Imagine this: You’re in a planning meeting. The discussion is momentarily rich, the whiteboard populated with words, phrases, and ideas. In the middle of it all, someone says, “But we can’t do that. We’ve always done it this way.” We’ve all heard it. It’s frequently offered, usually without malice, as if a higher being had just parted the clouds and offered your organization a sign that says DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING.
We know–even the person who uses the phrase knows–that past successes don’t predict the future especially in a world as lightning fast as ours. Yet museums and heritage organizations persist in trotting out the same programs in the same way, year after year. They resemble a virus. You’ve had it before, you’ve got it again.
Through the magic of Google I learned that Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992), a pioneer computer scientist with a PhD in math from Yale, was the first person to point out how dangerous that phrase is. In 1976 she wrote, “On the future of data processing, the most dangerous phrase a DP manager can use is “We’ve always done it that way.” Hopper was a rear admiral in the Navy so she understood what it means to work in a tradition-bound organization although the clock in her office ran counter-clockwise if that tells you anything. Admittedly, Hopper is a total aside; she’s here to point out that if a woman in a highly-regulated, hierarchical, hide-bound organization can think like that, you can too.
But what if–even if you don’t like the scheduled program or event–it’s a crowd pleaser? Should you change something that’s a cash cow just for the sake of change? The New York City Ballet doesn’t say “Let’s skip the Nutcracker this year. It will be more fun to do something modern during the holidays.” And you shouldn’t skip your metaphorical Nutcracker either. But you can change the process and the way you plan. Just doing that is a big step towards changing your organizational culture. And as a leader, remember, resistance to change isn’t irrational. Often these events come at the busiest time of year when staff is already stressed, and may (rightly) feel if it “ain’t” broke why fix it?
So here are some thoughts, (in no particular order), about breaking out of the we’ve-always-done-it-that-way loop.
- Don’t let discussion end when the WADITW phrase is uttered. Ask the person to explain how and why the old way is still better. Keep talking.
- If you want to depersonalize discussion, ask a staff member to play the devil’s advocate at the start of the meeting, arguing the counter-intuitive position for the group.
- Ask everyone to finish the phrase, “But what if we….” in relation to the project, program or event.
- Build a post-mortem into all your events, programs and projects. Allow staff to evaluate while it’s fresh in their minds, and lay out possible changes for the coming year—or scrap the whole thing.
- Don’t let this become a Millennial versus Boomer problem. Younger staff don’t advocate change because they’re young. They advocate change because they look at problems differently. That’s what Boomers did in the ’70’s. Now it’s someone else’s turn.
- Listen. Really, really listen especially to the folks who are on the front lines of whatever event you’re evaluating.
Strong organizations grow. They grow by adapting, and adaptation happens intentionally. Repetitive behavior stunts growth. That’s not what your organization needs. Be the mold-breaker. Channel your inner Grace Murray Hopper and set the clock going the other way.
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.
Some of you will read this post’s title and start laughing. Professional development funds are often the poor step children of organizational budgets, quickly whacked when finances are under siege. Yet in our ongoing quest to have museums and heritage organizations take their staff seriously–not just we can always depend on you to open the doors seriously, but you are the change agent(s) and we value that (seriously)–Leadership Matters believes in professional development.
Last week Fast Company did a piece on Gallup’s State of the American Workplace Report. Admittedly, this is all workplaces and museums are only a tiny minority, but guess what? Fifty-five percent of American workers aren’t in love with work. They don’t hate their jobs either, they’re just indifferent. Why, you ask? Workers cited their bosses as poor communicators, and not just about work stuff. They felt management failed to explain a job’s benefits, and one of the principle benefits listed was professional development. The article suggests that unlike other more intangible workplace qualities, lousy or inexplicable benefits make employees leave. And leaving costs organizations money.
As a museum leader, you and your board of trustees want a stable, happy staff firmly entrenched with the 45-percent of American workers not trolling job announcements for greener pastures or better benefits. That means being an organization that demonstrates care and concern about employee growth, for conservators, curators, museum educators, and everyone else on your staff. And why does that matter? First of all, because of what it says. A clear and equitable employee development program says: We value you. Whether you are the lone ranger director provided with enough funding to take a course or go to a regional or national meeting or a member of the development office sent to learn the latest donor program, it is an ongoing way of saying thank you, an explicit demonstration of trust, and staff actually care if leadership takes a genuine interest in their future.
Who should get professional development funds? Well, in a perfect world, just about everyone. Museum leaders get more because their positions demand more, and the board and everyone else expects them to think and act at the speed of light. But wouldn’t it be nice if even the non-exempt staff who meet, greet, and instruct had the opportunity to go to a regional or local meeting once a year, to take an online course or work with a group like Museum Hack? So if your organization’s professional development program is lame or doesn’t exist, here are five things to think about:
- Boards need to understand that when it comes to staff, the best of the best seek self-improvement. They tend to leave organizations who make professional growth difficult or impossible.
