Friday, May 20, 2016

Transition Planning

Artist: : Eron Davide Salvadei

In a large capital project, the transition plan is typically over shadowed by the series of plans that precede it. Earlier in the process, the strategic business plan, exhibit master plan, architectural plan, case for support, and fundraising plan are developed. Coming much later in the process, when it feels as if so much has been done that little could be left, the transition plan appears on the radar screen.

Obviously, a great deal of very critical planning has already been done. But the final steps of translating and operationalizing the project’s aspirations and intentions into the new space are indispensible. How will the vision for a stunning new wing, a LEED building, a sculpture garden, or 30,000 square feet of new exhibits approach their hoped-for potential if membership cycles span months the museum is closed, staff is not trained, programs are untested, and storage for back-up materials has yet to be found. How will the museum know whether the first year has been a success?

Connecting Resources Across Time
Transition planning connects the people, tasks, resources, and time a museum needs to move through a succession of milestones to complete a major capital project: leaving one facility, moving into another, opening to the public, and operating during the first 12 months.

A standard definition of the transition plan is elusive and, perhaps, for good reason. Realistically, transition plans vary because every project is different. The transition for a museum starting up is very different than for an established museum opening a new wing, one bringing a large outdoor area on line, or new construction involving relocation to a new site.

Regardless of project specifics, transition planning shares some similarities. The time from winding down the old and becoming skilled at operating the new is about expanding ownership of and deepening familiarity with the museum’s new home, from a small group of people who have guided the project to a broader circle of staff. It deals with consolidating what is known about the present museum operation, the new facility and operation, and determining what needs to be accomplished during the transition phase. It relies on identifying the information and expertise necessary to plan for the changes ahead and building comfort with uncertainty and change.

Looking more closely, a plan that covers this time is a actually set of interconnected plans focusing on multiple phases defined by milestones following a critical path.

Multiple phases. A series of phases typically involve closing down one operation, moving into a new facility, opening to the public, and operating through the first year. Milestones such as letting bids, groundbreaking, occupancy, exhibit installation, and opening events mark these phases.
A set of interconnected plans cover all museum areas including programming, finance, marketing, development, facility, workforce, and daily operations.
• A critical path is the sequence of activities that add up to the longest overall duration required to complete a project. It both determines the shortest time possible to complete a project and also captures the interim deadlines and deliverables.

Times of Great Change
A museum going through this transition will not just have a new address or occupy a bigger space. Whether it rebrands itself or not, a museum will change its identity in small and large, subtle and more obvious ways. A constant shift between past and future and the competing demands of farewells and celebrations ensures a lively stretch of time. To navigate smoothly across multiple phases at a critical time in its growth, a museum must constantly manage complexity, grow capacity, and deal with uncertainty.  

Interconnections among museum areas add a level of complexity to transition planning. Marketing promotes programs; membership rates relate to admission prices and program fees; staffing levels are calibrated to expected attendance. A museum’s hope for a cohesive visitor experience with mission-related activities demands cross-functional planning as well. Planning in one area, development, for instance, will quickly encounter decisions and deadlines in marketing, membership, workforce, and finance.

During transition planning, a museum gathers and organizes information at an increasingly granular level and projects it onto more specific time frames and spaces. Pricing structures, attendance projections, earned revenue goals, and staff levels have likely been determined as part of the project’s strategic business plan. They may have been revisited and updated over the project’s run incorporating new information. But new information continues to arrive as do more specific questions arise about building systems, exhibition maintenance, on-boarding staff, daily schedules, updated policies and procedures, and opening events.

On the one hand, the physical changes become increasingly apparent. The building goes up, sculptures are installed, exhibits are commissioned. Yet staff must be increasingly precise in how they will operate a building where they have spent little or no time. How will they manage crowding? (By the way, what does crowding look and feel like in that new or renovated lobby?) What does emergency preparation involve here? How will staff be prepared to greet, serve, and engage visitors, partners, and friends in the membership line, at the bus drop off, in the café, or outside in the new nature area?  

Complexity, uncertainty, and change persist in new forms throughout the first year. Upon opening, a museum will definitely find itself in a territory with few meaningful benchmarks for its performance. Conditions such as location, size, and novelty have changed substantially; donors are transitioning from capital to annual appeals; a big marketing campaign has put the museum into a bright spotlight. Consequently, attendance patterns, average ticket prices, membership renewal rates, store sales, annual gifts, program participation (and more) that the museum will record over the first year will relate only somewhat to past patterns, if there are any. There is little or no baseline information for measuring, comparing, and guiding museum decisions. There won’t be for a good portion of the first year.

