I’ve been thinking about this 2012 post recently. Our work in museums and for our communities is challenging, even if very rewarding. Challenges are plentiful enough without also slowing our thinking, confusing others, and excluding others with fuzzy meanings for words we use. What do we mean by the words and phrases we use frequently in our work? Strategic is one of those words used often, casually, and ineptly. Because museums need strategic thinking across the organization, this can be a problem. Distinguishing between what’s strategic and what’s not strategic is invaluable at ever level of the organization, among trustees and staff, in marketing and finance, in development and visitor experiences.
Long ago a simple children’s television cartoon illustrating the basic concept of wind caught my attention and has stayed with me. First came a simple drawing of a child whose hair stood straight up when squiggly lines vibrated along with a whoosh sound; a voice from nowhere said, “wind.” Next a frame showed the same child with neat, tidy hair. No squiggly lines vibrated. There was no whoosh; the voice said, “no wind.” Several "wind", "no wind" repetitions followed. This clear, simple demonstration of a concept and its opposite appealed me. I vowed to find ways to use it to illustrate challenging concepts.
Applying this simple method has been helpful to me and to museum staff and boards I work with to contrast strategic and non-strategic. In museums and during planning work, strategic, and its parent word, strategy, are often tossed about freely and in exceedingly casual ways. Considering how frequently the words are used, it's surprising how little they are clarified for the context they are used. Strategy is used in military as well as business, academic, education, healthcare, and non-profit context. It is used to mean plan, positioning, ploy, pattern, and perspective.
Should you be in a planning session, an interview, or budget discussion, don’t pick a possible definition of strategic and cross your fingers that others share it. A situation that occurred repeatedly in one museum suggests why not. An executive director would tell her senior managers to “be strategic” in developing a platform or an initiative. Several weeks later when they presented their work, she felt they hadn’t really been strategic and she repossessed the assignments. I’ve wondered what she thought strategic meant and what her managers thought it meant given that dynamic.
It’s not easy to define these words. Recent checks–on-line, in planning books and journals, and in my notes and files–re-confirm this. A few paltry definitions exist like, “…of or relating to strategy.” There’s an abundance of military definitions and references to strategy. Strategic describes innumerable efforts such as strategic planning, thinking, awareness, management, and communications.
Not surprisingly, these words feel big, impressive, and intimidating. Being strategic is frequently confused with an interest in big ideas, being bold or intellectual. The overlap is not automatic. Equally often, being strategic is buzz. The result often is staff pursuing small, unconnected actions or boards captivated by big fuzzy ideas.
A Working Definition for Strategic
After gathering, sifting, and distilling definitions of strategic, here’s my working definition for strategic in a museum context. It’s not a big, fancy, conceptual idea, and that’s the point. Strategic is:
An integrated perspective that ties explicitly to a larger intended effect.
• Integrated means spanning the museum’s functional (or departmental) areas and serving both internal (organizational) and external (community) interests and factors. This is a systems perspective on the organization as a whole and its interconnecting parts. What goes on outside the museum–the community’s vitality, other culturals, even the weather–impacts the museum.
• A larger, intended effect might mean advancing the mission, vision, sustainability, or achieving a competitive position. It involves stepping back and viewing things from a broader vantage point. Concern is more with the gap between today’s reality and intent for the future than with today’s reality.
Several implications follow from this working definition. First, a strategic perspective differs from an operational, or tactical, perspective. Focusing on things running more smoothly or efficiently, operational concerns might involve extending a best practice, integrating software systems, or updated safety training for staff. Being strategic is not better than being operational; but it is better to know the difference, use each as appropriate, and coordinate them.
Second, being strategic is an ongoing perspective applied to everyday decisions. It is not just confined to a strategic planning process every five years. Knowing the overarching reasons for what a museum is trying to accomplish is necessary and front-and-center. There’s no reason a working definition of strategic shouldn’t be developed and shared plainly, broadly and frequently within a museum. Critical to where every museum is headed, strategic is integral to discussions and decisions about everything from shaping goals, developing budgets, setting targets, allocating staffing, deciding on outsourcing, working with partners, and cultivating funders.
Finally, a perspective that encompasses a broader, longer view and takes into account the interaction of forces is more likely to create substantial change every museum is interested in. That, rather than small, incremental progress, is the value of being strategic.
Strategic, Not Strategic
Applying the wind, no wind method, here are some examples that may be familiar in museums. While some are strategic and others are not strategic, there are also situations when something leans into being strategic just as there can be some wind, but not much.
• Interested in increasing attendance? Many museums are. A typical goal is to get more visitors to the museum. Alone, that is not strategic. Focusing on getting more of the right visitors to the museum is strategic. Who the right visitors are relates to the museum’s larger interests, its mission, and its community. Increase the number of visitors in a target audience group, underserved members of the community, family groups, or a mix of visitors who can pay full price and those who can’t also helps the museum reach other goals. Getting more of the right visitors relies on marketing, education, exhibits, and visitor services all working together.
• Even when budget trimming is essential, cutting the budget 10% across the board is not strategic. It may seem bold and carry the aura of being more strategic than it is. Slicing 10% everywhere makes no distinction about where services affect visitors most, where resources are accomplishing more (or less), in what areas the museum is over-extended or off-mission, where risk accompanies cuts, or where cuts hobble efforts to grow income. Finding cuts amounting to 10% of the budget is strategic when they factor these considerations and serve the highest priority, the long-term health of the organization.
• Expanding the museum’s physical footprint is not strategic. It might just be a case of building envy or ambition. Creating a larger community footprint, however, is strategic. A bigger building may be necessary to accommodate a museum’s increased and established community leadership role; a new function like a science preschool; or increasing access to parts of its collection relevant to the community’s past.
• A digital dashboard of indicators looks cool. If it’s an exercise in counting attendance and membership, it's not strategic. On the other hand, it is strategic if the metrics are counting what counts. Meaningful metrics track a museum’s performance across key areas; they are monitored, shared, factored into decisions, and inform new goals that make progress towards larger goals such as sustainability, community engagement, or being a recognized and valued resource.
• Reorganizing staff happens often and in small ways. Adding an assistant position to development, increasing hours in guest services, or combining marketing and public relations can be efficient, enhance communication, or serve visitors better; this is not strategic. Restructuring staff based on results of a MAP (Museum Assessment Program) report or to implement a strategic plan is moving towards strategic. Realigning staff to act on the museum’s mission of life-long learning to provide a continuum of experiences across the life span is strategic.
• Prototyping is a best practice; building capacity to prototype in-house to test and redesign exhibit components leans into being strategic. Connecting prototyping to a long-term museum or learning interest becomes strategic. When an in-house prototyping team develops expertise in extending visitor engagement, actively involving parents, or increasing conversation in family groups, documents it, and recycles it into exhibit development and design–now that’s strategic.
• Strategic is not always big. Small experiments can be strategic. Interest in better serving or growing the upper end of the age range in a children’s museum can, for instance, be explored in a series of steps as a strategic experiment. Such work might: observe exhibit areas where this age group already has a greater presence and spends more time; interview them about what they like about the activity or area and why; develop and add similar layers in other areas of the museum; observe for changes in the presence of this age group in those areas. Repeat for another area of the museum. Monitor for changes in the presence of this age group in the museum.
A Change In the Weather
Wind, no wind. Strategic, not strategic. These simple pairs shift the possibility of seeing in new ways: seeing the organization in a long view; noticing the interconnections between parts; and following how individual actions feed into a larger system or story. While nothing, in fact, really changes, looking at things differently, looking at them strategically, leads to making different choices. Making different choices, strategic choices, creates long-term change. Now that’s strategic.