the field. Or perhaps you aspire to be The Designated Reader in your museum. 

May I suggest professional reading, as a way to press the “refresh” button? Professional reading is important for me in my work. It introduces me to museums I’ll never visit and some I haven’t even heard of. Reading pushes my thinking, helps me make connections between ideas and practices, and nudges me outside my comfort zone.

I take my role of sharing articles, books, studies, and blog posts seriously. Fortunately I couldn’t enjoy this part of my work more. I am delighted when I come across titles I'm not familiar with like some Paul Orselli included recently on The 2016 ExhibitTricks Picks for Your Museum / Exhibit / Design Reading List.

The abbreviated, accessible format of blogs complements my diet of professional books and journals. Following the links on a post takes me on a focused browse that inevitably introduces me to new blogs and fresh territory. Checking out the blog roll and getting to know occasional guest bloggers connect me with new thinkers and writers.

Admittedly, we can’t read everything that looks interesting and might be relevant. With time, I have landed on a list of 7 blogs I visit regularly and look forward to reading. As a set they span museum areas and the field. I can count on them to jostle my thinking, connect me with current studies and resources, and bolster my work with museums. Generally well composed and relatively condensed, they have a satisfying density that helps my thinking and writing. I want to thank these and other blog writers. I know how much time even a seemingly simple or short post can take. 

Museum2.0, Nina Simon’s long-running blog, is also a long-time favorite of mine. An energetic and clear thinker, Nina is skilled at exploring philosophical issues with concrete language and interesting examples. She is open and generous in sharing her learning with others.

• On Leadership Matters, Anne Ackerson and Joan Baldwin take on 21st century museum leadership across a range of issues from board and staff leadership development, to strategy, to workplace culture. Seasoned professionals with experience in museums and the cultural heritage field, they cross and connect contexts. 

Museum Questions by Rebecca Herz raises questions about museum practices, museums' value, and improving the work of the field. Her curiosity and friendly skepticism model how questions can serve as a tool for exploring current issues and challenging assumptions embedded in museum work. 

Art Museum Teaching is a digital community and collaborative online forum for reflecting on issues of teaching, learning, and experimental practice in art museum learning. Founder and editor Mike Murawski along with guest writers share engaging perspectives on the intersection of art, museum learning, and museums’ roles in social action.

• AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums blog from the founding director, Elizabeth Merritt, and occasional guest bloggers, covers a broad swath of territory related to the cultural, technological, economic, and political trends and challenges that are shaping museums' futures.   
• Wilkening Consulting - The Data Museum is Susan Wilkening’s relatively new blog that looks at museums through research, data and “critical, contextual thinking.”  

ExhibiTricks authored by the prolific and provocative (in the best sense of the word) Paul Orselli shares a wide range of interesting and sometimes unlikely resources for exhibits, design, and museums.

I hope you will check out these blogs and will enjoy them. What blogs do you read regularly and would recommend to your colleagues? And what do you like about them?

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

21st Century Skills in the Wild

Everyday we encounter evidence of how the next generation’s success hinges on not only what they know, but also on their ability to think, act creatively, and connect with others. These are often referred to as 21st century skills and are necessary for navigating increasingly complex life and work environments and succeeding in work, life, and citizenship.

Museums are, in many ways, well positioned to cultivate 21st century skills. Rich learning environments with fascinating objects and filled with people, we create experiences to engage visitors’ interests, fire their curiosity, inspire creativity, and invite critical viewing. Furthermore, museums have mission-related interests in these skills as well as view themselves as offering learning value.

While these are critical attributes for cultivating 21st century skills in museum learners, they are, relatively speaking, the easier conditions to put in place. Just as some conditions for building skills must be present, others must not interfere. Alignment of our understanding of 21st century skills with learning and active, learner-centered experiences is critical to having the right conditions in place.     

What view of learners and learning informs the experiences we create? What sources of information shape our ideas of what these skills look like? How are we supporting the practice of these skills through self-directed learning in our informal learning environments? We might think about these questions from the perspectives of agency and emergent skills of competent learners.

Agency for Museum Learners 
Increasingly, I have been wondering how we actually view and provide for agency for learners in the museum experiences we create. In an earlier post I asked: How do museums create experiences that allow visitors to complete the experience by directing it and changing it? 

Agency is very much at the heart of that question. When we view museum visitors as curious, motivated to try an activity, making choices, and engaged in conversation, we recognize them as learners with agency. We see them as active in directing their learning, shaping their experience, and making sense of their world.

Agency may be intrinsic to learning, but it is not assured. In a recent blog post, early childhood educator Tom Bedard reflected on the agency children have and he has as a teacher in the classroom. Children’s agency, he observes, is intertwined with his agency as a teacher. Neither something he has nor children have, agency emerges in the space between the materials, the children, and him.

