This weekend many of you began gathering in New Orleans for AAM’s Annual Meeting. Along with thousands of folks you know or wish you knew, you’re attending sessions, listening to keynoters, and networking like crazy. Hopefully, it will be the equivalent of pressing your brain’s re-set button, returning you to work energized and enlivened, with your creative juices flowing.
Creativity’s been on my mind lately. Last fall I completed work on a big exhibit. I work in a small shop, and it was the culmination of 24 months of conversations, research, zigs, zags, re-dos, and anxiety. In the end, thanks to my rock-star colleagues, it was awesome, and in many ways better than I imagined. And yet, since the show came down, I have found it hard to dig down and re-focus. Why am I telling you this? Because creativity isn’t an easy resource in the museum world’s rule-driven cosmos.
Granted, I do museum work in an academic setting, but some weeks the relentlessness of daily life overwhelms us. There’s no time to think, to putter, to experiment and, frankly, agendas, meetings, and their follow-ups aren’t necessarily fertile ground for creativity. Meetings are rooted firmly in the now; if they have hope, it’s that things will turn out right, meaning a successful event, program, exhibition, artist’s residency (you choose) will draw audiences that look big, busy and diverse in Instagram photos. And too often the monster of skepticism, as Frank Vagnone puts it in his recent blog post, takes over.
How many of you work for a truly creative individual or, if you’re a museum leader, how many of you work for a creative board? Whether you do or not, you may want to dig out Linda Norris’ and Rainey Tisdale’s book Creativity in Museum Practice. Published by the late Left Coast Press in 2014, it’s full of brilliant recipes for moving from mediocre to exceptional. One of my favorite pages is a little chart that compares creative and traditional leaders.
Not surprisingly, creative leaders lead in many of the ways we harp on in this blog every week. Creative leaders engage, they’re authentic, they experiment. They are hopeful. They understand how to hear criticism. The more traditional leader is (sigh) the sage on the stage who needs to be correct, both metaphorically and actually. She loves a harmonious workplace even if it’s at the expense of creativity and engagement. She asks for feedback, but staff learn it’s not something she knows what to do with. Her work is about sustaining things the way they’ve been. It doesn’t take staff long to learn that innovation is sloughed aside in favor of “getting the job done right.” What’s right? The least threatening way that still delivers results: Wonder Bread versus a fresh-baked brioche.
So what’s this magical, nurturing leader look like in real life? First, she often has her own creative practice whether she’s an artist, dancer or chef. She encourages collaboration and her staff knows it’s imagination and ideas she values, not just elbow grease. For her, product isn’t the end all and be all. Process is equally important. Why? Because that’s where the magic happens. If she were to create the perfect staff, the folks around her table would be a wildly diverse lot, who communicate well, who bat ideas back and forth, and who value collaboration over competition. Her team reads widely, and thinks in terms of metaphors, analogies, and stories.
Need to move the needle toward some creativity? Here are five things to try:
- Understand your museum or heritage organization’s bureaucracy. Know what happens to innovative ideas when they wend their way from the could-we stage to implementation. If competing constituencies deplete their innovative qualities, they are born shadows of themselves. Figure out how to protect ideas while they grow.
- Encourage imagination, discussion, and dissension at the staff table. Disagreement forces staff to identify the values and ideas that matter most.
- As the leader, you don’t need to be the source of all ideas. You need to be the gardener. Identify the viable ideas, and nurture them. Toss the weeds. Know when to connect ideas that echo one another.
- Provide intellectual challenge. Bored staff are boring.
- Play to your staff’s skills. Hint: That means you actually have to know them.
Yours for less mediocrity.
Two of my favorite myths at the beginning of Leadership Matters are: “We are the source of our own best ideas,” and “Anyone can lead a museum.” They come from a place that says museums are simple organizations doing simple stuff, and pretty much anybody can do what needs to be done. After all, there’s a gazillion books and YouTube videos. How hard can it be? I’ve never worked in a really big museum, but I know first-hand that among tiny to medium-sized heritage organizations and museums these two myths spawn a lot of problems, and the biggest may be they limit imagination.
You may have seen this type of behavior cast generationally–the proverbial eye-roll from older staff members when a Millennial suggests trying something new. Or it’s attributed to a particular subgroup within the museum, frequently with the pronoun ‘they’ — as in “It’s a great idea, but they would never go for it.” They refers to a nameless group of powerful people who make decisions for everyone else. Despite the fact staff may have no real understanding about the board’s decision-making process, ascribing blame in these situations is useful. Then there is the financial version, which goes something like, “I love that, but we just don’t have the money right now.” And last, but certainly not least is the version that combines one or more of the others: “We tried that before the recession, and it wasn’t that successful.” If your therapist were in the room for all these comments, she’d tell you you’re writing the script before anything’s happened. And she’d be right.
