Friday, August 21, 2015

Not "Just Semantics"

Photo credit: FStoppers

All I know is what I have words for.

Have you ever been in a conversation with a colleague or in a workshop grappling with a word or an idea when, with a flit of the hand, someone says, “It’s just semantics.” There’s a pause, the conversation stumbles and tentatively recovers or perhaps ends.

Labeling something, “just semantics” is sometimes a way of agreeing to disagree. It can also be an expression of frustration, not wanting to commit to one word or idea over another, or not thinking that clarifying meaning matters.

Recently I worked with museum educators and artists on their learning framework including what learning means at their museum. I was following their lively discussion about whether learning was a “learner-driven process” or a “learner-centered process.” One person illustrated her point with an example; another compared the two phrases in relation to the mission; and a third referenced a recent book on learning in museums. Then someone interjected, “Well, it’s just all semantics.”  Silence
In fact, semantics is just that: the meaning of words and language in a particular context.

I’m still trying to fathom how saying, in essence, “we just differ in what we mean” can be tossed out casually with the expectation of moving on when a museum’s community impact, educational value, or commitment to sustainability is being explored. I’m perplexed that taking time to make meaning is considered quibbling. If something is important, if it describes why museums matter, it should be understood, by a group–a team, an organization, or a field.

Without some discussion, it’s as though everyone in a museum (or across the field) defines assets, authenticity, connectivity, community engagement, design, empathy, equity, experience, learning, inclusion, interactive, immersive, interpretation, personalization, quality, relevance, sustainability, value the same way.

How else do we make sure we are talking about the same thing if we don’t talk about that very thing? How can we explore the relationship between important concepts if they are not first well understood? How do we arrive at a common vision that energizes our work? How do we even know we disagree if we haven’t taken the time to understand what each of us means?  

Words and their meanings do matter. Mark Twain notably remarked, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word…is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Small differences in words have big implications.

The difference between considering visitors as participants, or customers, or learners plays out in how we plan, greet, engage, and support them on-line, at the front desk, in programs, and throughout exhibitions. How can we learn about how family groups explore and talk together in an exhibition if we don’t have a shared understanding of, for instance, conversation? Is conversation an exchange? Spoken? How many words? What about gestures? How many people need to be involved? 

Recently Nina Simon invited her readers to think about what it means for a cultural institution to be relevant. The wide range of meanings became apparent in responses that considered relevance as framing, timing, connecting with the audience; utility/usefulness; positioning and presenting the collection; making and feeling connections. Elsewhere I read that relevance is connectivity, not content.

When the Kellogg Foundation published its program logic model about 10 years ago, it provided nonprofits with an excellent thinking and planning tool. It also helped distinguish an outcome from an output. Its attention to clear terms and a common language has assisted museums in moving from good intentions to greater impact.

Clarity does not necessarily make one idea more important than another, but it can avoid confusion in working across departments, with people in another organization, or engaging the community. Saying to partners, “In our organization, inclusion (or program or co-creation, etc.) means…” can help smooth communication, reduce confusion, and save time. Sharing the definition of an important concept can welcome someone new to the conversation and create a sense of belonging, whether it’s a new staff person, volunteer, trustee, or consultant.

Meanings don’t have to be perfect, precise, standardized or fixed to be well understood and useful. In fact, words and ideas are naturally understood differently at different museums, at different stages of development, and in different communities. A concept like resilience has local relevance in Miami and New Orleans museums it doesn’t have in most other cities. Each museum has its own constellation of concepts, words, and meanings, supporting them with anecdotes of what something looks like at that museum, supported by references to specific spaces and community connections. Shared understandings bridge and connect colleagues and departments. Across the field, at conference sessions rich discussions exploring distinctions among related ideas like learning, interpretation, and education are possible and invigorating.

When we don’t explore the meaning of key constructs and ideas for a working group or setting, we misuse words and create confusion. We string words together like artful thinking without digging into what the words mean separately and together. We fuse new words like edutainment and interchange related words like creativity and creative thinking in a single paragraph. Ubiquitous words like fun apply to everything until nothing’s fun. Buzzwords like trending, viral, and unique become limp, flat, and deserve a rest

Allowing conversations to be curtailed with a dismissive, “that's just semantics” short circuits our thinking and limits our discovering the power of words, language, and their meaning. It encourages personal lexicons that constrain understanding and disconnect us. On the other hand, with words that are alive and rich with shared meaning, we are able to express who we are as a museum, what’s important, and how we believe we matter. Lately I’ve been reading some books about words and language–some are listed below. If I didn’t already think words and language matter, I have no doubt about it now. Yes, it is semantics and it does matter.

Related Readings and Resources 
• Bill Bryson. (1990). The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. Harper Collins: New York.
• James Pennebacker. (2011) The Secret Lives of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. Bloomsbury Press: New York.
• Steven Pinker. (2007). The Stuff of Thought: Language As A Window Into Human Nature. Penguin Books: London.
• Fritsch, Juliette. (2006) Museum Gallery Interpretation and Material Culture. “Education is a department, isn’t it? Perceptions of Education, Learning and Interpretation in Exhibition Development.” Routledge. 
How Nonprofits Use Language As a Barrier to Progress. Know Your Own Bones. Colleen Dilenschneider.

Creativity and Museums

Monday, August 10, 2015

Building Capacity to Have Capacity

In the dynamic, fast-changing social, cultural, economic, and technological environment in which museums serve and navigate, the need for greater, new, and additional capacity is enormous and relentless. Audience interests change; attendance surges and softens; the surrounding neighborhood changes; long-time staff leave and new expertise is needed; projects get larger; partnerships become more complex; and new media replaces the last new media. The list is long, changing, and distinct for each museum.  

