Museum Leadership: The Why, Not the How

why how what

This seems to be the season for strategic planning. Everyone wants a strategic plan. Or they want to revise the one they’ve already got. Maybe it’s because I live in Connecticut, which, if the legislature has its way, may soon be the only left-leaning state with no support for the arts and humanities. As a result, Connecticut arts and heritage organizations are scrambling to utilize dollars on the table, and many are turning to strategic planning. And that’s not a bad thing. Anything to keep the wolf from the door.

All organizations should plan, and more importantly, they should be comfortable with the planning process. Planning should be one of those things that just happens like bill paying, snow removal, or checking the temperature in collections storage. You just do it. Here’s what’s worrisome though. So much of strategic planning starts with the big-picture questions–the organizational equivalent of where do you see yourself in five years? And frequently those questions devolve into discussions about what an organization does or could do. In the end, that results in actions defining character and even mission, not the other way around.

What if museum leaders, and the legions of consultants who assist with the strategic planning process, asked why first?  Why do we do what we do? And, perhaps more importantly, what does your organization stand for?  Imagine you’re waiting outside your state senator’s office. His aide tells you his appointment with the local food bank is running over. Can you wait? Of course you can, but what are you going to say about work in a heritage or arts organization that matters as much as feeding the poor? Few of us would choose knowing why our communities are the way they are over three square meals a day. Yet understanding how our communities develop informs every decision we make today. A broad and nuanced view makes us better citizens. Isn’t that important?

If you’re asked who would miss your organization if it closed its doors 60 days from now, what would your answer be? Would it be families who come to the children’s after-school program your art museum runs, or residents who access the oral history project led by your historical society or would your answer be WHY you do those things? You run the after-school program because you believe all children need to see and make art. You run the oral history program because new residents, and those who’ve been in a community for decades, need to share and understand the choice they made in moving to your city or neighborhood. Asking the why question helps align beliefs.

So here is a short list of things to keep in mind if your spring to-do list includes the proverbial strategic plan:

  • Does your organization have a shared values statement? If not, make one. A values statement is a governor on organizational action in the same way a collections policy limits what you collect.
  • If you are a board member, ask yourself if you’re still passionate about the heritage or arts organization you serve. Are you a board member out of duty, habit or love?
  • If you are a staff person, do you understand and believe in your organization’s values? Can you articulate how your program or department upholds those values?
  • Many of us enter the museum world because things intrigue us— photographs or film, textiles or 18th-century high chests, landscape design or stained glass. As our careers move forward we find ourselves distanced from things, managing people and programs instead. Ask yourself why the museum field matters to you now. Why should it matter to your state legislator?
  • Last, find the why in your work. Join your colleagues in making it matter. Life will be better and your planning process will go smoothly.

Tell us how you differentiate the how from the why at your museum or heritage organization.

Joan Baldwin

 

 

 

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One Comment on “Museum Leadership: The Why, Not the How”

  1. Conny Graft says:

    Thank you, Joan for this important reminder. While it is the hardest question to ask, it can be a useful tool to help steer the boat especially when there are challenging winds. For history museum folks I recommend you look at The Value of History Statement at http://www.historyrelevance.org. It still needs work but may help a museum get the conversation going about “why”. Also, consider becoming an endorser of this statement.


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