- Professional development program budgets need to be transparent and equitable, meaning all exempt staff receive X and all non-exempt staff receive Y. And a gentle reminder, it’s not helpful if the museum leader seems to have unlimited professional development funds, while other staff have to go through a request and approval for every ask.
- Don’t hide behind the “we don’t have time for that” excuse. You are not curing cancer. You are a museum. You are an idea factory. If you can’t afford to let a staff member leave for three to five days, then you have other issues.
- It is helpful if professional development experiences are hinged to something at work, otherwise it is easy for them to become out of body experiences with nothing to do with work. As a leader, when you agree to staff attending a meeting, program or online training, talk about how that experience will integrate into the workplace on the back end. Be mindful that “What I did on my trip to AASLH” can be mind numbing for staff left behind, so make sure these interactions are intentional, directed, and, to use a sports metaphor, move the ball up the field.
- Boards and museum leaders want staff who can adapt. Employees who engage in learning on an ongoing basis adapt more readily than those who don’t. What does an organization have to lose?
Tell us how your organization sustains professional development.
Here at Leadership Matters we don’t often wade into interpretive waters. There are plenty of able bloggers out there writing about museum collections. (Linda Norris’s Uncatalogued Museum, Frank Vagnone’s Twisted Preservation or Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 are good examples.) For the most part, we are concerned with how leadership does or doesn’t function in the museum workplace. We write often about pay equity, workplace bias, gender issues, and the importance of human capital in the museum world.
Recently, though, we were struck by the synchronicity of things. First, came this quote from President Obama’s Farewell Speech in Chicago, IL, January 10. “Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law.” The quote sits at the end of the speech where Obama reminds us not to take democracy for granted, citing George Washington who reminds us to protect democracy with “jealous anxiety.”
What struck us about this wasn’t the sentiment, which is really important, but the idea that the Constitution is just parchment until people give it power. We believe there’s a connection here to the museum world, particularly the world of history/heritage organizations where there’s a lot of moaning about whether people care about history any more. Is that really true or are we a little lazy? Is it possible that with the visual wealth of the internet visitors aren’t so awestruck by reality any more? And really why should they be? Anybody with a phone or a laptop has access to a gazillion images. Seeing them lined up in a museum with tiny labels that sometimes repeat the obvious might not be so compelling in 2017. So who gives objects power? Who engages communities in giving objects power? In our world, that would be museum staff. And how exactly does that happen in our frenetic, media obsessed world?
One answer might be the creation of context either in time or through time. Think about parsing an object the way you would a poem. Never did that? It’s not hard: Who made it? What does it do? What are its component parts? Is it something we use today? In today’s material culture, what are its descendants? Is it beautiful? Why? Who used it? Do they matter? If not, why not? Of course no one would stand still and do this endlessly, but if three objects in a room of things move from mute to thoughtful speech, and if those three things are linked together ideologically, visitors may leave with a sense of connectedness not only over time, but to today’s ideas and concerns.
But the real lesson here is that the history museum field has to want staff who thinks this way. One of the leaders we interviewed for Leadership Matters left the history field, moving to an art museum. Her reason? She was adamant that museum staff charged with interpreting culture should be as invested in the present as the past, and she felt that far too many history museum staff were in retreat from today’s world. But it doesn’t have to be that way, which brings us to the second synchronicity. This weekend Old Salem Village in North Carolina made a connection on its Facebook page between contemporary life and the way the Village’s original Moravian residents welcomed visitors. It was simple and direct. With no falderal it pointed out that over centuries there have been communities and there were “strangers.” It made you think about the way we’ve either welcomed and fed newcomers or stoned them into leaving. The Moravians, by the way, felt welcoming strangers was important.
So invest in your staff. Objects are important, but too many history museums are like badly written essays in need of good editors. Those editors (your staff) are as important as the objects they serve because they make them speak, and in making them speak, they make them matter.
Joan H. Baldwin
It’s Sunday morning. Leadership Matters has just returned from 36 hours away. We went to Seneca Falls, NY, to join 10,000 people in support of women’s rights–but particularly women of color and transgender and queer women–whose workplace issues, even in the august halls of museums and heritage organizations, dwarf complaints from their more privileged white sisters.
Why Seneca Falls? For readers from outside the United States, Seneca Falls was home to the first women’s rights convention in 1848. Yes, it’s dismaying that we’re still having a variation of the same conversation 169 years later, but so be it. The day was glorious. The speeches, from march organizer and Auburn, NY mayor Marina Carnicelli, to tribal leaders from the Seneca and Akwesasne Mohawk nations, to our own Sally Roesch Wagner, a professor, author, speaker, and museum founder who we interviewed for Leadership Matters, were inspiring. They were uplifting not just for their words, but because while we listened we were part of the 4+ million people on seven continents who took time to stand up for what they believe in.
