Monday, January 31, 2011

Missions That Matter

 “Re-visioning Vision Statements” posted in late December noted that vision statements are often absent from a museum’s driving principles. The fresh-take offered was an invitation to museums to revisit vision statements. From queries, comments, and pageviews, there's a clear  interest in vision statements, what they do, and what a good one is. Following closely behind is a parallel interest in mission statements. Here's a revisiting of missions.

Minnesota Children's Museum (Photograph: Vergeront)
If museums tend to overlook vision statements, they seem to have fraught relationships with mission statements. Countless times I have noticed board and staff being mystified, frustrated, annoyed, dismissive, and disappointed by mission statements. Mission statements have intrigued me ever since I met my first one at the emerging Madison Children’s Museum about 1980. As I have worked with more museums since then, mission statements have felt like a remarkable opportunity to capture why a museum matters. Mission statements are not easy to craft and I have not succeeded as much as I have hoped. Still my belief in the promise of a forceful mission statement and the process that produces it remains strong.

How’s your organization’s mission statement? Are you hearing different versions of it from your board or staff? Getting blank looks when you talk to funders? Trying to build your brand, or ready to embark on a strategic planning process? If so, revisiting your mission can bring new meaning and muscle to the heavy lifting every museum does.

Mission Basics
A mission, vision, and values are the driving principles that provide on-going guidance to a museum engaged in the serious work of converting public goodwill to public benefit. Together they set long-term direction and define the beliefs and behaviors that enable an organization to get there. 
A clear statement of the reason a museum exists is a mission’s contribution to this set of principles. A mission statement answers four questions: What does it contribute? who does it serve, how does it deliver? and why is this important?
Answering four basic questions seems simple. Building agreement around the answers to these questions, however, is not, and probably shouldn't be. The what, for whom , how, and why of a mission statement must be aligned and work together powerfully, be relevant to the community, and inspire action. A few promising methods, examples, and cautions can help strengthen a mission to guide the way to valued work.
  • Prime the pump
  • Be clear, be really clear
  • Be authentic, bold and compelling
  • Value the process and product of developing a mission statement
Prime the pump with engaging questions, lively discussion, and good background information. Bring the right people together, thinkers and linkers, board and staff, new perspectives and solid continuity. Do this as an enjoyable exploratory preamble to the very different work of landing on a mission. Do it also as an investment in developing a shared understanding of the museum’s most important ideas and building a solid organizational culture.
  • Prepare. Access solid knowledge about the community, its priorities, who  you want to serve, and other organizations sharing the landscape. 
  • Wander. Some engaging, open-ended questions will invite board and staff to tap into personal connections to the museum’s hopes.
  • Work in different ways. Share some reading in advance of the meeting that is inspiring, informative, and provocative. Discuss some questions as a larger group; explore alternatives as small groups.
  • Bring passion and facts together to explore new possibilities. Draw on reports and studies about local priorities to understand the organization’s relevance.
Be clear, be really clear. Mission statements bring together grand hopes, roomy ideas, multiple perspectives, and long-term interests. There can be an unruly competition among ideas that are at different scales, work awkwardly together, and have champions. Rather than tame these ideas into bland submission, dig deeper to explore them and understand the relationships among them. Connect them with clear language. Clarity builds the strength needed for a mission statement to guide a complex organization like a museum.
  • Concentrate your thinking on the difference the museum will make in the life of the community and its citizens and why this benefit is important. Build this understanding on existing studies, reports, and needs assessments. Connect the dots between the museum’s value and community priorities.
  • Differentiate among constituencies, groups who you must serve in order to accomplish your purpose. General terms such as everyone, people of all ages, or varied publics offer little guidance in serving and engaging your audience. Identify attributes related to age, interest, geography, or groups that are critical to what you do and why this is important.
  • Bring precision to how your museum will distinguish itself from other organizations striving towards similar goals. A question to explore this might be, “what can this museum accomplish for the community that another museum with a similar purpose is not able to accomplish?”
