Saturday, March 28, 2015

Six Strategic Questions

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 Say your museum wants to do strategic planning. It’s really time, in fact, it’s overdue, according to staff and board members . It’s been 6+ years since the last strategic plan. There have been some ongoing shifts locally in the educational landscape, competitive environment, and the funding scene. The museum has been experiencing, if not growing pains, signs of growth that are, fortunately, manageable–so far. The executive director is relatively new in her position, and she isn’t sure the museum is prepared for, or clear about, what comes next.

In a situation like this, some museums would prepare for a major strategic planning effort lead and facilitated by an experienced museum strategic planner. Other museums wouldn’t follow this route. Perhaps they can’t find a strategic planner familiar with their type of museum, in their budget range, or available in their time frame. Other museums might be interested in building internal capacity around strategic planning, and equally important, strategic thinking. This can be a right choice.

Armed with confidence, an appetite to learn by doing, and a firm commitment to building internal capacity, these museums put together and field their own process. They draw on the strategic planning experience of board members who have participated in strategic planning in their organizations as well as staff who have been part of a previous process at this or another museum.

Museums can easily find resources for non-profit strategic planning on line and in books and journals. Resources specific to museums and their circumstances are especially helpful. (See below.) Many museum strategic plans are posted on-line and are useful references. Equipped with a familiarity with strategic planning and these resources, a museum is ready to put together a team with both board and staff and designate a leader. During this pre-planning phase,  a planning horizon is set; a facilitator is selected; and key steps, tasks, and a timeline for completing the plan are identified. Getting organized and marshaling these resources assist a museum in ramping up and preparing to conduct solid strategic planning customized to that museum.

I would add one more piece to this thoughtful do-it-yourself strategic planning process: A really good set of strategic planning questions.

Over the years, through teamwork, testing, refining, and the sharp thinking of my strategic planning partner Andrea Fox Jensen, we have developed a set of 6 strategic questions instrumental to developing strong strategic plans. They have worked well across a variety of strategic situations and museums and with a variety of strategic planning processes and approaches.

Like any tool or template in books or articles, they are somewhat generic, needing to be customized to a particular museum and where it is in its life cycle; its purpose and audience; and what its community values. Cast at a strategic level, these questions focus on a museum’s context and enduring interests. They are aligned and readily build on one another. At a practical level, they point to the nature of information and stakeholder input to gather, topics for discussion, and areas of decision-making.

1. What do we know about our community or region–the children, families, residents, and community’s well-being–over the next 10-15 years that will affect the museum?
  • This question … sets the museum’s thinking and work in the context of its community and updates its awareness of current and future priorities, especially related to its broad interests and potential audience.
  • Related Museum Notes post: Public Value: From Good Intentions to Public Good  

2. What positive change do we, along with our stakeholders and partners, believe is possible for the community and its families/children/citizens/etc. over the next generation?
  • This question is about … identifying the community’s challenges and promises that the museum believes it is able to address and improve in concert with other organizations.
  • Related Museum Notes post: Re-envisioning Vision 

3. What distinct and valued contributions can our museum make to help realize this change?
  • This question is about … focusing on where the museum can concentrate its attention, energy, and expertise to bring change for the community.
  • Related Museum Notes post: Missions that Matter 

4. Who must we serve deliberately and well to make progress towards this purpose and be a valued community resource?
  • This question … deepens a critical understanding about whom the museum is for, and who it must serve and reach to fulfill its aspirations.
  • Related Museum Notes post: Audience, An Area of Enduring Focus 

5. What experiences, environments, and opportunities that bring distinctive value to our audience do we need to provide? 

  • This question is about … thinking intentionally about the museum’s programmatic work, where it needs to improve, and opportunities for growth in order to benefit its end-users–its audience. 

6. What are the foremost capabilities and resources we must have to make achieving our programmatic efforts possible?

  • This question looks at … the operational resources–communication, infrastructure, fundraising, management, and governance–most critical to implementing the programmatic work and promising and significant growth opportunities.

These questions don’t guarantee a stellar and compelling strategic plan. But they will push hard and productively on the team's thinking, challenge its assumptions, enliven its discussions, and make connections among vital areas of the museum’s interests more visible. And that will help make a noticeably stronger strategic plan that will serve a museum well.


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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Rewind: Planting for Play

A few days of sunshine and temperatures reaching 70 F in early March can get even a seasoned Midwesterner to think about planting for play. Knowing how many museums have been inspired to create outdoor areas or to make existing ones wilder, brought to mind this post from 2012 . 