Which brings us to our real focus: How important it is for museum staff to participate, not just in the life of the museum, but in the community. Don’t say you don’t have time. Do you vote? Can you recognize your state representatives, your city council people people, your town select people if you see them on the street? Do you speak to them? What do you do as a staff or as individuals to make your community a better place? If the answer is not much, think about what would happen if your staff showed up to help pack or serve food at the local soup kitchen, if you picked up trash in a local park or took old photographs to the community nursing home?
Museums are like novels or poems. They provide visitors a chance to step outside their own lives, to experience something different, and to make connections to the world they live in. As museum staff, how can we do our best work, interpret the past, link art and culture or connect to the natural world, unless we actually live in it? So as we begin 2017, make a promise to participate. Do what you can. Do what engages you. If you need inspiration, check out the Womensmarch 10 actions in 100 Days. Even if this isn’t “your” issue, it’s a great model for engagement. That way on January 1, 2018, when you look back, maybe it will be with a new understanding and commitment to some part of your community, city or region.
Good luck and let us know how you participate.
Dear Friends, colleagues, readers,
2016 was a year of unending politics, the unexpected deaths of cultural icons, enough global warming to open the northwest passage, and way too many police shootings. Yet here, in the calmer waters of Leadership Matters, we continued to grow. We more than doubled our views, moving from 23,529 in 2015 to 55, 723 in 2016. Although most of our readers live in the United States, people around the globe, from Russia, India, Canada, Uzbekistan, Malta, Greenland, Rwanda and many, many more, continue to find us. Wherever you are, thank you. We’re honored to be part of a community of concerned, open and interested museum leaders.
If you are new to Leadership Matters, here are some of our most popular postings for 2016: Museums and the Salary Conundrum; The Salary Agenda; The Top Ten Skills for Museum Leaders; Do Museum Staff Work for Intangibles?, and When You’re Not a Museum Leader: Seven Ways to Act Like One.
And we didn’t just write blog posts. We finished the manuscript for Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace, which we expect will be published by Routledge in May 2017. We spoke at AAM in May and NEMA in November. We worked with a group of like-minded colleagues to found Gender Equity in Museums Movement or GEMM, and to release the GEMM call for action which you’ll find in a pdf on the right side of this page.
Suddenly it’s a new year, and we have to do it all again, only differently, with equal or more imagination and energy. So we thought we’d begin with a quote from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the force behind the award-winning musical Hamilton, taken from The Daily Beast, December 27, 2016. Miranda was asked about the soul-crushing (for some) results of the presidential election. Here’s part of his answer.
“But I woke up with a very pronounced case of moral clarity. In addition to the disappointment, it was like, oh, this does not change the things that I believe in. The things that I believe in that this candidate doesn’t means we’re going to have to fight for them. You don’t want to go backwards when it comes to our LGBT brothers and sisters; you don’t want to go backwards when it comes to the disenfranchisement of voters of color. We have to keep fighting for the things we believe in, and it just made that very clear: I know who I am, and I know what I’m going to fight for in the years to come. That felt like the tonic of it.”
We love this answer. It responds to the sadness many of us felt having ended up on the losing side of the Electoral College, but it acknowledges the hope and the energy that museums need to move forward, meaning if you’re an engaged leader of a value-driven organization that’s plugged into your community, you will move forward. You must move forward. You will fight for what you believe in–in museum offices, exhibition spaces, historic sites, and in your programming–and that is a tonic.
How can being engaged with communities or working for equal pay for women of color, as well as queer and transgender colleagues in the museum field be a bad thing? And how about committing to raising museums’ consciousness about bias? Wouldn’t that be an important goal as well? And isn’t it about time all museums were value-driven? Values are not just something left to sites of conscience. Every community has things it cares about, and its museums (and their leaders) should reflect those cares.
So..as we look toward 2017, we’ll leave you with another quote from the poet Mary Oliver in her new book Upstream. “For it is precisely how I feel, who have inherited not measurable wealth, but, as we all do who care for it, that immeasurable fund of thoughts and ideas, from writers and thinkers long gone into the ground–and inseparable from those wisdoms because demanded by them, the responsibility to live thoughtfully and intelligently. To enjoy, to question–never to assume, or trample. Thus the great ones (my great ones, who may not be the same as your great ones) have taught me–to observe with passion, to think with patience, to live always caringly.”
Take Ms. Oliver’s words to heart. Bring passion to your observations, be patient about your work, and live with care for others especially your colleagues.
Be well and best wishes for good 2017.