Archive for the ‘Intentional Practice’ Category

At the start of this year, I started writing about the principles of intentional practice, and to date, I have shared three principles (#1, #2, and #3).  For this post, I feature the next two principles of intentional practice, and I present them together because they are both critically important for achieving the museum’s intended impact, and yet, they are very different in character.

#4. Staff know the impact the museum hopes to achieve on audiences served

Principle #4, “Staff know the impact the museum hopes to achieve on audiences served,” may seem like an unnecessary principle to state; after all, staff participated in the crafting of the impact statement, and certainly they know the museum’s heart-felt intentions.  Stating the obvious reinforces the important role staff have in the museum’s intentional practice.  Omitting it as a principle would be a serious oversight.  To “know” is not taken lightly among museum professionals.  In the context of intentional practice, to “know” leads staff to internalize the impact the museum hopes to achieve, and such knowing enables staff to carry out its work. Oddly, the principle also feels static, which is the antithesis of how work tends to happen in museums—where there is always an abundance of activity.  However static the statement feels, impact statements are never still, and neither is staff’s knowledge.

#5. Staff align its work to achieve its intended impact

Knowing the intended impact of the museum on audiences should affect and determine the work that staff do; however, realizing what one could do and carrying out those actions are two very different things.  Innumerable tensions unfold in museums, as museums pursue the 5th principle: “Staff align its work to achieve its intended impact.” Alignment is about exploring whether a museum’s processes and products can deliver the museum’s intended impact within the resources the museum has to expend (staff and dollars), and within that, alignment can be also about course-correcting work to strengthen alignment between a program and the museum’s intended impact.  Taken a step further, alignment can also become part of a strategy for reducing a museum’s workload if the museum is doing too much, as is often the case.

How can a museum use alignment to reduce its workload?  One approach might be to analyze various programs from two perspectives: 1) a program’s ability to achieve the museum’s intended impact; and 2) the amount of resources required to implement the program—in terms of staff time and dollars.

 

 

If, through discussion, staff ascertain that a program has relatively low impact (compared to other programs) and requires considerable resources, does it make sense to continue the program?  There are two options: a) the museum can change the program to strengthen alignment between the program and the museum’s intended impact and reduce the cost of the program to the museum; or, b) it can stop doing the program altogether, which could free up resources that the museum could put to better use.  However, some museum programs are sacred cows, such as a holiday program or other long-running public programs.  Sometimes programs become tradition, and they are the ones that are most threatened, in part because they were created before the museum started to pursue impact-driven planning.  Some programs continue year after year simply because the museum has always done them—and sometimes for no other reason.

When a museum chooses to engage in impact-driven planning, logic suggests that the museum wants to change in some sort of way.  If nothing changes during or after the planning process, something is afoot.  While the thought of changing is inspiring, change is extremely difficult to actualize.  For example, things could remain the same if someone becomes offended if their program’s effectiveness is being questioned or if those sacred cows are left intact.  Alignment analyses are intended to be honest reflections about whether a program achieves the museum’s intended impact and uses resources responsibly.  Without honesty, change is elusive and alignment is futile.  Knowing that honest analysis and discussion is vital to alignment, convene with your colleagues to discuss your museum’s programs and plot each one on the above graph to help you determine what your museum can improve or stop doing.  Regardless of where each program is placed on the grid, the objective is to have the conversation—which is the beginning of the alignment process.

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Much of Intentional Practice work is about process, and a significant part of process work requires that we talk with each other.  I realize that humans exchange ideas verbally all the time, although given we live in the screen age (computers, phones, and pads), perhaps people are conversing face-to-face less and less.  And perhaps, as well, we need practice convening and having productive conversations.  This third principle of the seven principles of Intentional Practice is staff using inquiry and active listening to understand and appreciate varying viewpoints; it is about having productive conversations that support the work of your museum.  It is a principle because open, productive conversations among staff are necessary if a museum is to achieve impact.

#3: Staff use inquiry and active listening to understand and appreciate varying viewpoints.