I’m not saying money isn’t important. It is. And it can buy a lot, and ease even more worries. But an organization can be really rich and also really boring. Surely you’ve been to some of those. They are beautifully presented, but stiff, still, and flat. There is, to quote Gertrude Stein, “No there there.” But there are other organizations where, without warning and often without huge budgets, you’re challenged, confronted by things you hadn’t thought about before or presented with memorable narratives. They are the places you remember. They are the ones that stick with you.
Imagination and ideas are a museums’ biggest tools. Otherwise you’re just a brilliantly-organized storage space. And yet how do you get out of the scarcity mindset? Practice. Truly. And start small.
If you’re a leader:
- Read widely. Listen and learn from a variety of sources. If you’re a scientist, read the book review. If you’re an art curator, read the Harvard Business Review.
- Model respect, and treat everyone’s ideas as doable even if they’re not actionable in the moment.
- Use the ideas that work now. Start small. What percentage of your guests are elderly? Will moving some benches afford a view and make walking from place-to-place easier? Try it. If it doesn’t work, move them back.
- Change is a muscle. Build strength slowly. Don’t over do it.
- Think about ideas as cash catalysts.
If you’re a board member:
- Model respect and treat everyone’s ideas as doable even if they’re not actionable in the moment.
- Know what matters. Understand your organization.
- Invite a different staff member to your board meeting every month. Ask them what they would do if you gave them a million dollars. Listen. (And ban the eye-roll.)
- Devote some time as a group to talking about ideas as opposed to what’s just happened, what’s currently happening or what will happen. How can you raise money for an organization if you’re not excited about what it’s doing?
- Think about ideas as cash catalysts.
If you’re a leader or a board member, you’re role isn’t to maintain the status quo. You want more than mediocrity, don’t you? You’re a change agent, and change doesn’t have to come in a multi-million-dollar addition. Sometimes it comes in a volunteer program that models great teaching, a friendly attitude and deep knowledge.
Yours for idea stimulation,
P.S. Two items of note passed over our screens this week: Nikki Columbus, who was briefly hired by MOMA PS1, settled the claim she brought against the museum. Kudos to Ms. Columbus for following through on her claim which accused MOMA PS1 of gender, pregnancy and caregiver discrimination. It takes money, courage and will to take on a monolith, but in the end cases like this one set precedent for others. Second, the Guggenheim Museum joined Britain’s Tate and National Portrait Gallery in no longer accepting gifts from the Sackler family. The Sacklers, owners of Purdue Pharma, makers of Oxycontin, donated $9 million to the Guggenheim between 1995 and 2015. Aligning gifts with core values is a tricky topic so stay tuned.
When someone asks what you do, what do you say? If you’re a curator, an education curator, a digital curator or museum director how do you explain your job to your great aunt or that family friend whose children are surgeons and investment bankers? And having explained your work life in two sentences and gotten a look of pure puzzlement, do you know what you actually do? By that I mean, do you have any sense of what you accomplish in a given day, week or month?
My colleague Anne Ackerson does. She has an accomplishment jar on her desk. Every time she completes a project or does something worthwhile, she drops a piece of paper in the jar with a note about the accomplishment. On New Year’s day, she re-reads her year through the lens of jobs well done. I am not so organized, but I work for a large organization that requires weekly reports, bi-annual check-ins, and annual performance reviews. But even with all that reporting take it from me: It’s possible to think about your job only in generalities or worse–and this is very, very gendered–to see it only in terms of what you haven’t accomplished. The result? It’s easy to lose sight of what you’ve achieved.
Why is this important? First, seeing progress is a morale boost. At the end of a bad week, it can seem as though the needle never moved, and you accomplished nothing. And that same week can feel so long that activities completed Monday may have disappeared in a fog of what went wrong by Friday. Plus, how often have we talked about leadership and self-awareness in these posts? A lot. And what is an accomplishment review except an acknowledgement of your strengths?
In 2011 two Harvard Business Review researchers, Theresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, looked at how the for-profit world drives innovation. Focused on individuals on the creative side of things, they asked 238 individuals at 26 different companies to answer a daily email about their workday ups and downs. Data from 12,000 emails yielded some important conclusions. First, workers are more creative when they’re happy, and that happiness spills over to colleagues and to the organization itself. Second, they discovered that many of their subjects’ “best days” directly correlated with days when there was perceptible progress on a given project by them or their team.
It’s tempting to conclude that happiness comes with the conclusion of a project–the moment when Anne drops the paper in her Accomplishment Jar–but that’s not what Amabile and Kramer’s work showed. In their study, it was the small wins, the daily movement of the needle that brought happiness. Understanding and charting those small wins over time is important in understanding our own sense of accomplishment.
What can you as an individual do?
