Friday, June 29, 2012

Vision, Process, and Position for the Big Museum Project

A changing American Swedish Institute reflects a changing Twin Cities

Once in a museum or science center’s life, if it is fortunate, it is able to reinvent, redefine, or renew itself on a major scale.  It may re-craft its mission, vision, and values. It may expand its current home or create a new home.

The impetus for such a major change may come from a strategic plan that points to growth. Evidence of a need for more space to serve a growing audience or to provide additional services and amenities may come from attendance data, stakeholder input, and industry benchmarks. Perhaps a long-awaited opportunity to be part of downtown redevelopment ripens. Funder interest may be more promising than usual. Typically a combination of these factors converges to set the stage for a museum’s next iteration and move it into its future. In these major projects, the thrust of cumulative choices may emphasize greater civic prominence, an impressive architectural presence, or deeper engagement with a changing community. A museum’s transformation may change the local cultural and civic landscape of its city or town.

Regardless of the factors that converge, the scale of the enterprise, or the gathering momentum, bumps are inevitable during the course of a large project. Some are simply due to the nature of a complex effort. Others result from external conditions that would have been difficult to anticipate, like the 2008 recession. Still others come from prematurely launching a project without the key pieces being in place.

Yes, it is important to do a market analysis, a fundraising feasibility study, identify campaign leadership, select an architect, and hire on exhibit planners. Conventional project planning and management, however, kick in later in the process than is often recognized. The earliest stages of a project are difficult to visualize, but they are truly formative. The early swirl of questions and possibilities can be hard to manage and consolidate; but they must be addressed. The desire for a set of concrete ideas of the future and actions for getting there can be very insistent.

Before firing up the board and staff and reinvesting in its future, however, an institution needs to step back, re-examine its past performance, its current status, and its core purpose. It needs to engage in repeated consultation and clarification prior to developing definite plans, concrete steps, and long-term commitments.

The outcome of this critical period of exploration is clarity around a vision that will guide and inspire the project; a process that will support and deliver on that vision; and the position the museum hopes to assume in its community and among its stakeholders.
This sounds simpler than it is. Not only are board and staff eager to get going, but this stage of planning requires both patience and focused attention on institutional planning practices. Perhaps more challenging is how vision, process, and position entwine and interact; they can easily lean into, meld with, and be confused with one another. Yet they are decidedly separate and make distinctly different contributions to the endeavor. To confuse them can cause problems and require course corrections along the way. Clarity around vision, process, and position is often what distinguishes two equally ambitious projects from one another.

Vision Leads
Contrary to numerous examples, a project vision is not a list of superlatives: the best, the most, the premier, or world class. Big is not a vision, nor is having concepts for five galleries. Like a museum’s strategic vision, a project vision is a compelling response to community priorities and recognized needs based on what a museum does consistently well and is recognized for. In short, where it matters.

Creating a vision is a prelude to uncovering opportunities and developing future plans. A museum must look out at its community and connect those priorities and challenges with its own mission and assets. This phase explores questions such as: What are present and future challenges to the quality of life in our community? What are community priorities for the audience we hope to serve? How might we respond to these needs? In the past, what have we done especially well? What does the community see as our contributions and our assets? What is our current and likely future strategic context? What else is on the local cultural and learning landscape?

To explore these questions, a museum will engage a range of stakeholders  including members, donors, parents, voters, politicians, other organizations, educators, and business leaders to assure varied perspectives from across the community. Some people are able to imagine and articulate the existing and emerging community needs a museum might respond to. Others will share their interests and motivations for using services. Information and perspectives are gathered through interviews, focus groups, visitor panels, environmental scans, and readily available needs assessments.

Pushing hard on what will distinguish a museum and help it flourish is invaluable. By connecting the big, pulsing dots between itself and its community, a museum can make its vision for the project both more compelling and more responsive to needs. To draw others to the project and engage their support, a museum's vision must be roomy enough for others to find a home for their hopes and aspirations. Such a vision also integrates internal and external factors: the museum’s interests, capacity, and conditions and those of the community. As such, a vision is a durable guide for board and staff in planning, making decisions, assessing choices, and brokering priorities.

Process Supports
A major museum planning project is a matryoshka doll of processes, nesting at successive scales yet all in service to realizing the vision. The visioning process moves from gathering and distilling stakeholder perspectives and information; to finding synergies among priorities, interests, assets, and opportunities; to bundling significant threads in compelling ways; and finally to testing, refining, and adopting a vision. Not only is this where opportunities and innovation are to be found, but arriving at a vision through a broad, inclusive process removes a great deal of risk for a project. If well conducted, it ensures the plans that do emerge will be robust, appealing, and have community support to see them to fruition.

