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 buulding 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 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

2 comments:

  1. I think you might find this example of capacity building over an extended time at the Kentucky Science Center's "Science In Play." In this conversation (http://www.hofl.org/sip_landing.php) between CEO, Jo Haas and Hands On! Inc. ED Lyn Wood, Jo shares how developing two 5,000 s.f. pilots for the new 11,000 s.f. "Science In Play" over four years engaged staff, deepened their understanding about the possibilities of this experience, and built their commitment to it and the young children and their caregivers.

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