Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Rewind: 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 
• 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
• Noyce Foundation’s Leadership Institute at one time supported increasing the capacity of museum leaders to manage change, focus outward, engage peers and form key partnerships 
• Non-profit Lifecycles:Stage-Based Wisdom for Nonprofit Capacity looks at capacity from an organizational and developmental perspective by Susan Kenny Stevens

Friday, August 3, 2018

Challenge Your Thinking, Change Your Museum

Photo: JR-art.net

As a field, in an organization, and among friends, we tend to get comfortable with our thinking and our practices. This is who we are. We’ve always done it this way. We do that really well. That’s what we’re known for.

We say this about ourselves and our organizations, who our audience is, what our visitors like about us, and how we are valuable to our community. We look for evidence to confirm these beliefs. Sometimes we say it so often, that we believe it.

But when we think of thought leaders, people we admire, and agents of change, we don’t see people patting themselves on the back. They are not sticking to familiar scripts, comfortable assumptions, and cherished beliefs. Rather, they are asking bold questions; pushing limits; taking a provocative stance where it counts. They are willing to shake things up in favor of new possibilities, a stronger museum, and a thriving community. They are willing to challenge themselves and change their institutions to spark transformative change.

Can only just some people do that? And only in just some museums? Or is this something more of us can do? If so, how do we do it?

First of all meaningful change is not a solo act. Positive museum or community change depends on moving ahead with others. It depends on thinking and learning together, drawing on different perspectives, bringing in fresh ideas from related contexts, making hard choices. Heavy lifting is involved.

While a strong team is essential, bringing about substantive change can be slow and frustrating without guidance. A process like strategic planning can provide guidance, although as a process it is suited to focusing rather than expanding possibilities. On the other hand, a strong set of questions can move us beyond the familiar, push our vision outwards, and stretch our thinking.

What are some questions that are catalysts for expansive thinking? Questions that are open-ended; that sidestep easy answers; that run the gamut from a museum’s purpose; and that keep people at the center.

Below is one set of questions a museum might explore to challenge its thinking. Not surprisingly the questions intersect with one another keeping the inquiry rich and moving it along. All of the questions may not fit one museum at the same point in time. Some questions may be more have more traction with tweaking.

These questions, or a version of them, can be explored across a museum: in the leadership team, small group conversations across the organization, or at a board retreat. Over a period of time, shared work on these questions can embolden a museum in its purpose, help inspire trustees with the importance of their work, give staff a role in growing the museum’s value, and bring the community into the life of the museum. Capturing and sharing these conversations in notes, photos, reflections, and mind maps will enrich this process, making ideas visible, and putting them in play for a new future.

In what ways can our museum strengthen our community? This question is about a museum finding and inhabiting a visible public role and civic responsibility, one tailored to its mission and to its community.

Strengthening a community relies on having a deep, well-informed, and constantly updated familiarity with the hopes, promise and challenges of a community and its citizens. A museum discovers possibilities when it opens itself to what diverse groups feel is valuable, learns what matters across a community, and imagines where it has the capacity and will to make a difference. Greater potential investment in the community will come from considering multiple possibilities, articulating the rationale for action, and identifying benefits.

Helping a community fulfill its promise takes place over time, across multiple platforms, in small and large ways: community programming; providing space for, perhaps, an immunization clinic; or hosting civic events. The Worcester Art Museum linked its civic role with its community that has long welcomed settlers and immigrants to the area when it became a site for a naturalization ceremony in 2017, noting, “When we became the community, the community became us.”

Bristol Museum: "I Belong Here"
Whose museum is this? This question is about sharing power and expanding a sense of community ownership in the museum.

Increasingly, museums are aware of the importance of being for and of the entire community, not just for people who already feel welcome and comfortable in museums and who have always visited them. But for everyone. While building public trust and broadening a sense of ownership plays out differently in each community, the processes and the strategies are similar: engaging actively and often with community members; co-creating its vision with them, as well as with the board and staff; and cultivating inclusive relationships that lead to new conversations. The museum works to develop processes for reciprocal engagement, finding new ways for new friends and participants to bring the museum to life in their way.

