Monday, March 5, 2012

Values as Commitments

Institutional values are typically described as the beliefs that guide the behaviors and work of an organization. I’ve written about them before here using that understanding and how values contribute to a museum's set of driving principles: vision, mission, and values.

Often I see values that are a list of words: respect, excellence, accessible. Assets like collections sometimes are listed as values; though of considerable value, collections are not values. Sometimes one museum’s set of values is virtually the same as another mueum’s. In the past year I was asked to be on a team to develop a master plan for an emerging museum. I was sent the RFP and was most surprised to see the values listed were identical, word-for-word, to those I helped develop at Minnesota Children’s Museum in the 1990’s.

Everyday a museum reaches out to and engages multiple stakeholders–sponsors, funders, partners, members, volunteers, and visitors in a wide range of activities. It holds objects in the public trust, develops intellectual property, and manages resources. A museum makes decisions about whether to take on issues that might be controversial. Museums, including smaller museums, are engaged in a constant brokering of priorities. More than five words, even powerful words or phrases, are needed to constantly balance mission and market in a dynamic external context.

Values themselves are complex. They are aligned with personal beliefs, fueled by passions, culturally defined, foundational, and enduring. How can a list of words or phrases stand for the accepted principles or standards of a couple dozen board members and staff? Guide a board in navigating complex, sometimes charged situations, edged with uncertainty? Or shape a robust organizational culture? Virtuous concepts, copied from others and briefly described are quite the opposite of what should be at the core of a museum and what it stands for. 

Values are expressed in various (and sometimes irrelevant) ways. 
  • Words: Respect; Civic-mindedness; Integrity
  • Statements: We value each person.
  • Definitions: Excellence: we deliver the highest quality products and services in all endeavors, from research publications to exhibitions and educational programs.
  • Word search: Partnerships, Learning, Ambition, Collections, Excellence, where the first letters of a museum's value together spell a word: PLACE, CHILDREN, etc.

In these sets of values, brevity and cleverness overwhelm the serious role that values play. The more I see values expressed this way, the more I think the current approach is inadequate. Occasionally I see values expressed more like a promise: We improve our ability to interpret the Western experience by collecting and researching associated art and artifacts. That’s more how I think values can be helpful.

Unfolding Values Across the Museum
In organizational and strategic planning and planning frameworks where articulating values is called for, commitment statements have the broad shoulders and great arms capable of doing a museum’s serious work. Commitment statements are what an organization, its board, staff need to explore trade-offs, use resources wisely, be operationally effective, be admired in the community, and stay on track to make a difference.

These statements are a museum’s core values as a sense of the obligation or responsibility to fulfill its mission and unfolded across areas of the museum. They are expressed in key relevant organizational and situational contexts in which they are likely to be evident. In place of a relatively basic community or valuing community, three, four, or five perspectives on valuing, honoring, or serving community are expressed. 

When being a good steward of museum resources is a value, commitment statements can consider the kind of resources a museum is stewarding–financial, collections, or human; to what end; and over what period of time. Adding such dimensions accommodate the nature of a value, illustrates how it’s inevitably expressed across many facets of a museum, and provides guidance to staff and board’s actions and decisions.

In planning the Early Learning Village (ELV) Louisiana Children’s Museum and its partners chose to develop a set of commitment statements. This approach supported the active collaboration among multiple partners and their ambitious vision to change life outcomes for children in the greater New Orleans area.

Guided by six commitments, ELV’s first value could have been expressed simply as valuing children. Instead the first statement expresses an overarching intention: We play an active and varied role around children in the greater New Orleans area, the Gulf Coast, and Louisiana. Four supporting statements express a view of children as strong and full of potential; reflect an understanding of the challenges facing too many children; an aim to serve children from every background; and priority areas such as healthy development, play and family learning where the ELV intends to be active. Their second commitment goes beyond a typical value about serving the community.  

Our work to understand, reach, and serve the community and our audience begins long before we see them at our door.
  • Our commitment to being accessible to families begins with our location in City Park.
  • We are willing to do the groundwork to learn about the children and families we hope to serve, their needs, interests, and expectations.
  • We are responsive to considerations in reaching families facing multiple challenges and finding ways to remove transportation and cost barriers.
  • We listen to parents and children to discover what attracts and interests them.

The ELV's other commitments articulate how it partners to bring resources to improving children's healthy development; integrates learning into all aspects of its work; focuses on essential experiences for children; and uses a long-term perspective to manage  financial, environmental, and human resources. These examples illustrate what commitment statements are able to accomplish that a brief list of values cannot. A set of commitments:
  • Highlights the interplay of internal and external contexts–for instance, the community priorities on which a museum intends to focus;
  • Acknowledges related responsibilities and precursor actions such as the groundwork needed to learn about the community;
  • Recognizes the multiple meanings of a value, such as learning–learning for the audience, the organization, families;
  • Allows a value, such as health, to be embedded in multiple commitments, like stewardship, strong communities, or children’s optimal growth and development; and
  • Highlights supporting behaviors and actions that will be required such as considering future interests in allocating human, financial, and environmental resources.

Admittedly, developing a set of commitment statements is more demanding and time consuming than developing (or adopting another museum’s) values. Adopting another museum’s values, while unintentional, truly misses the value of values. It sidesteps discussion, deliberation, and making hard choices. An exchange among board members and staff, hopefully lively and sometimes heated, pushes at the museum’s understanding of the values it is committing to. This is what builds a museum's capacity and prepares it to truly live by them.

If values are to be authentic and effective, effort, tested beliefs, and even sacrifice are required. That doesn’t seem to be too much to expect of the beliefs for a museum that wants to matter or, perhaps, to be indispensable.

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