RK&A uses inquiry (e.g., ask open-ended questions) for several reasons:  1) inquiry, with a few ground rules, creates a neutralizing and democratizing atmosphere that invites and welcomes all viewpoints; 2) inquiry promotes others to ask questions, and it is through conversation and dialogue that social, professional, and personal learning emerges; and 3) inquiry allows staff to come to their own understanding about an issue or topic; and 4) asking well-articulated and purposeful questions allows everyone to explore their thoughts, come to know their perspectives and the perspectives of others in their group, and reach a collective appreciation for all ways of knowing.  I realize that my view of inquiry and active listening may sound Pollyannaish, but because I have seen such conversations reach useful and invigorating ends, I believe fully in the principle.  I realize, as well, that the four points above are complicated and deserve their own individual blog post, if not a chapter in a book (which is forthcoming by the way—in about 18 months if all goes as planned), but, for today’s post, I have chosen to focus on the ground rules, as without rules of engagement, conversations easily can go awry. 

Ground rule #1: Participate with authenticity
First, in workshops we invite and encourage all workshop participants to contribute with authenticity.  We ask all participants to respect all others in the gathering as well as the purpose of the gathering; authentic and genuine participation is essential to a successful planning process.  We want to hear everyone’s genuine thoughts about the ideas under discussion.

Ground rule #2:  Listen to first understand, then respond
Second, while we encourage everyone to be themselves, we also request that everyone be respectful as the conversation ensues.  To that end, we encourage listening to understand—not to respond, at least not right away.  We recommend allowing ample time to process and understand before responding, so as to avoid knee-jerk reactions to potentially unpopular positions.  We respect what all individuals bring to a situation, and we recognize that all bring a unique and valuable intellect, commitment, passion, and experience to the group conversation.  If someone does not fully understand what someone is saying, we support asking additional questions to clarify a point that may not have been clearly expressed initially.

Ground rule #3: Realize process work is an art and science

Finally, the Cycle of Intentional Practice work is iterative and process-oriented.  Process work can be messy, and it also can be uncomfortable for some.  While most of the gatherings (e.g., workshops) may have a defined agenda, framework, and theory to support the work, we cannot anticipate exactly what will unfold throughout the course of the workshop; if we knew, we would be dismissing the uniqueness of the institution and individuals’ contributions.  The art emerges as we all respond to each other’s thoughts and we end up in an unexpected place of understanding; the art also emerges, with a little bit of science, in how we ask the questions, ensuring that we and others are asking balanced, non-leading, and unbiased questions.

 

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As you may recall, for the next several months I will be highlighting the seven principles of Intentional Practice.  Last month I wrote about the principle #1: The organization wants to achieve something greater than itself (e.g., impact) among the audiences it serves, and this month I discuss the importance of collaboration to Intentional Practice.

#2: Staff work collaboratively across the organization.

Not too long ago in museum history, exhibitions were developed by a lone curator.  The idea to use interdisciplinary teams to develop exhibitions was instigated at the Field Museum in the early 1980s, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Although some museums still struggle to implement and maintain what has become known as “the team approach” to exhibition development, significant progress has been made in the last 30 years.  Initially, this shift in practice was in response to the national trend that was taking hold whereby museums were starting to embrace the public dimension of their work, recognizing that successful communication of complex ideas might require more than a subject matter specialist.

My belief in the necessity of collaboration grew from my experience conducting hundreds of evaluations over the last 30-plus years.  For an exhibition to be successful, for example, all the following stars would need to be aligned: the exhibition team would have a thesis (e.g., a one-sentence big idea), identify a few messages that support the thesis, have coherent interpretive text that communicates the thesis and messages, have tested interpretive elements (e.g., interactives, text) to ensure they communicate the thesis and messages, have adequate resources (time and dollars) to actualize the exhibition as intended, and have the right combination of expertise and skills to execute the exhibition as intended.  Hard, complicated, and messy work, indeed.

