Part of this series on growing a museum, this was first posted May 2016
Artist: : Eron Davide Salvadei
In a large capital project, the transition plan is typically over shadowed by the series of plans that precede it. Earlier in the process, the strategic business plan, exhibit master plan, architectural plan, case for support, and fundraising plan are developed. Coming much later in the process, when it feels as if so much has been done that little could be left, the transition plan appears on the radar screen.
Obviously, a great deal of very critical planning has already been done. But the final steps of translating and operationalizing the project’s aspirations and intentions into the new space are indispensable. How will the vision for a stunning new wing, a LEED building, a sculpture garden, or 30,000 square feet of new exhibits approach their hoped-for potential if membership cycles span months the museum is closed, staff is not trained, programs are untested, and storage for back-up materials has yet to be found. How will the museum know whether the first year has been a success?
Connecting Resources Across Time
Transition planning connects the people, tasks, resources, and time that a museum needs to move through a succession of milestones to complete a major capital project: leaving one facility, moving into another, opening to the public, and operating during the first 12 months.
A standard definition of the transition plan is elusive and, perhaps, for good reason. Realistically, transition plans vary because every project is different. The transition for a museum starting up is very different than for an established museum opening a new wing, one bringing a large outdoor area on line, or new construction involving relocation to a new site.
Regardless of project specifics, transition planning shares some similarities. The time from winding down the old and becoming skilled at operating the new is about expanding ownership of and deepening familiarity with the museum’s new home, from a small group of people who have guided the project to a broader circle of staff. It deals with consolidating what is known about the present museum operation, the new facility and operation, and determining what needs to be accomplished during the transition phase. It relies on identifying the information and expertise necessary to plan for the changes ahead and building comfort with uncertainty and change.
Looking more closely, a plan that covers this time is a actually set of interconnected plans focusing on multiple phases defined by milestones following a critical path.
• Multiple phases. A series of phases typically involve closing down one operation, moving into a new facility, opening to the public, and operating through the first year. Milestones such as letting bids, groundbreaking, occupancy, exhibit installation, and opening events mark these phases.
• A set of interconnected plans cover all museum areas including programming, finance, marketing, development, facility, workforce, and daily operations.
• A critical path is the sequence of activities that add up to the longest overall duration required to complete a project. It both determines the shortest time possible to complete a project and also captures the interim deadlines and deliverables.
Times of Great Change
A museum going through this transition will not just have a new address or occupy a bigger space. Whether it rebrands itself or not, a museum will change its identity in small and large, subtle and more obvious ways. A constant shift between past and future and the competing demands of farewells and celebrations ensures a lively stretch of time. To navigate smoothly across multiple phases at a critical time in its growth, a museum must constantly manage complexity, grow capacity, and deal with uncertainty.
Interconnections among museum areas add a level of complexity to transition planning. Marketing promotes programs; membership rates relate to admission prices and program fees; staffing levels are calibrated to expected attendance. A museum’s hope for a cohesive visitor experience with mission-related activities demands cross-functional planning as well. Planning in one area, development, for instance, will quickly encounter decisions and deadlines in marketing, membership, workforce, and finance.
During transition planning, a museum gathers and organizes information at an increasingly granular level and projects it onto more specific time frames and spaces. Pricing structures, attendance projections, earned revenue goals, and staff levels have likely been determined as part of the project’s strategic business plan. They may have been revisited and updated over the project’s run incorporating new information. But new information continues to arrive as do more specific questions arise about building systems, exhibition maintenance, on-boarding staff, daily schedules, updated policies and procedures, and opening events.
On the one hand, the physical changes become increasingly apparent. The building goes up, sculptures are installed, exhibits are commissioned. Yet staff must be increasingly precise in how they will operate a building where they have spent little or no time. How will they manage crowding? (By the way, what does crowding look and feel like in that new or renovated lobby?) What does emergency preparation involve here? How will staff be prepared to greet, serve, and engage visitors, partners, and friends in the membership line, at the bus drop off, in the café, or outside in the new nature area?