  • Probe meanings. Favorite words such as, “community,” “interactive,” or “family” are used frequently and freely with no assurance that they carry the same meaning. A friendly, “Can you talk more about what you mean by exemplary?” is an invitation to explore meanings. Or discuss the differences between community engagement and civic engagement to highlight meaningful distinctions.
  • Follow the implications of your ideas. Does the mission work with the vision? Does it point to a set of strong values to which the museum, board, and staff can hold true? What, more specifically, is meant by “to learn from those traditions to help shape a better future”? What is attractive about this phrase, and what does it mean?
  • Weed out unproductive words. Avoid ambiguous language, jargon, and clich├ęs. Phrases such as “…and related activities” add little. Be clear without being plain, and specific without being narrow. Use memorable language without being grandiose.
Be authentic, bold and compelling. In building a mission, a museum forges a deeper knowledge of itself and its aspirations. A museum must discover by itself the full measure of its aspirations. It cannot borrow them, be timid or modest in its ambitions. Probing deeper also serves to strengthen what distinguishes a museum from other organizations.
  • Authenticity rests in knowing one’s essence. That essence, or identity, must be embedded in a museum’s mission. Neither the identity of a logo nor a tagline, essence distinguishes a museum from similar organizations or a blander version of itself. It is intentionally played out in strategy, program options, operations, spirit and style. Sharpening an identity is as necessary for an established museum as for a start-up museum. 
  • Entertain bold ideas and great possibilities. Bold ideas, right for a museum and attuned to its community, deserve the courage to act on them. An art museum revisiting its mission and vision mentioned several powerful ideas that permeated recent activities. One was the community is the greatest work of art. The mission statement, however, reflected nothing of this interesting idea. Rather its mission is, "The Fine Art Museum shall establish and maintain a museum in order to house and exhibit a permanent collection of art as well as to provide space for traveling exhibitions, for the purpose of the enjoyment and education of the general public in City, State, and the surrounding communities.” (Identifying information removed.)
  •  Be compelling. Characterize what you do in inspiring and precise ways. What produces a greater sense of necessity a: a vital center, a public place, or a laboratory? Look closely; is your mission persuasive enough to attract a broad base of support to be sustainable for the long term? Are you connecting on the emotional level?
  • PS: When you reach for what’s bold and compelling, don’t confuse grandiose or inflated words for bold ideas.
Value the process and the process of building a mission. Having a mission is as much about forging a shared understanding as it is about a mission that inspires commitment and guides the museum. A lively back-and-forth and time to revisit ideas is indispensable in building agreement around shared aspirations and purpose. Debate and discussion make a mission stronger and better understood across a greater range of situations.
  • When worked hard through discussion, questioning, and making meaningful distinctions, a mission becomes more inspiring internally. Hard work also pays off if a mission statement is also meaningful to people outside the organization. 
  • Each new choice can change the dynamic of the mission. Determining that the museum will enrich the lives of county residents (what and for whom) may require clarity around how and why. Revisit ideas and distinctions to make sure the alignment is solid.
  • A full, productive process will allow current and future staff and board to understand not only what the museum does, but what it doesn’t do. Where discovery begins may feel like a mission to those who have just drafted it. But given the long-term nature of a mission, the shortcomings of this brief statement will inevitably be revealed.
Missions that Matter for Museums that Matter
Building a mission statement is a shared journey with significant challenges and great benefits. Living up to a mission statement, especially one that soars, is an exhilarating challenge. Fortunately, a mission statement is use dependent. The more it is discussed, applied, and put to work, the more its capacity as a tool and a guide shows and grows. It points to where you are going and reduces the risk of wandering. A shared tool for management and governance, it helps move the museum towards what matters.
Below, a variety of mission statements suggests how the four questions can be answered to capture their organizations' aspirations and purpose. Not all mission statements here answer all four questions, but all are serviceable, give guidance, and make some valuable distinctions. Is there a mission statement you know of that does a fine job in important respects? What do you think it does particularly well? Why?