Puzzle graphic created by Davo Sime from the Noun Project

Applying my evaluation experience to intentionality, I realized that if a museum was to achieve a discernible impact among audiences, the entire museum would need to participate.  Achieving impact, which in the case of Intentional Practice means making a positive difference in the quality of people’s lives, might not happen if one person or one department bears all the responsibility; instead, achieving impact should be the collective effort of all staff working together towards an agreed-upon end.  To capitalize on the benefits of collaboration, we request our clients create working groups comprised of individuals from different departments when we facilitate Intentional Practice workshops; we seek interdisciplinary collaboration because we want people to problem solve with those whom they might not normally choose to work.  What is the result of people thinking alongside colleagues from other departments?  Increased appreciation for the unique perspectives and skills their colleagues offer!  They slowly recognize that their collective brain power and actions are stronger than any one individual’s work.

Cover of Forces for Good, by Leslie R. Crutchfield

Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant demonstrate the benefits of collaboration in their well-researched book Forces for Good.  They studied 12 high-impact nonprofits to understand what made these nonprofits successful, and yes, high-impact nonprofits collaborate with other nonprofits that have shared goals.  Their updated research appears in the 2012 edition of the book and in this article called “Local Forces for Good.”  They make the point that no one can or should do the work alone, and I agree.

As anyone who has experienced the team approach to exhibition development will know, process work can feel disorganized.  Museum leaders can mitigate confusion by clearly communicating who does what and modeling patience and trust.  From an Intentional Practice perspective, all staff are apt to benefit from working collaboratively, as collaboration increases the chance for an individual’s professional and personal learning.

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In keeping with this year’s blog series about how my Intentional Practice has evolved over the last 10 years, I will be using the next seven months to present the seven principles of Intentional Practice.  The emergence of these principles was organic; I did not set out to identify these principles prior to embarking on this work—the list just came to me one day last summer.  In fact, I had forgotten that I had even written the list until I was cleaning up my Intentional Practice folder on my computer last week.  To my surprise and delight, there it was!  Suffice it to say, over the next seven months I will mull over the principles, which may shift or change as I clarify my thinking.  For that reason, I will share one per month.

#1: The organization wants to achieve something greater than itself (e.g., impact) among the audiences it serves.

 

The first principle is a prerequisite for Intentional Planning; and a museum cannot move forward in Intentional Practice if it isn’t interested in working for the common good.  Clarifying intended impact isn’t about the museum benefiting; it is about the public—the recipient of the museum’s work—benefiting.  Even the statement, “People become life-long museum visitors” doesn’t place the benefit solely on the museum visitor, as repeated visitation is a means to a greater end—for the visitor.  Achieving impact is about making a difference in people’s lives, which requires the full force of the museum behind it.  A museum that is insular, self-serving, or arrogant may not be able to pursue Intentional Planning.  Likewise, a museum with a relentless focus on the bottom line may thwart Intentional Practice work, not because it wants to but rather, persistent attention on the bottom line has a funny way of interfering with integrity and ingenuity.  People may inadvertently revert to traditional ways, which for some museums may mean looking inward rather than outward.  Fear might overtake confidence, risk-taking might disappear, and working on behalf of the bottom line might seem like the only survival strategy available on the horizon.  While organizations can balance bottom-line concerns with achieving something greater than themselves, more times than not, organizations create an either/or situation rather than an “and” situation.

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The New Museum by John Cotton Dana

The idea of a museum thinking outside of itself for the common good is an age-old idea in museums that holds value and importance today.  A century ago, John Cotton Dana said, “A museum is good only insofar it is of use”—a statement that is often quoted today by museum staff who want their museums to be viewed as convening places where people can gather to have important conversations about contemporary issues.  Dana’s many important writings are compiled in a book called The New Museum (1999) published by the Newark Museum, and they are worth reading.

Stephen Weil

Stephen Weil

And, in Making Museums Matter (2002), noted scholar and museum director Stephen Weil writes in the chapter “Can and do they make a difference” that: “If our museums are not being operated with the ultimate goal of improving people’s lives, on what alternative basis might we possibly ask for public support?”  In this piece and several others, Weil makes a case for museums to do their work to “make a positive difference in the quality of people’s lives,” which is how all of us at RK&A define impact.

In 1996, Harold Skramstad, former director of Henry Ford and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, MI, in a presentation during the 150th celebration of the Smithsonian, noted that mission statements, which museums like to use to demonstrate their purpose, do not answer the “so what?” question.  Museums spend a lot of time agonizing over their mission and visions statements (both of which are about the museum), when it might make more sense to use some of that time thinking about the impact they want to achieve on audiences.

