Reflection 20: Alignment and the Complexities of Intentional Practice

25th Anniversary ButterflyAs I have shared in other posts, I value the concept and four actions associated with Intentional Practice. Of the four quadrants that comprise Intentional Practice—Plan, Align, Evaluate, and Reflect—Align is the most complex, and it comes with baggage; tons and tons of it.

At its essence, alignment requires that staff examine all of their work and actions in context of the Impact the museum would like to achieve (as depicted in the center of the Cycle). This examination includes considering what they could continue doing because it helps them achieve their intended impact, what they could change because the project falls short of achieving intended results, or what they might stop doing because results do not support the museum’s intended impact. I have witnessed museums struggling with Alignment because invariably they may need to make some very difficult decisions, and change is inevitable as a result of decision making. And most humans (me included) have trouble with change. Just when things seem to be going well, BAM—something happens and I need to respond by changing Cycle of practice alignsomething.

Alignment can also become complex and difficult because people’s emotions are involved; and when emotions are involved, decision making is a struggle and met with resistance. Among the three possible actions mentioned above, to stop doing something is the most challenging and truly heart wrenching. Before people accept that they may need to stop doing something, their first reaction is to dismiss the evidence and exclaim, “That can’t be true; the evaluation must be wrong.” The next response is a very lucid, logical, rational explanation of how great the program really is—it is the public that needs retooling. Then there is panic and all kinds of thoughts begin to run wild—“How can I stop doing this program (that I love)? How can I stop doing this program that is part of the museum’s tradition?   What will I tell the funder? I know this program takes significant resources, but I love doing this program (and so does the funder). If I stop doing this program, what will I do with the void that is created? What will my colleagues say about the fact that I am doing one less program? What will I do instead?” Complicating matters is the feeling of embarrassment that begins to emerge—a very strong emotion.

One of the reasons people become embarrassed is because they think that others may perceive that the program failed and failure is still embarrassing in the museum community even though so many have written about the value of failure as a way to learn. As an example of how complicated these situations can be, one day an educator called to lament that she was aware that one of the very important programs that the museum had been doing for years was not going as well as it once had. She knew, in her heart, that she needed to reinvent it or drop it all together. Her greatest fear was her director who loved this program. The educator was aware that the program attracted a tiny slice of the public the museum intended to serve, and her annual review was in a few months and she feared that dropping the program, or even changing it would reflect poorly on her, even though it was the right thing to do.

Even though many lament with frustration, “We continue to do things the way we have always done them because it is the way we have always done them,” when there is an opportunity to try something different to reach a better outcome, analyze a situation to stimulate progress, or accept reality and put a program to rest—there is an internal struggle—not in the organization, but a personal struggle. In the Cycle of Intentional Practice, the Align quadrant is the one quadrant that goes deep—becomes personal. Everyone wants to strengthen their museum by aligning what they do with the impact they want to achieve, yet doing so requires a tough-as-nails approach, a relentless focus on the desired result rather than personal feelings about a program, and a recognition that change is inevitable and a complex fact of life.