Complexity, uncertainty, and change persist in new forms throughout the first year. Upon opening, a museum will definitely find itself in a territory with few meaningful benchmarks for its performance. Conditions such as location, size, and novelty have changed substantially; donors are transitioning from capital to annual appeals; a big marketing campaign has put the museum into a bright spotlight. Consequently, attendance patterns, average ticket prices, membership renewal rates, store sales, annual gifts, program participation (and more) that the museum will record over the first year will relate only somewhat to past patterns, if there are any. There is little or no baseline information for measuring, comparing, and guiding museum decisions. There won’t be for a good portion of the first year.
Picking Your Path Through Transition Planning
Complexity, uncertainty, and change make transition planning hard enough. Not being a standard part of a large capital project makes this planning even more challenging. Daunting as this might seem, however, a museum can navigate the transition territory picking up on how other museums have done this work.
• Start early. Transition planning takes time, time to organize, to work on the transition plan itself, and to implement it. Because every museum project varies, the time to start will also vary. For example, a new museum that hasn’t been in operation may need a transition plan that covers moving into the building, opening events, and the first operating year. A museum building a new building on its current site may close for 2 years and offer programs and pop-ups at community locations; its transition plan may span almost 4 years. At a minimum, a transition plan should cover 9 months before and 9 months after opening.
• Involve staff and board. Not all museums are able to develop their transition plans internally. A museum starting up may not have any staff or staff with the experience, breadth, and capacity to develop plans in all areas. It might, however, have staff with knowledge critical to the visitor experience and skills to train staff. Use it. Even when a museum finds that working with a consultant or team of consultants best provides the needed time and expertise, staff and board should be very involved. Their internal and local knowledge is essential to customizing the transition plan to their museum and community. Equally important, they must own and implement the plans.
• Scope plans to fit the museum’s situation. A review of existing plans and their scopes should indicate where more current information and a coordinated approach to the transition are needed. Depending on the planning that has already been done, plans may be needed for: finance, earned revenue, marketing and communication, community engagement, visitor experience, programs, exhibits, workforce, building and grounds, data and IT, development, or opening events. Especially if staff is developing them, plan scopes should not be too large or too small. Finance could be a single (and massive) plan encompassing earned revenue, development, and workforce. Or there could be separate plans for the store, admissions, membership, and rentals that require greater coordination. Identify plan scopes and who’s responsible for each plan.
• Look back and forward. Looking to the future starts with looking back and exploring questions like, what have we learned from successes and limitations at our current site that will enable us to significantly advance our mission and serve our visitors better at our new site? Addressing this question will involve looking at existing data and past patterns, understanding what has worked well, and deciding where changes are needed. Looking ahead to tracking its success, a museum can help itself by identifying performance indicators for each of its plans and how to track them.
• Learn from other museums. Examples of transition plans are scarce. A single announcement of a museum’s transition to a new building shows up on Google. A chapter in the 3rd edition of Barry Lord, Gail Lord and Lindsay Martin’s The Manual of Museum Planning touches on getting to opening day. Fortunately, colleagues who have completed the transition to a new operation are generous in sharing what they learned along the way. Whether a capital project is a renovation, expansion, or new building, lessons cluster around: get aligned to focus on the tasks ahead; put staff training at the top of the list of things to prepare for; and be kind to one another.
• Be prepared to grow. Transition planning is not just a great opportunity to grow staff, volunteers, and board internal capacity. It’s inevitable and necessary. Plans must focus on additional resources—staff, expertise, space, furniture and equipment, and partners—necessary for the work ahead. More staff, new positions, and expanded expertise among existing staff from leadership levels to entry positions produce growth in many forms. Concomitantly, a new organizational culture takes root in both deliberate and unexpected ways. With new staff come fresh perspectives, familiarity with other resources and practices, and an eagerness to find a place in the organization. Long-time staff holds valuable organizational knowledge and perhaps attachment to long-held practices that may, or may not, be suited for the next phase. The moment is ripe for veteran and new staff to team up and work together in new ways.
• Be intentional in every way and at every step. Every decision is as an opportunity to reinforce what matters in this great organizational change. Selecting the transition team, shaping a collaborative process, and sharing information can communicate inclusion, openness and valuing participation. Sharing plans regularly at a Transition Team meeting informs, updates and coordinates them with one another. Being timely in updating plans and the critical path, meeting deadlines, and using information to make decisions moves the museum towards greater efficiency, sustainability, and stellar service. All of which will be in high demand when the doors open and visitors pour in.