By defining the nature and magnitude of likely change–relocation, a new building, a strategic level change in audience, a focused role in workforce development–this initial process lays necessary groundwork for charting successive master planning steps. It must be completed before launching the parallel, intersecting master planning processes of exhibit-experience-program planning, architectural-facility planning, fundraising planning, business planning, etc.

These intertwining master planning processes help realize the vision by shaping the building, cultivating resources, building awareness, and operationalizing the vision. At the very heart of what a museum hopes to accomplish, however, and at the head of the queue for getting there, is planning the visitor and learning experiences in exhibits and programs. Without a well-developed, attractive image of the museum’s transformational change, what it will look and feel like for visitors, and what it will mean for the community, experience and exhibit planning are challenged to move forward in a meaningful way. A list of topics, hope for attracting a broader age range, and ideas about a "wow" experience is a limited alternative to a full and inspiring vision. Other decisions and processes build on how exhibits will fulfill the project vision and look to a clear and shared vision as well.

At any scale, a process choreographs steps that engage players and their expertise and perspectives. It allocates resources for accomplishing tasks in concrete ways that help move towards and realize the vision. A museum’s internal capacity in experience planning, operations, finance, development, and leadership is as critical to any process as multiple perspectives, coordination among steps, time, and accountability to assure the museum moves forward with the process.

Position Follows
A solid position in a community and among stakeholders is invaluable for a museum embarking on the multi-year process of major institutional growth and change. Position, how a museum is recognized, viewed, and valued in the lives and minds of its visitors, donors, and decision makers, reflects what it accomplishes for its community and itself.

A secure position builds on where a museum has consistently delivered value and been successful, rather than on what it finds attractive among its peers’ positions, locally or nationally. Sometimes a museum will over focus on how it wishes to be viewed on the local cultural, learning, and social landscape or with a particular stakeholder group without realistically considering its own history, actual capacity, or the current context. Claiming a position that involves going toe-to-toe with a local museum already well established in that spot is a costly and risky proposition. A museum wants to be confident its position is one it can actually and effectively assume over time.

Recognizing its value from the standpoint of others offers insights that can challenge a museum's view of itself. Questions about itself and potential position might ask: Is this position true to our deeper purpose? Is it validated with our distinct products, experiences, and expertise? Does it enable our growth? Does it bring something to the community that is missing and valued? Is it already occupied by another organization? A realistic assessment of a museum’s distinct contribution to its stakeholders and a track record it can point to with confidence (if not great pride) strengthens its position.  

For these and other reasons, a museum’s position benefits from a clear, strong vision grounded in hearing community voices about what they need and want that is not being provided and which aligns with a museum’s mission territory. At the same time, attention to position can strengthen a vision, a major project, and a museum over its lifetime. Focusing on position can sharpen a project’s vision by considering it from both internal and external perspectives. It can help coordinate a complex project by pointing to a common aim expressed across multiple dimensions of this remarkable opportunity. Finally, it can set a museum up to increase capacity, invest resources, and build a track record that will continue when the project ends and the next phase begins.

Working Together
Regardless of how a museum goes about its early stage of a major project, its vision, process, and position have to work together. Vision should lead, process should support, and position should follow. Allowing these to get out of balance or confused one with another can slow down planning, use resources, and erode morale and credibility.

Launching a process without a solid project vision is setting off on a voyage where little is known about the purpose of the journey or its destination. With the enthusiasm that characterizes most beginnings, a museum will gather expertise, form teams and committees, make-up timelines, and start activities. Before long, however, teams will be revisiting the same questions and encountering obstacles that require inspiration and direction from a vision to resolve them. Multiple starts, lost time, and frustration characterize a process leading the way and untethered to a vision.

When position assumes too great a priority, especially too early in planning, a museum tends to focus on what’s new, now, and wow rather than on its mission, strategic interests, and strengths. For instance, a museum might claim an attractive niche without understanding it well or without the track record, reputation, or related capabilities required to occupy it fully. Without a clear vision for guidance, a museum, in fact, assumes an image or a posture rather than a meaningful position grounded in actual relationships and accomplishments.

Pressure from many sources to get the project going nearly assures that a museum will not focus too much on vision or for too long. Occasionally, however, a museum does become enamored with crafting a vision for its project. Lingering around the vision can keep a project on too lofty or aspirational a plane, allowing the vision to become too grand, precious, or simply unrealistic in scale.
Reinventing, redefining, or renewing itself on a major scale is a huge opportunity for both a museum and its community; it is a reinvestment in their futures. The early stages of exploration set the stage for great possibilities. It is the time to shape a compelling vision that can guide and inspire a process for realizing that vision and can help the museum assume the position to which it aspires.

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