Monday, September 8, 2014

Five Practices: Starting with a Shared Understanding

In the billowy word cloud of practice, float professional practice, reflective practice, green practice, and many types of spiritual practice. There are practices that are promising, evidence-based, and best. A set of practices might also characterize a particular museum or an approach. Even as individuals, we are likely to have a few favored practices we rely on, whether or not we think of the methods we deliberately deploy to accomplish our work as practices. I know I’ve accumulated 5 practices over the years, applied and tested across settings. 
  1. Building a Shared Understanding
  2. Making Meaningful Distinctions
  3. Breaking Things into Smaller Parts
  4. Crossing Boundaries
  5. Experimental Mindset

While likely somewhat idiosyncratic, my set of five is basically what we know as practices: tested methods, processes, and rules used in a particular situation within a field or profession. Accumulated over the last 30 years, my practices confer a kind of confidence: I’ll find my way through situations I am likely to encounter. They provide the kind of security a traveler in a fairy tale has from jingling silver coins in his pocket as he wanders through strange new lands. 

I like new situations. Over the years I’ve found myself in new territory moving from teaching to design to professional development to museum administration to museum planning; the world has been changing as well. I figure I’ll be using these silver coins in the future since they have served me well in starting a museum, building a new museum, planning exhibits, helping others plan museums, developing initiatives, and fielding strategic plans.

These five practices have come from different parts of my work life: from reading, noticing, borrowing from others and, of course, from actual practice. Sometimes with a click, “just something I do” becomes a firmed up practice. A practice may be based on existing practices like inquiry but comes together with a group as with Shiny Questions. At least one practice has migrated from another field. Breaking things into smaller and smaller parts, a practice in cost estimating, is equally useful in thinking about strategies and what precursor engineering thinking in young children looks like. A phrase I came across in reading a study resonated with a roar and consolidated a string of related activities in one swell foop.

Building a Shared Understanding

When a team hums, a department hits its mark regularly, an initiative gains serious traction, or a museum transforms itself, chances are the group has developed and works with a shared understanding of significant, relevant ideas. They may share an organization-wide understanding of the museum’s sustainability commitment and how to further it across every department. They may be working from a common pedagogical framework around learning that they have hammered, negotiated, tested, and continue to revise. Or they may have coined their own vocabulary about family learning with special terms and phrases to describe interactions among family members, reliable strategies for engaging them, and what the chosen outcomes are.

A shared understanding across a team, a department, and levels of an organization deepens appreciation for and genuine caring about a common vision a museum is intent on achieving. Whether initiated by formal leadership, a thought leader, or a team’s energy, cultivating a common language or vision is a practice that engages and brings together an entire museum. Unfolding over time, an understanding explores diverse perspectives in such a way that a deeper, common understanding emerges. Neither static nor finished, understandings continue to be revisited in the light of new information from fresh voices, questions, failures, changing conditions, and new connections. Not at all the product of same-thinking colleagues, it is sustained equally by varied perspectives and the aligned efforts of many. The mutual support, or force, of an understanding galvanizes people in many roles to action and generates shared, productive energy.

Suitable across Many Settings 
In a museum building a shared understanding may center on a framework for public value, on a vision for the museum experience and the amenities needed to realize it, or on how a museum advances its broad learning agenda. This process generates questions such as how is learning (or customer service) part of everyone’s job? Following questions and unpacking meaning connect big, roomy ideas with the everyday language of museum work. What do we mean by program? By learning? By creativity? What does learning look like at our museum? A lexicon of words and concepts emerges and facilitates discussion. Familiar words, crisp with new meaning, replace tired, over-used words that mean everything and nothing.
The value and benefit of a commonly understood direction are apparent across a range of settings. Building Shared Vision is one of the five disciplines of learning organizations Peter Senge writes about in The Fifth Discipline. At the heart of the decades-long educational project of the municipal infant toddler centers and schools of Reggio Emilia is a comprehensive, shared pedagogy that has inspired schools (and museums) worldwide. Over nearly 10 years, Columbus Museum of Art has been intentionally engaged in integrating creativity throughout its learning and visitor experiences. The July 2014 issue of Journal of Museum Education is dedicated to an in depth exploration of their journey. A similar deliberate and sustained approach to a shared vision, in this case of becoming a  “… thriving, central gathering place where local residents and visitors have the opportunity to experience art, history, ideas, and culture” characterizes the work Nina Simon has been leading at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. The Learning Community, an innovative K-8 public charter school serving Central Falls, Pawtucket, and Providence (RI) has, as its approach, a comprehensive and deeply understood program based in research, clarity of ideas, and explicit instruction.

For museum staff, team, or board to feel connected to one another around a greater hope of bringing positive change to people’s lives requires a way of talking deeply with one another about important ideas. It relies on unearthing the museum’s salient, ennobling ideas; talking, listening, and thinking together. In probing meanings and casting them in the museum’s particular context, a museum’s full team makes ideas accessible and actionable. A museum that enjoys a shared view of what’s possible and a common starting point for framing issues also enjoys advantages in navigating new and complex situations that arise, making decisions, and identifying solutions.

Why engage an entire museum–staff and board–in a long-term, challenging effort with inevitable risks, set backs, if not failures, along the way?

By its nature, building a shared understanding is a collective, reciprocal effort that generates a sense of ownership and commitment, shared identity and pride. Work in one area of the museum is integral to work in other areas. Each is necessary to the overall effort and coordinated action required to move forward. Valued for their perspectives, creativity, and experience, staff members are empowered to create opportunities to learn and understand more, and to put relevant, supportive practices into place. Museum capacity builds as staff internalizes ideas and develops fluency around what matters most and how values are expressed. When a museum harnesses a shared understanding across the organization, it experiences a palpable energy, a sense of being alive with meaning and possibility.
Foundational changes will inevitably create shifts, some of which will be disruptive. Many, however, will also invigorate an organization that is serious about change and on the move. For instance, it is likely that a museum will shift from relying on assumptions, hopes, and wishes that a vision will be realized to being empowered to find strategies and tools to act on it. Other shifts will also occur.
  • From talking about what the museum does to ... internalizing why it does it.
  • From short-term thinking in separate departments to ... on-going dialogues across the museum.
  • From acting on untested assumptions about what visitors do and think to… asking and exploring questions and using evidence to inform choices about the visitor experience.
  • From presenting cherished programs staff likes and has done to … developing programs relevant to visitors, grounded in research, and capable of advancing the vision.
  • From counting what is countable–participants and “likes”–to … documenting changes in practice, progress towards outcomes, and shifts in how the museum is viewed by stakeholders.
  • From I and my, and they and them to … we, our, and us.
  • From attracting staff, trustees and funders content with business as usual to … garnering attention, talent, and support of decision-makers and funders attracted by potential and persistence.
An Overarching Practice
Among the five practices, Building a Shared Understanding is perhaps an overarching practice, one that serves an entire museum across all its endeavors and its trajectory. Tied to foundational ideas, effecting meaningful change, and engaging staff, trustees, and visitors, Building a Shared Understanding is as basic as providing for safety and keeping the doors open and goes well beyond. In fact, Building a Shared Understanding is possibly THE practice of a museum. It is clearly supported by the other four practices.

Next up: Making Meaningful Distinction, Breaking Things into Smaller Parts, Crossing Boundaries, and An Experimental Mindset.

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