I spent last week in Savannah and Charleston, delighting in the dense vegetation and exuberant growth in the squares, courtyards, parks, and gardens. As I sat back and watched children scoot, dodge, and duck among the plantings and duel with fern fronds, I wondered how yards, parks, playgrounds, gardens, empty lots, and nature centers, might be better planted as places for play.

For most adults, it is impossible to imagine playing outside as children without the hospitality of trees, shrubs, vines, grasses, and flowers for play. My friend Phillip played in a leafy room shaped by the boxwood where he grew up in Maryland. When they were little, the Nissle sisters used the spaces between the foundation shrubs as stalls for their imaginary horses. Recently I came across a list of childhood play places remembered by early childhood educators. One from A Little Learning for Two especially caught my attention.
We grew up on a farm, and we had a daisy bush as a big as a small car, and if we crawled inside, it was hollow, like a giant igloo.  We played there so often we wore a deep crater in the dirt underneath, and I loved lying there in the shade looking up through the flowers or reading books.
Under the boxwood, between the lilacs, and around the mounds of miscanthus grasses are the play spaces remembered from childhood, described in environmental autobiographies, and inspirations for books like Roxaboxen. Places planted for play can be found in the small corners of yards, along the fence, at the border of the schoolyard, under the bay window, at the edge of the porch, along the crick or drainage ditch. These might be places in gardens already well planted that wholeheartedly welcome children’s explorations. They may be wild places overgrown with plants that we carefully edit for play. Or perhaps these are now empty places we plant for children’s play and exploration across the seasons.

Towering trees, spreading branches, and a sweep of shrubs provide the highs, lows, edges, and insides defining space and creating a distinct sense of place for play. Children move low, slow, wide, side-to-side, and high as they crawl between, hide under, and climb up into trees and shrubs. Crouching, they explore leafy tunnels and how far they go. They duck into low enclosures created by sweeping branches where they hide, peek out, relish the feeling of being away from others; here they can see others and (think) others can’t see them. In pairs and small groups, children act out favorite stories and weave together new ones; they play games, and form friendships inside leafy huts.
The same branches that droop and provide cover become the rungs of a ladder. Carefully balancing on branches, children discover look-outs with new views of familiar place; and it's a bit unpredictable. Then sitting astride low arching branches, they feel the branch’s movements and work hard to achieve greater bounce. Straddling the boughs and crouching low, children might be racing ponies or riding out a storm on a boat.

Growing places change with the day, the weather, the season, and from year-to-year, always suggesting possibilities for children’s play. Bare branches leaf-out into tiny yellow-spring-green slivers, creating the fort along the fence; when the leaves turn bronze or gold and drop, the fort disappears. The sun-shade mix shifts from morning to evening; the morning cool disappears and children take their play deeper into the thicket. New smells come in after a rain and suggest an adventure. Leaves continue to sprinkle water even after the rain ends and inspire an expedition for finding rain-hat leaves. In piling leaves, peeling bark, and dragging sticks, children get nature under their fingernails as well as dirt.
Places planted for play are a virtual studio of natural materials to explore and create with. Where else are children able to explore the wide variety of textures offered by smooth, prickly, and fuzzy leaves? Watch hard, new berries ripen into squishy soft berries? Discover which pine cones are sticky and why? Cover rocks with wet leaves? Experiment with sticks that bend, snap, or float? Examine lichen and moss up close? Find out what it feels like to be buried in leaves? 

Children use their discoveries to transform spaces, put their mark on them, and take ownership. In their place-making, children sweep dirt floors with branches, make beds of leaves, arrange tree cookie furniture, and gather leafy decorations. They alter places they find with their own designs, gathering fallen branches, stacking logs, or propping sticks against one another to reconfigure space. Openings created among trees or shrubs become rooms to live or hide in, and some times to defend. Children often allocate ownership of branches, shrubby hollows, or leafy rooms. Places may be named to affirm solidarity, show ownership of spaces, and refer to shared and favorite stories.

Children’s play in planted areas becomes a dialogue with that place. Moving among plants, children experience the precise geography and climate of a particular spot, its deep or dappled shade, how water seeps and pools, the freshness deep into the dark growth, the dry carpet of pine needles. Under the magnolia, they find the cool of the thick and enduring shade; they excavate beneath the soft, constant carpeted surface of big leathery leaves. Even gnarly roots radiating from the trunk animate a place and suggest possibilities for play.