• The mission of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the oceans.
• American Association of Museums: To strengthen museums through leadership, advocacy, collaboration and service. 
Harlem Children’s Zone: To improve the lives of poor children in America’s most devastated communities.
Shelburne Farms: Cultivate a conservation ethic for a sustainable future.
The Walker Art Center is a catalyst for the creative expression of artists and the active engagement of audiences. Focusing on the visual, performing, and media arts of our time, the Walker takes a global, multidisciplinary, and diverse approach to the creation, presentation, interpretation, collection, and preservation of art. Walker programs examine the questions that shape and inspire us as individuals, cultures, and communities.
Science Museum of London: Become a center for public debate on issues in contemporary science and technology.
Tulsa Children’s Museum: Inspiring children, connecting families, and building community through exploration, exhibits, programming, and play.
Science Museum of Minnesota: Turn on the science: realizing the potential of policy makers, educators, and individuals to achieve full civic and economic participation in the world.
• The mission of The New York Public Library is to inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge, and strengthen our communities.

Links to perspectives on mission statements: 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Planning To Plan

Any major planning effort, like a strategic plan, master plan, or a facility plan can feel daunting. Maybe it’s the first major plan for the museum since opening; perhaps board and staff have changed significantly since the last major planning effort. Or this could be a young museum’s very first plan. Whatever the conditions, a critical first step for any major planning effort is preparation. Preparation for planning is a bit like the planning process itself: engaging people in considering what must be accomplished, how best to do it, with whom, and with what resources. Four steps will prepare a museum for a solid planning effort.

§     Get people on board and build ownership. Since the planning process will involve others, start talking with them: staff, board, partners, and funders. Gathering ideas and drawing on other perspectives will build ownership from the start. Conversations can be informal or more formal as “job number one” of a planning task force. Ask others what they hope the plan will accomplish, issues they see facing the museum, planning challenges, who should be involved, and the kind of planning expertise needed. Talk with key supporters early on. It’s an opportunity to show you’re proactive on behalf of the organization’s future. You can also explore possible support for the planning process itself or for some aspect of implementation. Lay the groundwork for sharing the plan when completed.

§     Learn from experience–yours and others'. How you approach the next round of planning is influenced by previous planning. Do a quick assessment of past planning efforts, of what worked and didn’t work so well. Did you get the plan you wanted? Did staff and board feel they were included and informed? Did the plan seem too generic? Too much of a stretch? Did people feel the plan sat on a shelf? How could implementation have been better?

You can learn as much from other museums’ planning efforts as from your own. Ask about the planning work museums comparable to yours have done recently. Identify museums of comparable size and type in other parts of the country as well as similar local organizations that have done recent planning. Consider asking about how long a planning process took, who participated, whether it was facilitated internally or externally, what information they gathered, how much it cost, what they wish they’d done differently, and how pleased they were with the plan. Ask for a copy of the plan or a table of contents to see what the plan covered. All of this will help in determining the plan’s scope and can help in deciding whether to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for planners and what the RFP might include.

§     Shape the scope. Figuring out the nature and the scope of the plan starts with placing your planning needs in a larger organizational and community context. Has it been five years since your last strategic plan? Is another museum expanding their services to reach your audience? Are funders asking tougher questions about the museum’s impact? Is it time to rethink your exhibits? Every plan is not necessarily a standard strategic plan, master plan, or exhibit plan. Typically a plan must be focused to reflect a particular time frame (i.e. five-to-six years or annual); an organizational focus (capacity building, learning impact, community engagement, etc.); or a focused area of change on an existing strategic platform (relocation, sustainability, etc.).

Considering potential stakeholder involvement helps determine the scope. Is significant community input important? Should you be reaching across sectors of the community? Is internal alignment on core activities critical? Factors such as external deadlines and a compressed timeline can affect a plan’s scope as can cost. Since a plan can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000, get a realistic idea of what the type of plan you want is likely to cost.

§     Match the resources to the plan. Reviewing all the gathered information will give a clearer idea of the resources your plan requires. Resources generally include time, expertise, and funding which are inextricably intertwined. Based on what you hope the plan will accomplish, think about the skills and expertise required: planning expertise, facilitation skills, and museum knowledge.

Local non-profit strategic planners know strategic planning. They know your community and bring an objective perspective. Less often do they know museums, their current issues, and standards. A board member who is a strategic planner will know the museum, but may lack objectivity.