Picking Your Path Through Transition Planning
Complexity, uncertainty, and change make transition planning hard enough. Not being a standard part of a large capital project makes this planning even more challenging. Daunting as this might seem, however, a museum can navigate the transition territory picking up on how other museums have done this work.

Start early. Transition planning takes time, time to organize, to work on the transition plan itself, and to implement it. Because every museum project varies, the time to start will also vary. For example, a new museum that hasn’t been in operation may need a transition plan that covers moving into the building, opening events, and the first operating year. A museum building a new building on its current site may close for 2 years and offer programs and pop-ups at community locations; its transition plan may span almost 4 years. At a minimum, a transition plan should cover 9 months before and 9 months after opening.
Involve staff and board. Not all museums are able to develop their transition plans internally. A museum starting up may not have any staff or staff with the experience, breadth, and capacity to develop plans in all areas. It might, however, have staff with knowledge critical to the visitor experience and skills to train staff. Use it. Even when a museum finds that working with a consultant or team of consultants best provides the needed time and expertise, staff and board should be very involved. Their internal and local knowledge is essential to customizing the transition plan to their museum and community. Equally important, they must own and implement the plans.

Scope plans to fit the museum’s situation. A review of existing plans and their scopes should indicate where more current information and a coordinated approach to the transition are needed. Depending on the planning that has already been done, plans may be needed for: finance, earned revenue, marketing and communication, community engagement, visitor experience, programs, exhibits, workforce, building and grounds, data and IT, development, or opening events. Especially if staff is developing them, plan scopes should not be too large or too small. Finance could be a single (and massive) plan encompassing earned revenue, development, and workforce. Or there could be separate plans for the store, admissions, membership, and rentals that require greater coordination. Identify plan scopes and who’s responsible for each plan.

Look back and forward. Looking to the future starts with looking back and exploring questions like, what have we learned from successes and limitations at our current site that will enable us to significantly advance our mission and serve our visitors better at our new site? Addressing this question will involve looking at existing data and past patterns, understanding what has worked well, and deciding where changes are needed. Looking ahead to tracking its success, a museum can help itself by identifying performance indicators for each of its plans and how to track them.

Learn from other museums. Examples of transition plans are scarce. A single announcement of a museum’s transition to a new building shows up on Google. A chapter in the 3rd edition of Barry Lord, Gail Lord and Lindsay Martin’s The Manual of Museum Planning touches on getting to opening day. Fortunately, colleagues who have completed the transition to a new operation are generous in sharing what they learned along the way. Whether a capital project is a renovation, expansion, or new building, lessons cluster around: get aligned to focus on the tasks ahead; put staff training at the top of the list of things to prepare for; and be kind to one another.

Be prepared to grow. Transition planning is not just a great opportunity to grow staff, volunteers, and board internal capacity. It’s inevitable and necessary. Plans must focus on additional resources—staff, expertise, space, furniture and equipment, and partners—necessary for the work ahead. More staff, new positions, and expanded expertise among existing staff from leadership levels to entry positions produce growth in many forms. Concomitantly, a new organizational culture takes root in both deliberate and unexpected ways. With new staff come fresh perspectives, familiarity with other resources and practices, and an eagerness to find a place in the organization. Long-time staff holds valuable organizational knowledge and perhaps attachment to long-held practices that may, or may not, be suited for the next phase. The moment is ripe for veteran and new staff to team up and work together in new ways.

Be intentional in every way and at every step. Every decision is as an opportunity to reinforce what matters in this great organizational change. Selecting the transition team, shaping a collaborative process, and sharing information can communicate inclusion, openness and valuing participation. Sharing plans regularly at a Transition Team meeting informs, updates and coordinates them with one another. Being timely in updating plans and the critical path, meeting deadlines, and using information to make decisions moves the museum towards greater efficiency, sustainability, and stellar service. All of which will be in high demand when the doors open and visitors pour in.

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Sunday, May 8, 2016

Community Engagement on Parade

At noon on the first Sunday in May, 50,000 spectators lined Bloomington Avenue in Minneapolis for the mile-long May Day parade that ends with an outdoor pageant and music and dance festival that lasts until dusk. The parade is not always May 1st. It is not always pleasantly cool and sunny. In fact, one year it’s 91º and another year it’s 30º with snow flurries. But the parade and pageant, a distinctive blend of Bread and Puppet Theater, Earth Day, and Mardi Gras, are marvelous–lively, colorful, humorous, joyful, and powerful community experience.