- Make a chart: Divide your work life into its major headings–collections care, team management, professional development, and list the things you’ve done each week, month or year. Or just use a jar. But be sure to remember to empty it and read the contents.
- Progress and a sense of accomplishment are intimately linked to creativity. Do you have a job where you check your brain at the door? Then look for ways to raise the creativity quotient. Chart your accomplishments in your off hours–miles run, words written, volunteer hours logged.
And if you’re a leader?
- Check-in on your employees, don’t check-up. Look for what’s holding them back, and see how you can help. Remember that leaders remove barriers. Be a resource not a sheriff.
- See work as iterative. We learn, we accomplish, we get better at what we do. Don’t make one-on-one meetings a laundry list of work yet to be done.
- Use the progress checklist from Amabile and Kramer @ HBR:
Remember this equation: meaningful work+clear and reasonable goals=workplace happiness=creativity= meaningful work.
Yours for accomplishment,
Maybe it’s because of where I am in the circle, but lately I’ve spent more time counseling younger people on their career paths. Inevitably, this leads to job interview questions. In a field where there are increasingly more applicants than jobs–at least that’s the way it feels–we’re sometimes so relieved to have beaten our way through the maze of LinkedIn, emailed resumes, Skype, and social media, that actually being with real people makes us forget we’re there to interview the organization, not just answer questions.
But this really isn’t a post about job interviews. I mention them because one of the questions I urge job applicants or anyone new to an organization to ask is how does it solve problems? And equally important is who generates ideas, and how do ideas move from brain storm to concept to implementation? You don’t have to work at Google to realize that if someone can’t answer these questions, you should see little red flags. Why? Because nimble museums (and any organization) know how problems are solved. And staff who participate creatively are usually happy to talk about the process. That does not mean that if you describe a disaster scenario that a particular museum staff will give you the same cohesive answer, but it should mean that everyone appears to understand how the answer, whether temporary or permanent, emerged. Too often, the answer involves “them” as in “they decided” or “they felt,” the mythical group of organizational deciders who make museums change. My advice: beware of organizations where there’s too much “them.”
And what does this have to do with leadership? If you’re a leader, do you want to be part of “them” or “we”? If it’s the latter, then it’s important to consider creativity isn’t all about you, meaning you’re not the fount of the best ideas. Instead, you’re the person who brings your team together. You are the person who models the importance of learning, the generosity of sharing, rather than needing to be right. You welcome heated conversations about ideas because that’s when inspiration happens, and you applaud staff passionate enough to stand up for what they believe in.
Two weeks ago we referenced Christy Coleman’s wonderful post Are History Museums Stuck on Stupid? and we’d like to circle back to it here. Coleman upbraids museum leadership for always looking for the next best thing, the magic potion to cure museum ills, when it’s really right in front of their faces. The same is true of creativity in the workplace. Creative frameworks don’t change museums because process doesn’t change organizations. People do.
Create an atmosphere where all ideas are welcome. If you’re creating new exhibit space, make sure your volunteers, docents and guards are at the table. And by that I don’t mean gathering the frontline staff together for their opinion, I mean inviting them to the big-girl table. After all, they watch and interact with visitors every day. Listen to them. What can they tell you about how visitors behave in your galleries or historic house? If you’re planning an addition, wouldn’t it be smart to have your grounds folks take part in the discussion? They are likely to point out that a tree’s root spread is far larger than what is on the architect’s plans, and that putting the addition in that spot will in fact damage a century-old tree. But the most important thing about listening from the bottom up is that it creates an atmosphere of equity in your organization. Everybody speaks and everybody listens. Disrupters are heard. Push back is important. You are the connector, you learn from your staff.
We all wish there were a next big thing that really worked, a magic formula to turn a sleepy organization into a place that’s sought after. There isn’t. But creating an atmosphere where ideas flourish and everyone’s knowledge is respected is a first step. Does your museum staff know how to work creatively? Here’s some additional reading:
Last week our post on bullying brought comments about how bullies and staff in general are hired. Several of the commenters offered potential interview techniques to weed out the mean, the lazy, and the pompous. If you also read Christy Coleman’s blog post “Are History Museums Stuck on Stupid?” you can’t help but wonder if, as Coleman says, “too many [museums] are stuck in pedagogical or operating models that simply don’t work well anymore.” And, if you didn’t read it, you should.
Coleman chastises the field for wringing its collective hands as visitation declines; for meeting locally, regionally and nationally to hear about whatever the next big thing is when there is no one-size-fits-all cure; and for believing data is the magic elixir that will send visitation soaring. She concludes by offering an example of visitor engagement from The American Civil War Museum where she is the CEO. No surprise, its visitation has grown slowly and steadily over the last five years as Coleman and her staff engage their community in its own story. (We profile Coleman in our book, Leadership Matters, BTW.)
