Saturday, December 28, 2019

Consolidating the Gains: After the Museum Doors Open

First posted September 2015, Consolidating the Gains continues the series on growing a museum
Opening Day at Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota

The ribbon has been cut and the doors to the new museum swing wide open welcoming friends, members, supporters, neighbors, and the curious.  

Opening day festivities are well attended. The new spaces are awe-inspiring; the exhibitions sparkle. Fundraising is virtually complete and the punch list has been pared to a manageable length. Systems have been tested and tweaked. Media campaigns have drawn the hoped-for attention. Donor and member events have been great successes. The rounds and rounds of prototyping caught the bugs early. The community discussions that inspired the vision for the big museum project still feel inspiring. Years of planning now seem like a blur. 

Twenty years after opening day at the “new” Minnesota Children’s Museum ( on September 16, 1995 these impressions are still with me along with the many lessons I was fortunate to learn about planning and opening a museum. Yet, as memorable as the planning and opening were, the following year and the lessons learned navigating it have been even more enduring. And I've seen these lessons learned over-and-over again in other museums since then.

The Big Lesson 
Those lessons cluster around a single message. No matter how resounding a success everyone thinks and says the opening and new museum are and how amazingly well the first months go, the critical task is to retain and consolidate the gains made through the expansion and over the first months of operations.

This challenge also comes to mind now as I read and hear about recent openings at the DoSeum; the Thinkery; The Broad; the Mid-America Science Museum; the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County; the new wing at the Columbus Museum of Art; and the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota

Whether doubling the physical footprint, building a wing for exhibitions, converting space for events, adding a large-format theater or opening an extensive outdoor area, a large capital project has changed the museum. The transition from planning to opening to running a new institution is one of both planned and unexpected challenges that can make consolidating the gains more challenging than they might seem to be.   

Every new such venture is originally fueled by enormous passion and excitement. Working with a shared vision of a building, a fresh visitor experience, new amenities, and stronger exhibit experience makes coordination and alignment of the museum’s efforts relatively easy. Once that milestone has passed, however, the view ahead is fuzzier. The territory in which a museum now finds itself is new. Familiar signposts, patterns and benchmarks from the past are either irrelevant or in serious need of updating. The temptation is great to feel the museum has arrived and that efforts getting there have the momentum to surge forward. The first months or even year after opening, known as the benefit period, won’t last forever and, in fact, can disappear unexpectedly. 

Along with the sense of enormous pride and accomplishment among staff, volunteers, and trustees on opening is relief and deep exhaustion. And yet, during any long-term project, a museum has cultivated partnerships, shared its aspirations broadly, actively invited the public into its life, and deliberately stepped into the limelight. The action is just beginning.

Retaining the Gains
Just what are the gains that need to be consolidated? During the course of planning, a museum has assessed the need to expand or renovate, made a case for support, cultivated community good will, projected attendance, raised funds, planned exhibits, developed new programs, brought on additional staff, set up new systems, and trained staff. From a new physical footprint to a new community footprint, it has quantified intended gains in areas across the museum and that the museum itself intends to have on its community. It has set new attendance targets and identified new audiences to reach. It has projected growth in expenses as well as revenue; set fundraising goals; structured admission and membership; added new earned income activities; and calculated economic impact. New exhibits with new themes, topics, and learner impacts fill galleries and require on-going maintenance and repairs.

Consolidating gains typically means capturing the lessons learned; stabilizing financially and operationally; determining where to work harder to improve on what works; shoring up areas that lag behind; making the most of available momentum; and recognizing new opportunities. The museum shifts from promises and projections to targets and tracking. In this period of time, the museum has an opportunity to operate and serve from a higher platform. To do so, it needs to meet some consolidation challenges.

Consolidation Challenges 
•   Develop new baselines for benchmarking performance in key areas. In a new, larger, or renovated building, old benchmarks don’t work. Because square footage, attendance, and admission fees change, ratios for tracking key financial indicators and performance necessarily change. To know how the museum is doing and how it can do better, new data is needed, as is the time for collecting data, observing seasonality shifts and multiple cycles, and comparing actuals with projections.

•   Retain and support staff, especially key staff. With the expansion, the museum has added staff with new expertise while existing staff carry important organizational knowledge. Through training, the museum has invested in staff across the museum. The focus now is to retain and grow this expanded capacity during a period of transition. After a major project, people leave for various reasons. Temporary staff and contractors leave as work is completed. Permanent staff may be ready to move on, find a new challenge or change of pace. The same goes for trustees. Be kind.

•   Engage the audience and community at a higher level and in targeted ways. Many, if not most, projects begin with community input to assess the need for expansion, generate programmatic ideas, and prototype exhibits and programs. During the long process that follows, however, there’s little feedback from audiences. Upon opening, a flood of audience feedback, good and bad, pours forth. At this point, a museum needs to make the most of this feedback; be responsive and connect with visitors; and reinvigorate its community engagement strategies. 

•   Focus on new opportunities to grow impact. Greater museum visibility, a sense of optimism, and increased capacity combine to catalyze new and larger opportunities for greater impact. A museum may enjoy a new position on the learning and cultural landscape, have a new seat at the table, or be able to set a new table around its priority interests. With an eye on delivering significant long-term impact, a museum should build on its strongest partnerships, work in areas of emerging expertise, and develop larger initiatives that align with community priorities. 

•   Become the new museum. Expansion has changed the museum. It is a new institution with a new identity created through multiple changes starting with its building, possibly a new location or name, and on-line presence. A new logo, brand, and perhaps name have been unveiled, differentiating the museum from its former self and other venues. Now is the time to fully inhabit the promise of the museum through guest and learner experiences, text panels, the tone and spirit of interactions with staff and volunteers, and everyday moments. 

•   Plan for a new future. The big museum project has been all about a new future for the museum, a future that has arrived and is already quickly receding. It’s time to rethink the museum’s future and get out in front of what’s coming next. Through strategic planning, a museum can reinvigorate its vision, look ahead, and build on the gains to generate new ways to better serve the community.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Transition Planning

Part of this series on growing a museum, this was first posted May 2016

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 indispensable. 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 that 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 cafĂ©, 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 growTransition 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.