Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Consultant’s Role–or Four

Sometimes when I’m asked what I do, I pause to think how best to answer. Of course, I can and usually do reply that I am a museum planner. I also say I am a consultant or an independent professional. Borrowing a term from baseball sometimes I describe myself as a utility player. In addition to being a strategic planner or developing learning frameworks, I step into various roles to help build internal capacity. I coach, train, and sometimes fill in for a senior staff. I sometimes round out a team, as an educator on one team, an evaluator on another, or an experience developer on another. Serving as a utility player works for me and I suppose it does for other consultants as well.

Especially when I am asked what my work is like, I am tempted to reply that I am part lightning rod, part chiropractor, and part editor. It goes without saying that sometimes, I am all 3. This is not in any way a complaint, but an evolving set of insights after 20 years of consulting and what planning with museums involves.

Lightening Rod
Like the lightning rod atop a building protecting a structure from a lightning strike, a consultant often attracts an electric charge in the group, diverting it constructively. By nature of their work and relationship to an organization, consultants often walk into situations with which they are only somewhat familiar and connected. Yet, expectations can be high that this outside specialist’s experience and expertise will not only address the explicit task at hand, but also tackle other issues as well. A mere secondary association with one issue can be enough to attract questions, surface concerns, and set off a reaction. This is hardly surprising because without the strong, on-going relationships among staff and board and with a limited tenure, a consultant’s presence offers a relatively safe discharge of built-up energy.

When lightening does strike during a consultancy, it is likely to strike around what board and staff don’t talk about or won’t address. Serving as a lightning rod means listening for what is not being talked about, noticing who is quiet, who interrupts, or who dominates the discussion. It means registering what information is easy compared to seemingly impossible to come by. Along with glowing reports of grants received, fantastic new board members, great attendance numbers, there might be little mention of long-overdue raises, lack of meaningful follow-through on diversity and inclusion efforts, or an overly active and less-than-transparent executive committee. There might be a disproportionate mention of the past and how things were back then.

Being a lightning rod is also helpful when there is a boardroom bully, internal cliques, an unpaid founding director who will not leave, or a board that has decided to dismiss the executive director–the one who has arranged for the consultancy. Issues related to a capital project, a compressed timeline, an unrealistic campaign goal, or casually taking on debt, definitely attract a charge.

The first time and often the second time of carrying the charge come as a surprise. Gradually, however, knowing that the charge is likely and defusing it to help the museum, team or individual move forward feels more like an opportunity. A well-placed question, a few sidebar conversations, a new timeframe, rethinking the agenda, or calling the question can open up dialogue, create a sense of relief, or allow a graceful exit for a needed departure.

When circumstances change, when an organization grows, when pressures in one area of an organization mount, an organization and its people can feel off-kilter and out of alignment. Lack of alignment can place a drag on an organization’s performance and put a drain on its resources. Its organizational efforts feel uncoordinated, difficult, and frustratingly unproductive.

At times like these, a chiropractic yank can be what a museum needs. A good yank engages and aligns parts of an organization, from guiding ideas, to organizational structure, audience, staff and skills, resources, processes, and relationships with the community.

Museums, like any organization, are complex and changing. Different aspects of the organization are affected by and respond differently to various pressures and trends. Growth occurs at different rates. Mindsets change more slowly than policies. The organizational culture may be at odds with its current leadership style and community expectations. Staff allocations in some departments may reflect 2003 workloads or a mash-up of responsibilities added over the years.  

Not surprisingly, the need for a chiropractic tug often becomes apparent around periods of growth, decline, and transition, whether planned and unplanned. This could be a sign of healthy growth or an early warning signal of trouble.

In some cases a consultant may help identify the need for rebalancing and identify what kind of tug is needed and where. In other cases, a consultant’s work with a team or group provides new skills and a nudge towards more coordinated action. Often, the consultant’s work with the museum, developing a long-term plan or reimagining the museum, activates the big yank and a ripple of adjustments.

Relatively small adjustments like remixing teams and working groups will sometimes refresh and realign work and energy. A strong new lens might be needed to jettison outdated programs and partnerships; activities may still be cherished but have low relevance and place a demand on resources. Larger adjustment, like a new vision and mission, a strategic plan, restructured departments, and shifts in internal operations can activate bigger change. Finally, for a museum facing a critical juncture, a turnaround may be the organization-sized yank that is needed with restructured programs, finances, management, and marketing strategies.

When key pieces are in place, priorities clearly communicated with related accountability and incentives, there’s alignment. When plans make sense and staff see their part in the museum’s work and when teams work in a common direction towards a shared purpose the chiropractic yank is accomplishing its goal.
Museums are dynamic, productive settings, rich in possibilities. Ideas flow for exhibitions, fundraisers, projects, strategies, partnerships, programs, and marketing strategies. Museums translate their ideas and aspirations into multiple forms; they design, write, share, publish, post, and send e-blasts. An exhibition opens and there are programs, events, a social media campaign. A strategic plan takes shape and there are 7 goals.

Nevertheless, there can be too many ideas, too many priorities, too many words, images, and goals. The fact is, not all ideas are worth pursuing, even ones held passionately. Not all big ideas can be driving ideas. Not all ideas are right for a museum and work well with other ideas connected to its broader purpose. Not all ideas are the right size.

Sometimes the density of ideas simply gets in the way. This can happen when group think rules, a team chases every new idea, an idea won’t die, an organizational culture insists more-ideas-are-better, or frank assessment of ideas is risky. Sorting through the quality, quantity, and relevance of ideas, tasks, and language is an enormous challenge.

Enter the consultant as editor. A consultant can help trim, prune, prioritize, and sometimes take a weed whacker to a thicket of ideas and goals. Removing the excess begins to clear the view of what is important and what can be done well. Does a museum need different gallery activities everyday? Does it even have the bench strength to carry out this schedule? Are attendance projections overly optimistic? Are there strategies for getting there? Are they clear? Realistic?

Editing not only trims the number of strategies or goals to a manageable number, but also helps right-size them, their objectives, and impacts for the museum.

As a consultant reflects back what’s more and less important, a museum begins to find its own path forward. Are these words in the museum’s voice? Is this where the museum can do an outstanding job of delivering value because it has a record of achievement–not just ambition? Editing exposes the strong ideas, links efforts that engage powerfully with one another, and helps someone see their work, their role, or their accomplishments in a new light.  
If editing doesn’t work, a chiropractic yank might do which illustrates a truism about these 3 roles. They easily work together. Sometimes all 3 roles play out in quick succession. While consultants frequent this territory, it is not exclusively theirs. When a consultant isn’t around, anyone can and should step forward to move things along. Anyone can be on the alert for questions that need to be asked, ideas that need to be explored, lists that need to be trimmed, and voices that need to be heard.


  1. Where does preservation/conservation of the collection that makes up the museum appear in your 3 roles???

  2. Your question is helpful because it highlights the nature of these consultant roles. I view them as facilitating roles for advancing organizational thinking and decision making in various ways. Sometimes a consultant might be a lightning rod (editor or chiropractor) around questions related to the preservation/conservation of the collection–or related to education or marketing. In facilitating a group's working together and consideration of what it wants to accomplish (and it may be around the collection, audience, interpretation, community presence, subject matter, or practices in any of these areas), the need (or opportunity) for the consultant to play one of these roles can present itself. In any case, these 3 roles always engage with the significant internal knowledge and expertise–including preservation/conservation of the collection that is embedded in a museum–as well as with the current issues and players. I hope this addresses your question.