Part of this series on growing a museum, this was first posted in 2018
It happened again recently. Another, unplanned, leadership transition in a young, 3-5 year old, museum. Again, I get over my surprise; everything seemed to be going well.
Again I think about the bumpy spots all museums encounter. Like any organization, these museums are experiencing, and will experience, rough spots and growing pains. Some bumps are easier than others. The departure of an executive director is a challenge, but not an unusual one. An unplanned departure makes it even harder. Often when it happens, is what makes it hard.
Again I wonder about the museum’s next steps, the probable executive search, and who I might know or know of who would be a good fit for the museum and the position.
Inevitably, I come around to the realization that this museum is navigating a transition from one stage to another in its organizational life-cycle. Just as humans go through life stages (think infancy, early childhood, adolescence, and right on through old-age) so do non-profit organizations, including museums. Planned or unplanned, leadership transitions often occur when a museum is making a shift from one stage to the next. In fact, bumpy spots occur at somewhat predictable points in a museum’s development. In the case of these 3-5 year old museums, they are moving from a start-up stage to a growth stage. Not surprisingly, they are living somewhat in both stages. In this situation, the referred pain of growth is likely.
The idea of organizational lifecycles comes from several fields. The work of Susan KennyStevens, a non-profit management consultant based in the Twin Cities has been a helpful tool in my work. In her book Non-profit Life-cycles: Stage-based Wisdom for Non-profit Capacity, Kenny Stevens presents seven lifecycle stages that nonprofit organizations, including museums, typically go through: the Idea stage, Start-up stage, Growth stage, Maturity stage, Decline stage, Turn-around stage and sometimes, the Terminal stage.
Museums of every kind, size, and age experience life-cycle stages. Often these times are rough for staff, board, and sometimes even partners and visitors. A life-cycles approach, however, can be a helpful tool for a board, executive director, staff, and even funders. Besides serving as a tool for navigating a transition, this approach can also help depersonalize difficult discussions and decisions at a stressful time for the organization.
While inevitable, stages are not deterministic with one stage automatically following another like cruising through state after state on a cross-country road trip. Completing a stage and moving on to the next requires deliberate effort, activity on many fronts, and working together at another scale and complexity. New opportunities come along; there are staff and board transitions; new systems are needed; and some things must be discarded.
The young museums I’m thinking about signaled an intention to leave the Start-up stage when, accompanied by great celebration and popular response, they opened to the public. The Growth stage seemed certain to follow. Moving through stages, however, is not automatic. Opening the museum doors doesn’t necessarily mean completely closing the door to the Start-up stage and stepping over the threshold into Growth.
And while stages may be clear, the boundaries between them are not. Consequently, a museum is likely to be straddling more than one stage and not even realize it.
A stage is not simply a place a museum bides its time or plows ahead to get to the other side. Rather, a stage describes developmental periods when characteristic patterns of behavior emerge, develop, and are resolved. The major tasks that need to be accomplished in every stage cluster in five organizational capacity areas: Programs (including exhibits and programs), Management, Administrative Systems, Financial Resources, and Governance.
Work to Be Done
Managing success in any stage and the transition to the next one relies on having sufficient internal capacity in all five areas. Development–or capacity–in organizations however, is usually uneven and occurs at different rates very much as it does across domains—physical, social, emotional, and cognitive—in humans. Uneven capacity across areas is likely to show up as a rough patch or growing pains.
In museums, and in the Growth Stage in particular, exhibits, products and services are generally more mature than other capacity areas like Administrative Systems or Financial Resources. A museum’s offerings expand in response to public demand. Staff races to keep up; financial tracking systems lag behind. Capacity areas like Administrative Systems or Financial Resources often need time and targeted resources to catch up, for both building new capacity and shedding old ways.
Processes for budget development, program planning, on-boarding staff, and recruiting board members may have been outgrown—or were never even established. New levels of accountability are needed. What worked for a staff of 7 and a founding board may be inadequate for a staff of 20 and a board of many new recruits. The nature of the work to be done in a stage is not necessarily immediately obvious. For instance, “communication” surfacing as a recurring issue—communication with and among staff, staff leadership, the board—often indicates related capacity issues. Nevertheless, communication internally and externally IS more critical than ever.
– For Everyone
Having the necessary capacity also means having the right people in the right positions: staff, staff leadership, and board. In every stage, staff, board, and staff leadership have specific roles to play, and these roles change across stages. For instance, a board needs to shift from being hands on to being strategic. The executive director needs to have the right characteristics to work with the board and be positioned to lead through a period of growth and development.
Finding the right person to complete a museum leadership team, to fit with the board and fit with staff, can be a challenge any time. Especially when a founding ED has left and a new stage of organizational development is unfolding, a successful search can be challenging. A museum may not get it right the first time. Kenny Stevens points out that, while more has been written about the start-up stage, it is really the growth stage that is the more complex management challenge.
When I return to thinking about what comes next for these museums and I look through the lens of organizational stages, I think about them quite differently. Regardless of its size, age, stage, or focus, every museum faces essentially the same task: building and aligning capacity across all 5 areas. And because every museum is different, there isn’t a set way to move smoothly and gracefully from one stage to another.
An organizational life-cycle approach, however, does help a museum get unstuck and develop a shared idea of how to move forward. It invites a museum to understand which stage it is in, to diagnose its internal capacity across areas, to identify where behaviors are out of sync, and to begin to grow and align its capacity.
The approach doesn’t solve everything. No tool does. Moving from one stage to another, however, is also an opportunity for a museum to become a better version of itself.