The “so what” question is a running theme, at least implicitly, in Emlyn Koster’s writings; Emlyn, Executive Director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, writes about “relevance” as the necessary element that museums in today’s world must boldly embrace.  For me, relevance is connected to the concept of achieving impact, as audiences will benefit from a museum that is relevant to their lives.  I suggest reading these two pieces by Koster, neither of which are available digitally for free: “In search of relevance: Science centers as innovators in the evolution of museums” in Daedalus, 1999; and “The Relevant Museum: A reflection on Sustainability” in Museum News, 2006. Both make a case for relevance as a necessary requirement for today’s museums. Emlyn also makes the point that sustainability of our planet is the relevant topic for science museums.  I believe he is right.

Relevance also is a viable approach to organizational sustainability for any museum, as maintaining the relevance of what your organization does for its audiences will keep your museum fresh, contemporary, and most important—purposeful and meaningful to your audiences.

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Ten years have passed since “The Case for Holistic Intentionality” appeared in Curator.  On the one hand, 10 years isn’t that long ago, but on the other hand, a lot has changed in how I think about intentionality.  The article (actually written 12 years ago) presents a concept about the characteristics of an intentional museum and makes a case for such organizations.  What the article had not benefited from—since it was only a concept rather than proof of concept—was my experience helping museums move towards intentional practice.

My colleague, Stephanie Downey, suggested I write 12 blog posts this year—one each month—to share the Intentional Practice strategies we developed and continue to hone and implement with museums.  She thought that this year of reflection and sharing would support the work I already will be doing as I spend this next year writing a book on Intentional Practice.  This undertaking has been in my mind for a while, and I’m excited that I have finally committed myself to this task.

Honestly, what is difficult about applying words to ideas is that the very nature of Intentional Practice presumes nothing is stationary.  Ideas are fluid, strategies are ever changing, the external environment is in constant flux, and learning is continuous.  Much like the law of physics that says everything is in constant motion, my ideas about intentionality and Intentional Practice are forever changing—not in big discernable ways (I might be the only one who notices), but in little ways.  My thinking changes almost daily, which isn’t a bad thing, except if I want to write about it!  At some point I will have to say the acronym, ELMO, “Enough, Let’s Move On”—something I learned from a museum professional who was in one of the first Intentional Practice workshops. ELMO comes in very handy, as you can imagine!

The Cycle of Intentional Practice, presented in a blog posted on January 2, 2013, has changed considerably, at least to me.  Ten years ago, Curator didn’t want to include the graphic in the article, and it is only now that I am grateful.  This is what it looked like in 2013:

Cycle of Intentional Practice

And this is what it looks like today:

 

The most significant shift (aside from its cleaner look) (thank you Amanda Krantz and Cathy Sigmond) is that there are quadrants. I always described the cycle as having quadrants but only recently does the cycle have them.  The order of the quadrants is also different, align now follows reflect instead of plan.  How odd it seems to me now that this wasn’t the original order.  Alignment makes sense after reflection—when you ask how you can align your actions to achieve impact—after reflecting on evaluation results.  Three concepts are unchanged: impact remains the centerpiece of the cycle; one can start anywhere on the cycle; and none of the quadrants are mutually exclusive, as one can reflect when planning, evaluating, and aligning.

While those ideas seem stationary today; what will I think tomorrow?  ELMO!

I look forward to the coming months when I will be sharing my thoughts about how my intentional practice work has evolved.

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We may not have it all together, but together we have it all”

Author unknown

The Cycle of Intentional Practice is proving to be a very useful framework for planning (see “Cycle of Intentional Practice” for more information).  We have applied the Cycle to many different projects—from planning global initiatives, to developing action plans for individual museum departments, to planning a museum’s future, to planning exhibitions.  While all of these projects are completely different, common to them is the museums’ intention for their work to make a difference in people’s lives, which is how we define “impact.”