One of the smartest things Coleman says is “Museums want to be taken seriously, but often the biggest mistake is framing exhibits and programs for other colleagues.” In other words, don’t preach to the choir. What she doesn’t mention–at least overtly–is museums may be stuck on stupid (or mediocre) because their staff (and boards) need a shake up. We know there’s no shortage of eager, optimistic museum graduate students trying desperately to break into the field. Why then, especially in the world of history museums and heritage organizations, are so many museums trapped doing what they’ve always done: the roped off room; the docent-led tour; the exhibit of like objects with brief, yet grave, labels? What would happen if these same museums broke with tradition and hired an English major, an art major, or a psychology minor? Would our careful world implode if we looked at things differently? What if the English major’s charge was to figure out a house museum’s narrative and the places where it intersects with today’s world. Today the word revolutionary can have a slightly nasty tinge, but what about when it’s applied to 18th-century Boston? How are those revolutionaries different?
To ask these kind of questions you have to have a staff who is creative, non-judgmental, and whose primary concern is making their narrative resonate in their community. And to be clear, their community is the place where their historic house, heritage organization or museum is located. It’s not where the board lives or where the staff lives. If this is the staff you want, then your interview techniques not only have to suss out whether job applicants are vain and lazy, but whether they think in original ways, what books are on their bedside table, what was the last movie they saw, and when was the last time they took a risk, and whether it paid off. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that rule- or tradition-bound cultures drive creative people away. Here’s Lolly Daskel on why they leave: 10 Dumb Rules That Make Your Best People Want to Quit.
To break out you have to want to break out. I’m fond of quoting David Young, Director of Cliveden in Philadelphia (and another Leadership Matters interviewee), who said organizations have to “allow leadership.” I would alter that and say organizations have to want change, and that begins with who you hire.
How is your museum breaking out of the loop?
When you work in a highly competitive high school like I do, you have to think about perfectionism because daily you deal with students who truly can’t stop. They get too little sleep, and work compulsively. Even their concept of recreation is sometimes a resume builder clad in another costume. And it’s peculiar how this culture of “never enough” seeps into the lives of adults in the community as well. As usual, that made me think about a) museums and b) the perfect being the enemy of the good.
In the for-profit world there are about a million books for people struggling with needing to be too perfect at work. But what about the museum world? Do we have issues with perfectionism? I suspect so. Does the fact that so many museums are under-resourced leave staff and leadership reaching for perfection in attempt to save money? Is that because in a world where money is tight, there’s no room for the less than perfect? As a leader, have you figured out how to differentiate between mediocre big-concept ideas delivered in a tightly controlled way and looser more creative concepts that prompt more audience response?
To begin, let’s acknowledge that, irony of ironies, perfection is unattainable, and then remind ourselves that it’s not necessarily a good thing. And yet some days we don’t want it any less. How many of you grapple with experimenting versus completion? Do you put the brakes on new ideas because somehow it seems more important just to get the exhibit/program/event/fund raiser (you pick one) finished rather than try something new? Does that stifle staff creativity? If you said yes, know that you’re not alone. It’s hard to be flexible enough for idea-making and yet driven enough to complete the punch list.
One of the problems some perfectionist people and cultures experience is that they or the organization becomes overwhelmed by details. The weeds are never too high to keep them from wandering in and thrashing about. In a perfectionist culture this means that in a heart beat meetings go off track as staff try to solve problems that aren’t the main point. It’s like cooking a four-course meal before going to the grocery store, and as leaders, we have to be aware of what’s happening and gently steer the ship back on course. In addition, in a perfectionist culture it is difficult to prioritize. When everything has to be done perfectly, it’s hard to put a value on one task versus another.
Perfectionists also have problems delegating. They place the bar so high, that it’s unlikely anyone can fulfill even the most menial of tasks. Sometimes this leads to a “gotcha” backlash where in the spirit of no-amount-of-effort-is-enough, staff pick apart each other’s work, another moment where the watchful leader will gently counsel respect and understanding.
New research also shows that it is possible to be a perfectionist and not be neurotic, nor drive your colleagues crazy. According to this article from New York Magazine, healthy perfectionists are the folks who are likely to be happy with the results of their hard work versus their neurotic workmates who are never satisfied. If you’re interested in plotting your own levels of perfectionism, you can take this quiz included with the article.
There are many moments where we as leaders need to counterbalance perfectionism with the idea that it’s okay to let go and experiment. Success–even small victories–from experimentation rather than rigid adherence to rules breeds confidence and confidence breeds more success. To read more about this try Nina Simon’s blog, particularly this post. Or Creativity in Museum Practice by Linda Norris & Rainey Tisdale.
And as always, share your stories of success (and failure–that’s a different blog post!) with us here.