Children come first in places planted for play. They might snap a branch, or stomp down the grass; they might leave a blanket or a bowl (that should never have left the house in the first place one might think) outside. This is not the time to scold, protest, remind them that you have reminded them before, or shake an angry finger at them. Maybe if we provide more places planted for play–places that are easy to get to, familiar and changing, and sense-filling–children will joyfully play there throughout their childhood and carry the memories, discoveries, and possibilities into their futures.
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Thursday, March 5, 2015

More Than Fun and Cute


Engineering and play are more alike than we might think. Both have a significant PR problem. When I recently wrote about engineering and the confusion of many about what it is, I was struck by a similar confusion related to play. We assume we know what engineering is and what play is and often make snap judgments about them. Engineering is train operators, not problem solving and design. Play is fun; children are cute when they play.

Play’s PR problem comes through clearly in a question I was asked at InterActivity 2014, “How can we talk about the value of play without mentioning play?” I am not sure I was able to conceal my utter disbelief at this question posed at a conference for children’s museums that have a strong, if not fundamental, grounding in the value of play. More surprising, this was not the first time I’d heard something like this. A few years ago, a children’s museum executive director told me her board had instructed her not to educate funders and policy makers about play. I still wonder about that knowing that play was one of five words in her museum’s mission statement.

The message is clear. Play’s OK until it’s time to get serious, deal with what’s important, and talk with others who may not value it. And when we do own up to play, we are inclined to emphasize the fun. This is hardly an endorsement of what the American Academy of Pediatrics considers critical to the optimal development of all children. What does this say about play, and for that matter, about babies and children–including their play, drawings, language, questions, and movements? What does it say about our courage and commitment?

Scholars have looked seriously at play over the last century and recent research in neuroscience has amply demonstrated the rapid brain growth that occurs during the early years. Nevertheless we persist in not taking young children or their play seriously.

Cute, So Cute, Insanely Cute
When I scroll through Facebook, I love seeing photos of children I know or the children I know fill the lives of friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors. Mason has fallen asleep among his toys; Henry’s has just discovered the joy of licking the frosting off the big wooden spoon. Sara’s at the starting line for a ski race. Clara’s getting a soft wet kiss from Coco. And 3-year old Sadie is posing proudly in a very large Girl Scout badge sash ready to sell cookies with big sister Lucy. Invariably, at least one comment from friends (and family) is “cute.” There is also “fun,” “darling,” “angelic,” “so cute,” and recently, “insanely cute.”

“Cute” not only does not capture what is present, but also sorely underestimates the rich range of durable experiences and the enormous potential they are activating. How could one word–and the same word used again and again–cover so many children doing so many different things as well as describe piñata cookies or a brightly frosted cupcake caterpillar?

More Than Fun
Imagine if we labeled every painting in an art museum beautiful or every sculpture provocative. Using the same few words to sum up something erases the need to think more about what else is present. Limited words restrict what we see and notice and how we might respond and engage. The moments we see as simple and sweet on those Facebook page photos are filled with children making connections, feeling confident, meeting a challenge, discovering a new perspective, or delighting in a sense of agency.

While we often praise individuality, we all but ignore the individual present before us with a one-word caption of what’s going on. We gloss over what is specific, remarkable, and worth noting, in effect, diminishing the child’s capabilities and thinking–contributions the world needs. Watching a child’s play, we don’t take time and think about or imagine where the story of a runaway frog came from, how the idea of a pet palace grew, or what the child might be thinking about that space rocket.

At the gym, I watch a 2-1/2 year old walk backwards down a long hallway, a little wobbly but delighted. (Cute, right?) This seems to be an exploration of a new way of moving, feeling movement, and noticing how surroundings change as he moves. Rather than walking towards the door, he’s walking away from it; does he notice it is getting smaller? Most likely, more–much more–of life-long significance is occurring in a child’s everyday moments and during play captured in images of children at play in museums, in the library, at family gatherings, at a holiday. Seeing children crouch under a bush, notice how chalk crumbles, meet a cardboard challenge, create duct tape armor, or try to balance a plate on one hand communicates volumes about that child’s curiosity, interests, control, agency, capabilities, and sense of accomplishment. 

Use Your Words
We might each revisit a memory or a snapshot of a cherished moment from our childhood. Examine the image closely. Yes, there’s a crooked smile, an untamed cowlick, the shirt worn backwards, and an apple bulging from the pants pocket. As the beaming child, the spelling bee winner, would cute reveal the sense of accomplishment you felt or the relief still remembered? Others might have seen this moment as funny or sweet. But for you it was a discovery about words, the triumph of persistence, and pride in winning for your school.    

This is not a plea to banish cute or fun. Play is fun and more; children are cute and far more than cute. 
Rather, it is an invitation to look, wonder, and reflect on what is happening as five-year old Sonja gives a long explanation of how we smell things and Delroy learns to use a needle and thread sitting next to his grandmother. Surely, when Cyrus and Harper sing and dance their 90 year old great grandfather’s favorite song, it is more than fun and cute.

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