Top 10 List for Making Organizational Change

Spheres on threads concept

Change is a constant for today’s museum or heritage organization leader. It happens on a multitude of levels. One of our Leadership Matters interviewees summed it up when she quipped, “If you’re the kind of person that needs a structured environment to survive, I don’t think you can be a successful director.” Anyone who’s had their board president announce her resignation on the same day the pipes froze, which was also the same day an elderly volunteer slipped on the front walk and the NEH grant was due, knows that life in museum leadership can come at you fast.

There’s a personal element to accepting life as it comes that’s important. Our interviewee was right. There ought to be a sign hanging over the door to master’s programs in museum studies that says, “The Rigid Need Not Apply,” or better yet, “All Ye Who Are Nimble, Welcome Here.”

Today’s museum leaders know museums need to change to compete. The world moves too quickly for them not to respond. What does that mean?  Just like individuals, organizations need to be present, authentic members of their communities. Too many museums and heritage organizations confuse being open with being engaged. Opening the doors on weary exhibits or roped off period rooms barely captivates anyone on a first visit, much less a second or third. Healthy organizations adapt in order to move forward. Like creative individuals they experiment, reflect, and try again in a constant effort to connect. If you wrote it as an equation, it might look like this: objects (or substitute paintings, plants, etc.) + context +communication = connection.

Here is Leadership Matters’ Top-Ten Change Check List. Use it to think about change  in your organization, department or program.

  • Remember if you are the executive director, you’re not the only change agent.
  • Know how change–from small tweaks to capital improvements– happens in your museum. Make sure the change process is equitable.
  • Big changes need to happen with staff not to them. Make sure everybody’s involved in change and everybody has a voice. Innovation and engagement should happen museum-wide.
  • Once the organization commits to change, as a leader you do too. Save sarcasm or negative feelings for friends or run it off at the gym.
  • Don’t try to do everything yourself. Change, especially big change, requires an all-hands-on-deck attitude. However inviting, it’s not the time to retreat to your office and close the door. Collaborate.
  • You don’t know it all. Change is a learning opportunity. Listen. Listen. Listen.
  • Get out of the weeds. If you’re leading change, you have a responsibility to the big picture. If you get that right, the details will follow.
  • Change–especially big change–may require some uncomfortable conversations. Be prepared to confront, collaborate, and persuade the naysayers.
  • Stagnation is bad and boring, but change for its own sake is like a nervous tick. Make sure you understand why change is happening before your board, staff and volunteers become change weary.
  • Just like any big project–term paper, cleaning the garage, packing to move–change needs to be broken into smaller projects. Don’t micromanage. Let others lead and celebrate their success.

How does your organization make change?

Joan Baldwin

Image: LiquidPlanner

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One Comment on “Top 10 List for Making Organizational Change”

  1. Thanks for this much-needed list! An important concept related to your “learning opportunity” item that I have come to recognise as crucial in my recent work is the “fail forward” management concept. We have to be totally open to innovating in response to our failure experiences. Among the 154 million Google hits for ‘fail forward’ is the Huff Post’s 6 December 2017 post “7 Lessons in Failing Forward From A Google Employee” at https://www.huffingtonpost.com/tanuja-ramchal/7-lessons-in-failing-forward-from-a-google-employee_b_9602924.html . We learn from study but, because they are immediately relevant to our work, we also need to attend to debriefing & learn from our mistakes.


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