Bringing a solid understanding of these processes, Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History has recently launched OFBYFOR ALL, a framework for transforming cultural and civic organizations to be inclusive and responsive to their communities.

What can our role as a leader in learning in our community be? This question is about a museum fully occupying a meaningful role around informal learning, and what that means.

Being a recognized leader in learning in its community may seem obvious for museums. Museums, however, often don’t see themselves in a role as leaders in learning nor do their communities. Schools are understood to be about learning that occurs through instruction. Formal learning, however, is not the driver of developmental change in early childhood, nor does it characterize learning occurs across the life span, nor has it been a catalyst for a community learning together. As places of learning through choice, exploration, discovery, and action, museums have remarkable opportunities for filling gaps on a community’s learning landscape, expanding local learning assets, and doing so in sometimes innovative ways.

In 2008, TheWild Center, a museum in Tupper Lake, NY, in the Adirondack Park began developing an indispensable role in building community. It convened a succession of dialogues bringing together diverse stakeholder groups to explore questions of climate change in the Adirondacks. This process of facilitating dialogue and developing consensus has moved the community toward climate action planning and shaped The Wild Center itself. 

Looking into Eastern State Penitentiary
What is worth discovering? This question is about understanding what is compelling, meaningful, and valuable to people in the community and what they care about.

Ideas for museum projects–exhibits, programs, initiatives–are typically generated from within the museum: director’s choice, curator-driven questions, donor interest, and, sometimes, public policy issues. When museums test exhibit ideas with visitors, they ask, “what topics would you like to see,” presenting a list of fairly standard topics: the environment, health, space. Visitors respond with what they think they should say. For meaningful answers, a museum needs new questions for community–not just museum–members. What is fascinating to them? What do they wonder about? What do they care about as a family?

When a museum invents or reinvents itself, it has an opportunity to find new questions for understanding what is fascinating, compelling, and worth considering. In the long-abandoned cellblocks of the country’s most historic prison, EasternState Penitentiary Historic Site opens up spaces to explore difficult questions about incarceration in order to deepen discussion around criminal justice. 

What happens at this museum? What’s it about? This question is about understanding what the museum makes possible for its visitors and community.

In their values and brand statements, museums work to express what they want to promote. Their websites, banners, and e-blasts promote their content (science, contemporary art, natural history); their products (exhibits, collections, films); and their particular story (the oldest, biggest museum).

But how do the visitors experience the museum? How do they describe what actually matters to them in their lives–and in their words? When 6-year old Michael left Minnesota Children’s Museum after a long afternoon of exploring, he wondered, “Why is this a place where you can do things?” Clearly, this was an expression of delight. It was also a fundamental expression of what happened for Michael in the museum. Simply because a museum says so, it is not necessarily about hands-on activities, family learning, or ancient art. Rather, a museum is a place where people feel good about meeting and connecting with others; where they can be who they are; where they are inspired to consider courageous questions and take action because that's what happens in a meaningful way for them.

In what ways can our museum encourage and extend meaningful interactions and connections among people and out into the community? This question is about creating and supporting interactions that reach out in multiple directions, across time, space, and people.

As social spaces, with design expertise, intriguing objects, and large numbers of people, museums have a great opportunity to create meaningful ways for visitors and community members to gather, interact, and connect. An interest in designing winter sports gear may be sparked by a visitor’s interaction with a visiting scientist explaining the physics of sliding on ice. A docent’s story about the struggles of a family who lived in these small rooms may inspire someone to work resettling immigrants. A connection with a community resource may come from an incidental conversation with a parent about their child’s developmental challenges.

Museums forge many new possibilities by bringing people together through placemaking, events, activities and services. They create connections that last beyond an initial purpose or encounter that ripple out into the everyday world. A group of dads met at the science center for children where they went on weekends with their preschool-aged children. After casually bumping into each other several times, they started planning on meeting there regularly. During the 1970's, 3 women volunteered weekly at The Milwaukee Public Museum. For 13 years they worked in Research & Collections. Into their mid 90's, those weekly visits remained vivid, pleasant memories for them. Connections generated by a museum can be more far reaching than we imagine.