This is true for museums as well. In museums, valuing agency means leaving room in the experiences we create for learners, for multiple solutions and uses of resources we never imagined. Learners, as active agents, can make connections with each other that we have not planned for them; they can discover possibilities and construct pathways to new understandings that are relevant to them. Drawing on our creativity and imagination to create experiences, present objects, or set challenges for museum learners, we can encourage them to explore and develop skills with opportunities to make, think, question, and imagine.

Conversely, the experiences we create can circumscribe learners’ opportunities to practice and stretch the very skills we hope to encourage. By driving the process of creating learning experiences and feeling accountable to outcomes and funders, we risk limiting learners to our learning objectives and what we have conceptually constructed for them. Without realizing it, we may be inculcating our way of thinking in them or influencing them to think what we want them to think. In confining their agency, we also limit the related agency of the museum, its designers, educators, and interpreters.

We don’t know what sense visitors will make of their experiences and what they will take away. We need them and their agency, however. They engage and enrich our learning, learning that is essential to our increasing the value of the experiences we deliver. Ultimately, a museum learner’s meaning making empowers them and makes possible our realizing our goal to inspire life-long learning.  

Ideas about teaching and learning weave through the concept of agency. Learning actively serves the interests of agency as Loris Malaguzzi, co-creator of the Reggio philosophy, notes. He observes that, "… between learning and teaching, we honor the first. It is not that we ostracize teaching, but we tell it, ‘Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do, and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different from before.’” A recent museum blog post, on the other hand, illustrates how teaching steps in before learning, “Every educator is in a position to teach students how to gather information, evaluate it, screen out distractions and think for themselves.”

When we insist on teaching skills rather than observing and understanding them and when we direct activities rather than trust learners’ capabilities, we eclipse agency.

Finding Skills In The Wild
I once heard Blake Ward, Museums Program Manager at Minnesota Children’s Museum, observe that 21st century skills are skills children have naturally and in abundance; I was delighted. We tend to think we’ve discovered skills and abilities when, in fact, we are overlooking their ample presence in children as well as in youth and adults. It’s as if valuable skills aren’t present unless we have decided they exist. In deciding to focus on particular skills we assume we are fostering them; we think we are directing them. We may be curtailing them.

Where do we get our idea of what the 21st century skills are and what they look like? The multiple taxonomies of 21st century skills are geared to skills that “students” need, “student outcomes,” and the context of school settings geared to measurement and testing. If we are interested in cultivating skills sturdy enough to meet the challenges of our rapidly changing century, we can’t limit ourselves to skills contained in classroom activities or museum exhibits.

Rather, we need to look into places and situations that share a high correspondence with the real world where these skills are applied, tested, and truly matter. We need to fish where the fish are. Because our goal is for people to succeed in life, not get better at museum exhibits, we need to understand skills in contexts with varied materials, shifting conditions, human interactions, and real-life consequences.

What do versions of 21st century skills that are meaningful to museum learners–from babies to elders–look like? Beyond the museum walls are myriads of real life experiences, activities, and contexts in which people think critically, respond with empathy, communicate clearly, and collaborate with others. If we focus on people engaged by their choice, guiding their own experiences, using their selected strategies, and making their own decisions, we can both grow and refine our sense of what these skills are. We will have greater clarity about what they look like in work and life situations if we observe them in the wild.

Imagine how we might deepen our understanding of 21st century–and other valued–skills by following learners as they hike, trim tree branches, fix a bike, or prepare a meal. What 21st century skills are at play as someone throws a pot, builds a fort, repairs a broken zipper, starts a fire, or learns to juggle? When someone plays a guitar, figures out a bus route, coaches a co-worker, or plays with the wind at the shore.

Focusing on these everyday moments we will undoubtedly glimpse learners’ existing capabilities and appreciate the emergent skills they possess and are honing. We may discern a prior question they are exploring or something that matters to them. Given thoughtful attention, we may notice how learners approach a situation, perhaps back up and rethink a step. We may discover some of the ways they enlist the help of others, adapt tools and materials to suit their purpose, and how they come up with ideas or moves we have not seen nor imagined. Their faces, gestures, and words will give us greater insights about the role agency plays and how feelings of accomplishment empower. As we further reflect, we can imagine how these behaviors and those strategies could be applied in other situations, in museum exhibits and programs. We can begin to envision museum experiences that are responsive to the learner’s agency and support skills that correspond to real life situations and many contexts.

If we are serious about cultivating 21st century skills–or any other skills, for that matter–in museum learners, we need to value agency as well as the capacity of experiences to support it. We are going to be in the 21st century for a very long time. We need to do our part to ensure museum learners experience agency and want more.

Photo credit: NASA