 

The Cycle of Intentional Practice

The Cycle of Intentional Practice

When I reflect on our intentional planning work to identify the attributes that have made our approach successful, I land in a pretty simple place, which I have started to share during the workshops. “I don’t need to be here for you to do this kind of deep thinking,” I note during all of the workshops.  But I also realize that the one thing that makes intentional planning an invigorating and very useful process is the one thing that is hard for organizations to do—convene to talk about the work of the museum.  Our intentional planning process uses a workshop format because we believe that when staff work collaboratively to develop a common focus—a requirement for intentional thinking—the conversations, products, plans, and enthusiasm for their museum’s work are richer.

Another related necessity is that we ask that representatives of all departments participate in the workshops; while sometimes there is pushback (due to the unspoken hierarchy that may exist within an institution), we hold our ground because collaboration is a primary tenet of intentionality, and deep facilitated discussions are the only way people from different departments can find their common pursuit.  In nearly all of our intentional planning work, staff recognize the depth that emerges from hearing everyone’s perspective and having everyone working together towards a common end.  Clarifying language often becomes part of the conversation.  For example, we are working on an international initiative for a large art museum and everyone was talking about wanting visitors to experience “cross-cultural connections.” One brave staff member eventually asked what everyone means when they say that. A great question that took participants a while to ponder and judging from rich conversation that ensued, an exceedingly simple and crucial question to pose.  We are all guilty of using words/phrases without ever clarifying what they mean (my personal favorite, overused and now somewhat meaningless word is “engagement”).  When clarifying a museum’s intended impact, part of the conversation should include what people mean by the words they use to represent the results of their museum’s work.

Another primary tenet of intentional planning, in some ways as illustrated above, is inquiry.  For inquiry to work, though, people need to listen to understand (rather than to respond reactively).  Certainly, facilitating inclusive workshops and using inquiry are not new; many organizations use them at different times to do their work.  We think they are successful with our intentionality work because we are using these practices collectively within the context of the Cycle of Intentional Practice (see the diagram).  When used all together, they provide a massive dose of intentional thinking about the topic at hand—whether a strategic plan, a departmental plan, or a plan for an international initiative.  We have observed that bringing staff together for several hours creates an amazing feeling among those who gather—likely because it is a rare occurrence for people to take a moment to breathe and think about the interesting and thought-provoking questions we and others are asking. They are delighted to have a chance to reflect on their individual work and how it supports the collective work of their colleagues, and sometimes there is a Kumbaya moment where everyone feels like they are on the same wonderfully beautiful page.

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New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra poses at spring training in Florida, in an undated file photo. (AP Photo)

New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra poses at spring training in Florida, in an undated file photo. (AP Photo)

Yes, at first glance you might think that Yogi Berra and evaluation couldn’t be farther apart in ideology.  Not true.  By now everyone probably knows that Yogi Berra passed away last week at 90.  Most know Yogi because he was a great catcher, coach and manager for the game he loved.  My knowledge of and respect for Yogi are in two very divergent directions: I am a baseball fan and aware of Yogi’s greatness as a ball player; he is a Hall of Famer and was respected on and off the field, which is notable in today’s world.

The other way I know Mr. Berra is through his quotations.  I’m sure we all know a few, but I want to share one that I use very often: he said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up some place else.”  I recite that quotation during workshops when talking about the value of articulating outcomes for planning purposes and always pay homage to Yogi, saying, “I bet you didn’t know he was a museum planner and evaluator.”  Many people equate outcomes only with evaluation, but outcomes are also invaluable as guideposts for planning.  If you don’t have any outcomes for your exhibition, for example, then you can do whatever you want because it doesn’t matter where you end up.  But developing a program or exhibition without any place to go in particular might end up as a free-for-all—not a good idea for museums that want to make a difference in the quality of people’s lives.  Mr. Berra might be appalled to hear that museums might move forward without any particular direction in mind.  I supposed if those museums came upon a fork in the road, they might just take it!

If you are like Yogi and are interested in being intentional with your work by articulating outcomes for the purposes of planning, then you might be in interested in our next Twitter Chat (#RKAchat), on Thinking Critically about Outcomes.  We’ll be announcing the exact date and time soon.  Stay tuned!

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