While museum expertise can be valuable in strategic planning or financial planning, it is necessary in developing education plans and exhibit plans. Specific expertise may, or may not, be available locally so getting to know the local, regional and national landscape will help in deciding potential planners and likely travel costs. Sometimes a plan’s authority is linked with a particular type of expert; sometimes its credibility comes from expert local knowledge. In every case, skilled facilitation is critical to engaging participants and moving the planning process forward and can be provided by someone from inside or outside the organization with the right skills and enough time.

A combination of internal and external players can be a good choice. In the end, the right team always brings together expertise and local knowledge; is compatible and interested in producing the best plan; and fits a museum’s price range and schedule.

Preparation for planning does take time. It also makes a real difference. Preparatory work develops a shared understanding among key players about what’s ahead and removes a few of the inevitable obstacles. It helps bring the right players together; manages expectations about the process and the resulting plan. All aspects of preparation help set a planning process on a smooth course.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Customers, Learners, Citizens

Visitors, audiences, guests, customers, clients, patrons, users, the public. How do you or your museum refer to the people it serves and hopes to serve? 

Articles, blogs, conversations, and even mission statements suggest there is little agreement about this important term among museums. In fact, labels are often used interchangeably. This might imply that it doesn’t really matter what we call the adults and children who walk through the doors, enroll in classes, become members, shop at the store, explore exhibits, and visit our websites.

In fact, what we call our museum’s public beneficiaries really does influence how we think of them, plan for them, serve them and our communities, and even assess our impact. “Visitor” might have the lead as a standard term, but with major shortcomings. It is not only impersonal, but it also lumps together millions of people into one undifferentiated mass. It implies a temporary relationship with someone who will be leaving soon. Finally, it ignores the vast number of people who may not physically come to the museum but who have an interest in and a relationship with it. Teachers and school administrators, volunteers, partners, funders, business leaders, neighbors, and taxpayers are only some of the stakeholders who don’t fit the label "visitor."   

Visitor is not so much a wrong term. It is simply inadequate. The lively, exciting activity around audience conceptualizations seems to suggest this as well. (Falk, J. 2006;  Stylianou-Lambert, T. 2010. Pekarik and  Mogel. 2010.)

Somewhere between a one-size-fits-all category of visitor and a research-based audience segmentation is a view of museum visitors as:

  • Customers
  • Learners
  • Citizens
While very basic as a taxonomy, this nevertheless focuses on the person, engages with museum practices, and aligns with most museums’ broad strategic interests. It also accommodates the very real possibility that a person might be a customer, a learner, or a citizen at various times during a museum visit depending on their interests, choices, and activities.

Considering the particular roles and associated interests of customers, learners, and citizens opens the possibility of relationships with them that are more personal than abstract and that may be on-going. It places people in the social context of museums. And it facilitates understanding, describing and assisting people in what they hope to accomplish by connecting with the museum.
  • Customers purchase memberships, attend events, shop in the store, and use websites. They are interested in friendly service, personal satisfaction, a good value, comfort, easy navigation, and a positive experience. 
  • Learners visiting exhibits, participating in a program, or upgrading skills expect rich accessible content, opportunities to apply existing skills and experiences, or appreciate art. They may want to learn together as a family or provide a learning experience for their children.
  • Inspired to serve their community, eager to expand or share skills, or acting on a long-standing interest, citizens may be volunteers, participants in research, advisors, advocates, or enthusiasts. They bring energy, expertise, and goodwill that help a museum strengthen its community connections.
Getting to know and plan for customers, learners, and citizens suggests new contexts and practices. We tend to construct a context that takes into account qualities we attribute to someone in a particular role. So distinguishing among roles is likely to sharpen awareness of expectations and associated contexts. Alternative assumptions, approaches, and practices may come into play along with new resources and studies.