While having internal capacity is essential for a museum’s resilience, building that capacity deliberately is too often an afterthought. We launch strategic planning, initiate extensive community engagement projects, plan a major expansion, or amp up customer service. Before hand, do we explore whether staff, trustees, and volunteers have the capacity to do this well?

Based on conversations I have with museum staff as they prepare for major efforts, probably not. In fact, a significant aspect of my museum work involves capacity building for the planning being done through observing, coaching, building awareness, strengthening skills, giving feedback, introducing practices and protocols, and sharing resources. This is regardless of a museum’s size or maturity.

Capacity building is the deliberate and ongoing process through which individuals, groups, and organizations increase their ability, knowledge, skills, and other capabilities to identify and meet planned and unplanned challenges: what you need to be really good at what you do now and tomorrow. The role of capacity building is to facilitate organizational learning, strengthen operations, bring a level of consistency to offerings, and increase the museum’s ability to stretch, be nimble, gain traction, and rebound.

Assuring the capacity necessary to implement a major plan may be embedded somewhere in the plan itself. In many plans I have seen and developed myself, increasing capacity to, for instance, be accessible and inclusive, co-create with the community, or use a space as a laboratory for experimental approaches to collections is considered belatedly and sometimes not at all.

A seat of the pants approach often becomes the default method for dealing with reality. In these scenarios, the education director now writes grants; the building maintenance manager also does exhibit upgrades; the marketing assistant is writing exhibit text; and the science program coordinator steps forward to work with neighborhood artists. I know this from first-hand experience; I took on innumerable projects, initiatives, and plans with scant preparation. Such willingness and flexibility is valuable. But is something being added or is other work overlooked? And is quality the result? There are, obviously, other ways to access these skill sets.

In museums we tend to build capacity as we hire staff with particular expertise, skills, and experience. We also upgrade existing systems and invest in new ones; we provide professional development opportunities through coaching and training, workshops, and conferences. Capacity, however, is emphatically more than skills, equipment, and systems. It is taking risks and making new mistakes; working collaboratively and valuing others' perspectives; focusing on the long view not the short sprint. Museums need individual capacity to think, question, experiment, learn, and challenge in order to grow the organizational capacity to respond to changes and opportunities. Cultivating these mindsets and dispositions need time and support.

From work in and with many museums, the pattern I see is a general satisfaction with existing capacity until a weakness emerges and disrupts plans. We assume we have the skills, expertise, and outlooks we need in the right areas or will access them soon enough. We are, however, constantly contending with unexpected shifts in growth, emerging expertise, and an improbable combination of skills. Required capacity must reflect changes, adjusting excess capacity in one area and inadequate capacity in another.  

Often, when museums get stuck and don’t know why, it’s because they haven’t been attentive to cultivating skills, talents, and experience. Investing in the learning and skill development of staff and trustees declines and the mix of skills and expertise looks much like it did 7 or 15 years ago.

We carefully select staff and trustees because of their set of skills, attitudes, expertise, and experience. We need to be as deliberate in recognizing their contributions and investing in their continuing growth. Providing well-considered opportunities to increase individual and group capacity signals confidence, motivates, and enriches the experience bank. If cultivating life-long learning is a priority for our visitors, it has to be for staff and trustees as well.

Here are 3 questions I keep returning to as I think about building the kind of organizational capacity a museum wants to–and should–have to navigate the exciting and uncertain future and to do well in the process. While not simple to address, they are essential for a robust internal dialogue about  the nature of the changes the museum is looking for and progress being made. 

Do we have enough capacity and in the right places? Growing capacity often focuses on adding skills in a new area: evaluation, social media, bilingual staff, event planning. That approach, however, doesn’t consider the context of current challenges, long-term plans, and the collective and present skill and talent pool. A museum can assess the capacity it currently has and will need, determine in what individuals or groups it is needed, and identify steps to grow it over the coming year as part of its annual planning.

How do we build the capacity we need on an on-going basis? The need for capacity building never goes away. Every year, staff and trustees join the museum and some move on. Every year a museum has new goals and priorities. So, every year should be an opportunity to invest the time and opportunity to grow and strengthen the skills, talents, and experience bank of staff, trustees, and volunteers.  

How do we know whether our professional development efforts are succeeding as we need them to? As I think about decades of professional development, I wonder whether my work with museum staff or board–or with teachers years ago as a staff development coordinator for a school district–were effective. The recent report, The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development, by TNTP presses on assumptions about teacher improvement and raises similar questions about the effectiveness of the professional development museums provide. How do conferences stack up for building capacity? Do coaching, mentoring, staff exchanges, seminars, webinars, and institutes make a difference?

I don’t intend to endorse one type of capacity building over another, nor do I want to object to seat-of-the pants
methods of capacity building. I am, however, advocating for the same kind of deliberate approach to building staff, trustee, and volunteer capacity to implement an organizational plan that goes into developing it.

How does your museum prepare for and stay on top of these changes so it is not playing catch up?

Below are some resources about capacity-building.   
• The American Alliance of Museum’s Museum Assessment Program  with support from IMLS provide opportunities to improve a museum’s knowledge, alignment, and ability in selected organizational areas 
Noyce Foundation’s Leadership Institute has supported increasing the capacity of museum leaders to manage change, focus outward, engage peers and form key partnerships
The Getty Leadership Institute, an executive education program for museum leaders to develop their knowledge and skills in order to manage change and forge bright futures
Future Proof Museums, a year-long program for museum fellows. 
Non-profit Lifecycles:Stage-Based Wisdom for Nonprofit Capacity looks at capacity from an organizational and developmental perspective by Susan Kenny Stevens