Stilt walkers and hoop spinners; costumed and masked characters; swirling dancers and musicians; and unicyclists in this walking theatrical performance are from the neighborhood, community organizations, and school groups. They are volunteers, friends, teachers, clerks at the store, and artists. Cheered on by the crowd, they become the celebration of spring, dancing down the street, pounding on tambourines, pulling floats, pushing carts, and carrying banners. At the pageant in the park, the Tree of Life awakens from the darkness of winter and rises to the steady beating of drums. A festival of food and music extends the celebration to dusk.

The Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater’s (HOBT) annual May Day parade is not just a great way to spend a fine Sunday afternoon or a rite of spring. Honoring many cultural traditions, showcasing local talents, and giving voice to many, it is a grand and festive expression of community engagement assuming many forms and reaching back 42 years.

Photo credit: Max Haynes
Preparations begin months in advance and are nurtured by the creative vision and community spirit of Founder and Artistic Director Sandy Spieler as well as HOBT staff and friends. Groups and individuals, newcomers and veterans come together regularly in the social and creative environments of HOBT’s Community Build Workshops. More than two hundred committed participants help in workshops and construct 20-foot puppets and floats that punctuate the parade. On the day of the parade and pageant, 2,000 participants dance and boogie in the parade, carry water, hand out maps, serve as parade marshals, and star in the pageant.

Over 4 decades, the Heart of the Beast has become a catalyst for the creativity and connection that make community visible.

Rich and varied expressions of community and connection are everywhere along the parade route, in the banners and bantering, cheering, and in the strains of the parade’s anthem, “You Are My Sunshine.” The community workshops, much of what happens in the months leading up to May Day, and on the parade route itself is relevant to museums’ efforts to engage more fully with their community and friends. Several qualities strike me as particularly relevant and adaptable.

A roomy vision inspires and invites groups to craft their own messages. Much as a museum’s vision and mission guide and inspire its campaigns, initiatives, and community work, HOBT’s mission to create vital, poetic theater for all ages and backgrounds inspires the annual parade and its theme. Radical Returnings was the 2016 parade theme.

Each section of the parade carries a message which may be poetic, serious, or humorous. Groups of like-minded individuals compose messages to share on banners and signs along with elaborate costumes. The Rivers Have Called Upon Us honored Berta Cáceres the Honduran environmental activist who recently passed away. Dozens and dozens of fantastic costumed crabs, snails, lobsters, and hermit crabs swirled around a banner asking, Feeling Crabby? In the spirit of a community event, the parade is capped off by the beloved and sometimes zany, Free Speech section with banners, signs, and floats announcing causes and issues. 

My personal favorite among the sections: a banner announcing, Safety is measured by human kindness. 

Everyone gets into the act. During the 6 months of public parade preparation (internal work at HOBT begins on the heels of the previous parade), there are multiple opportunities to engage and connect. Opportunities allow both extended and briefer degrees of involvement. This openness to anyone and everyone participating reveals itself on May Day as a celebration by, for, and with the community. Babies through elders march in the parade and sit along the parade route. Spectators see cousins, teachers, and neighbors marching, waving, and singing. Local bands and cultural groups play and dance in the parade and at the park. Hometown music idol, Prince, was honored as a larger-than life puppet leading a parade section. 
"Can you take care of this snail for the rest of us?"

The parade spills into the crowd; spectators become participants. More than a few of the 50,000 spectators become participants along the way. Happy May Day greetings from paraders invite responses from spectators. Strains of “You Are My Sunshine,” fill the air and the crowd sings along and claps. The banner, Howl for the Whole Earth, elicits howls from paraders and spectators that last long after the banner has passed–just for the fun of it. In a quieter moment, a giant fish approaches a young child holding a very large snail made of clay in its hands. The fish asks the child, “Can you take care of this snail for the rest of us?” A quiet conversation follows. The child accepts and solemnly holds the snail for the duration of the parade.

A joyous blend of serious and silly. The edge between silly and serious blends and blurs moving the parade along in a spirit of joyous celebration. HOBT stirs imaginations and offers the materials– water, flour, newspaper, paint tape, and lumber–to tell stories, explore the struggles and celebrations of human existence, to build and create. It is also a welcoming place that individuals and collaborative groups can inhabit.   Rollerbladers and cyclists on tall bikes, backwards bikes, and unicycles cruise through the parade. Some, like the Southside Battletrain, build their own creations. This Mad Max" esque, bicycle-powered float has preceded the parade over the last few years, treating the crowd to new features including a Ferris wheel, band, and bar-b-q.
 Not every museum will find a "Mad Max" esque, bicycle-powered float with a Ferris wheel, band, and bar-b-q to be an expression of its community engagement intentions. But it does suggest that every museum can become a catalyst for  the creativity and connection that strengthen community and make it visible.  

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