  • Customers. Satisfying customers brings to mind ways to be helpful, the importance of taking the extra step, and the potential of an on-going relationship that serving visitors does not. Two decades ago museums experienced a surge of awareness around satisfying customers. Meeting or exceeding their expectations became a priority. Subsequently, customer service procedures were developed, staff training was implemented, and satisfaction levels are measured and tracked. Lobbies increasingly offer designated lines (i.e. member express), food and other amenities, and activities to engage children while parents purchase tickets. A reputation for exceptional customer service builds a valued brand and good will that benefits a museum for years.
  • Learners. Imagine the discussions, questions, and choices a team planning an exhibit for learners would have compared to the same team planning an exhibit for visitors. To plan for learners, a team might develop a definition of learning. It might identify attributes like curiosity, rich experience bank, or creative, that learners bring to the objects, images, text, media, and activities a team will shape into an exhibition. The team could use generic learning outcomes or content-based frameworks to frame learning goals and evaluate the exhibit’s impact, just as it could design exhibits using research on the connection between family learning and exhibit characteristics. The more developed a view of the learner a museum has, the more fully it is able to deliver on a promise of learning value.
  • Citizens. Museums invest significant resources in developing partnerships, growing networks, delivering programs in the community, and reaching new audiences. These are long-term efforts and a challenge to sustain. Engaging citizens in this work, however, can shift resources and results. Whether they are neighbors, hobbyists, volunteers, activists, artists, inventors, or scientists, citizens bring high levels of motivation and commitment. Moreover, their experiences, expertise, and perspectives are assets that help the museum serve its customers and learners more effectively, expand its cultural knowledge, research a pressing local issue, or bring the community into the museum. While listening, nurturing relationships, and building trust take time, authentic citizen engagement goes directly to a museum’s aligning its interests and assets with its community’s priorities.
Everyday, museums open their doors, look sharp, eagerly await and welcome visitors. If, however, a museum were to focus on serving its customers, inspiring learners, and engaging citizens, it could accomplish this and more. A museum could also help itself become a recognized and valued asset in its community.
  • Falk, J. 2006. An identity-centered approach to understanding museum learning. Curator: The Museum Journal. 49/2: 151-164.
  • Pekarik, A.J. and B. Mogel. 2010. Ideas, objects, or people? A Smithsonian exhibition team views visitors anew. Curator: The Museum Journal 53/4: 465-483.
  • Stylianou-Lambert, T. 2010. Re-conceptualizing museum audiences: Power, activity, responsibility. Visitor Studies: 13(2): 131-144.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Questions at Work

From a toddler’s opening question, “whassat?” to the life-changing questions of Nobel Laureates, questions open doors to discovery. They engage interest, fire up thinking, solve problems, and invite creativity. The lack of rich questions in classrooms is bemoaned, but we also hear of the value of inquiry-based learning in schools and museums as well as inspiring examples of powerful questions in strategy and stories.

But really good questions are not easy to come by. So having found what I think is a really good question, I’m inclined to share it. Here’s the question in its “all-purpose” form:

What can this attractive option accomplish - that needs to be accomplished - that this other equally attractive option cannot?

Several years ago I was working with a museum that, like many, had added programs, partnerships, and initiatives over time without letting go of anything. Commitments accumulated while resources stayed the same and then shrank. I first developed a value matrix for staff to assess programs, initiatives, and partnerships according to mission (hi/lo) or contribution (hi/lo time, income, or identity). This proved to be a challenging starting point since it required significant groundwork that was unrealistic in our time-frame.

In looking for another approach, I landed on what I hoped would be a question that could leverage staff knowledge and empower them to make choices aligned with priorities. When I wrote the question on the white board, staff relaxed and a few light bulbs went on. For starters, the question itself presumed the activities were valued, a critical factor in a willingness to engage in thoughtful exploration. Staff began to probe assumptions, compare activities and differentiate among them, and eventually prioritize commitments.

Constructing the question required a few passes and trials that helped me understand its virtues. First, the question is explored in the context of a larger purpose. Specifying the overarching idea clarifies what is important: a community’s need, desired impact, project goal, specific time frame, or set of resources. Applying this larger consideration not only deepens an understanding of what is important, but also helps clarify what advances it.

Second the larger context serves as a constant against which two valued options are assessed and subsequently sorted. The expanse between roomy ideas on the one hand and specific activities on the other produces a tension that shifts perspectives and creates movement towards adaptation and change.

This all-purpose question with the potential to be more specific generates subsequent questions. An exercise might explore in what ways this program (initiative, activity, etc.) accomplishes something that is needed. The result might be a list of approaches, strategies, or benefits that are more congruent with the purpose or are more effective. When the question shifts to how a particular program could be improved to accomplish more, those promising approaches are put to work.

It’s great that this question has the potential to bring a discerning perspective to choices and contribute to new, shared ways of planning and decision-making. Ultimately, however, its greatest virtue is that it gets at what not to do, what to do less of, and what to discard. Every museum has this need.

These qualities helped the question succeed at its intended task. Over the years, I have also found that this question travels well and, in any case, is more mobile than a value matrix. The question works at multiple scales, in a variety of settings and situations, and for an individual or for a group. I have used the following versions of the question to open up stubborn situations, jump start thinking, and plan my own work.
·      What can this meeting accomplish for staff (or trustees) with many demands on their time that another way of working together cannot?
·      In what ways will this potential trustee’s skills, experience, and commitment help the board accomplish its goals for the museum that this other trustee would not?
·      How could a family-based community engagement strategy advance our goal of being a recognized convener in the community around children’s well-being that offering training and information resources to educators and community workers could not?
·      What can our museum accomplish to help our community be more resilient that another museum or organization is not able to accomplish?

I hope you try out the question and let me know how it works for you. I know there are also other questions that work. If you have a question that helps you discover what other very good questions cannot, please let me know.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Notes to the New Year

Notes on stickies, book margins, receipts, business cards, and even napkins suggested the idea for this blog. These notes keep track of ideas, people, websites, definitions, things to do, museums to visit, books to buy, and articles yet to read. Some are half-thoughts to complete. Others are resources for museum I work with. Culling through this year’s notes, are five that point to interesting possibilities for the coming year.

  • A Conversation about Educational Leadership In Museums in the Journal of Museum Education; Vol. 34, No. 2.  Author Leslie Bedford calls Mark H. Moore’s ideas of public value “The Big Idea.” She highlights Mary Ellen Munley’s and Randi Roberts’ work to adapt his ideas to help museums shift from activities that benefit individuals to action that benefits communities. 
    • Note: With this and Carol Scott’s work, public value becomes a workable framework for museums to push harder on making their contributions to their communities valued and recognized.
  • Investing in Children Summit presented by Louisiana Children’s Museum and Tulane Institute of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health, New Orleans, LA. The Summit focused on community-based projects in several US cities and Reggio Emilia (Italy). Each effort reflects its community. All are ambitious and complex, relying on extensive networks, robust relationships, varied perspectives, and aligned and shared resources related to children’s well-being and community vitality.  
    • Note: The work in Reggio is both an inspiration and a challenge to US projects. Unfolding over 60 years, it has produced positive and enviable changes for Reggio and its children through an approach that views children as strong and competent; values childhood; appreciates complexity; and side-steps standards, school readiness and metrics.
  • Learning from the Edges, Moving to the Middle a dynamic session at the Visitor Studies Association Conference. Three visitor studies panelists positioned at the edges of the room represented three contexts: performing arts, art museums, and nature‐based settings. A facilitated discussion among them explored parallels, intersections, and differences of audience and visitor studies in the demographics, motivation, experience, benefits (and more) of the three contexts.  
    • Note: This innovative session format succeeded in making the relationship among ideas visible across context perspectives and space.
  • Twin Cities Museum Collaborative. For two years museum colleagues have been exploring ways to strengthen mission-related services to new and existing audiences by working collaboratively. We hope to build on audience research and local audience data; explore the learning value of TC museums; and pilot strategies to increase and sustain the engagement of more diverse, including younger, audiences.  
    • Note: Collaboration is a methodology and a structure and, ultimately, a shared perspective that evolves with time.
  • The Participatory Museum by Nina Simon. Nina sets participation in the context of a museum’s mission and vision and find ways to encourage greater participation from any starting point an enthusiast or museum might start. The principles of participation and varied examples in both her book and Museum2.0 blog make the possibility of engaging the public feel exciting, right, and necessary.  
    • Note: Exploring ideas and learning with others power the intellectual and creative work of museum educators, exhibit developers, designers, and evaluators. Participatory projects, programs, exhibits, and museums have great potential to bring this remarkable opportunity and its benefits to visitors.