Posts Tagged ‘Cycle of Intentional Practice’

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.

Read Full Post »

25th Anniversary ButterflyAs Randi has shared in some of her posts, we at RK&A value the concept and four actions associated with Intentional Practice—Plan, Align, Evaluate, and Reflect. A few weeks ago, Randi wrote about Align, which she noted is the most complex. Today I write about Reflect, which is probably the most alluring of the four actions. At the same time, it is also the most easily dismissed—the one swept aside as a luxury. In workshops we facilitate, we usually show museum staff the Cycle of Intentional practice and ask them what percentage of time they spend on each of the fours actions. Inevitably, reflection falls short, usually garnering between 5 and 10 percent. Staff tell us this isn’t for a lack of desire or need; they wish they had more time for reflection. But as is so common in our modern world, we tend to get stuck in the continual act of “doing.” Take, for example, how difficult it has been for me to sit down and write this blog post…. Certainly I am not immune.

I love the literal manifestation of reflection, which is when light strikes a surface and bounces around in unusual ways, making us see something we didn’t see before. For me, the allure of reflection in its literal form is not that different from what happens when we talk about reflection in evaluation. When it comes to evaluation, reflection leads to insights, ah-ha moments, and new ways of seeing, thinking, and knowing. This happens when I invariably ask one of my favorite question, “What does it mean?” and even when reflection is very difficult—for instance—when I ask, “What does failure mean?” the pay-off is usually worth the pain.

Billboards at Night

Billboards at Night (Detroit), Knud Lonberg-Holm, 1942

Despite its allure, we can’t avoid the fact that reflection is easily dismissed, postponed, and overlooked. Why is this? The answer may lie partly in how hard and sometimes downright painful it is to reflect. At times it is too difficult to consider those important questions; it feels easier to ignore them and continue “doing.” In the same way, reflection in its literal form can sometimes be painful, such as the way light reflecting off the hood of a car is blinding or when light bouncing around becomes disorienting. But I don’t think discomfort is the barrier—from my experience, it seems the demands (both internal and external) to produce thwart our intentions of taking the time to reflect.

In our work with evaluation, reflection is critical. Without taking the time to reflect on the meaning of data, evaluation results fall flat and hollow. As evaluators it is our duty and privilege to ask and try to answer hard questions about what data means, what it tells us. And we do that. But even though we possess a valuable outsider perspective and can offer significant insights about evaluation findings, the insider perspective is equally important. And, our work is at its best when reflection happens collaboratively between the client and us.

So, we try as often as we can to facilitate a Reflection Workshop at the end of a project. In a Reflection Workshop we meet with staff from across the museum to collaboratively explore the question, What have we learned? from the evaluation. We don’t simply present findings; rather, we pose questions and facilitate discussion to help staff explore the meaning of the evaluation findings. And, we don’t shy away from negative findings; rather, we use those as opportunities for understanding and growth. The purpose of the workshops is to come to some conclusions about ways to improve the effectiveness of a program. But more than anything, the purpose is to simply take the time to ask challenging questions and think deeply.

Read Full Post »

25th Anniversary ButterflyAt RK&A, we think a lot about intentional practice and we encourage our clients to do the same. In planning meetings and reflection workshops, we ask clients to think about which elements of their work align with their institutional mission and vision (check out Randi’s blog post for more about the challenges of alignment). We push them to consider who might be the right audience for their program or exhibition, and we ask them to talk about the intended outcomes for their projects. Posing these kinds of questions is much easier for an “outsider” to do because we don’t have institutional baggage or a personal connection to a problem project. As consultants, we aren’t beholden to the way things have always been done. I get it – it can be hard to let go; but seeing clients seek information to make informed decisions is a powerful, exciting process. These clients want more information. They are willing to try new things, to change old (and sometimes new) programs to see if they can improve upon the results. These are museum professionals who want the very best experiences for their visitors.

We recently completed a project with a history museum and the results were, well, not as rosy as one might hope. Change is HardAfter explaining the challenges of changing students’ perspectives in a short, one-time museum visit, we started talking about what could be done to increase the effectiveness of the program. One of our suggestions was to increase the time allotted for the program and rather than spending that extra time in the exhibition, use that time to facilitate a discussion with students so they can process and reflect on what they had seen. Changing a program’s format and duration is a difficult task for the museum to undertake – it may require extra staff and certainly a different schedule – but it could make a difference. A few days later, our client asked us if there are any studies that show that longer programs are more effective. After failing to come up with any examples (if you know of any such studies, please leave a comment), the client asked for another study to see if a longer program leads to a different outcome.

As an evaluator, I want to support museums as they change the way they do their work. Evaluation can provide the necessary information to see if new ideas work. It can give clients the data-based push they need to let go of the way things have always been done and to try something new. If nothing else, the evaluation process can be a forum to remind people that even when you are changing course, there is a place for you on the Cycle of Intentional Practice: Plan, Align, Evaluate, Reflect.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Emily’s last blog post (read it here) talked about when evaluation capacity building is the right choice.  When we think about building capacity for evaluation, we think about intentional practice.  This does not necessarily involve teaching people to conduct evaluation themselves, but helping people to ask the right questions and talk with the right people as they approach their work.  RK&A has found this to be particularly important in the planning phases of projects.

The case study below is from a project RK&A did with the Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, TX (now the Perot Museum of Nature and Science) and involved an interdisciplinary group of museum staff thinking intentionally about the impact the Museum hoped to have on the community.  With a new building scheduled to open a year after this project took place, it was a wonderful time to think intentionally about the Museum’s impact.

Building Capacity to Evaluate [2012]

An evaluation planning project with a nature and science museum

The Museum of Nature and Science (MNS) hired RK&A to develop an evaluation plan and build capacity to conduct evaluation in anticipation of the Museum’s new building scheduled to open in 2013.

How did we approach the project?

The evaluation planning project comprised a series of sequential steps, from strategic to tactical, working with an interdisciplinary group of staff across the Museum. The process began by clarifying the Museum’s intended impact that articulates the intended result of the Museum’s work and provides a guidepost for MNS’s evaluation: Our community will personally connect science to their daily lives. Focusing on the Museum’s four primary audiences that include adults, families, students, and educators, staff developed intended outcomes that serve as building blocks to impact and gauges for measurement. Next, RK&A worked with staff to develop an evaluation plan that identifies the Museum’s evaluation priorities over the next four years, supporting the purpose of evaluation at MNS to measure impact, understand audiences’ needs, gauge progress in the strategic plan, and inform decision making.

The final project step focused on building capacity among staff to conduct evaluation. Based on in-depth discussions with staff, RK&A developed three data collection instruments, including an adult program questionnaire, family observation guide, and family short-answer interview guide, to empower staff to begin evaluating the Museum’s programs. Then, several staff members were trained to systematically collect data using the customized evaluation tools.

What did we learn?

The process of building a museum’s capacity to conduct evaluation highlights an important consideration. Evaluating the museum’s work has become more important given accountability demands in the external environment. Stakeholders increasingly ask, How is the museum’s work affecting its audiences? What difference is the museum making in the quality of people’s lives?

Conducting systematic evaluation and implementing a learning approach to evaluation, however, require additional staff time which is a challenge for most museums. MNS staff recognized the need to create a realistic evaluation plan given competing demands on staff’s time. For example, the evaluation plan balances conducting evaluation internally, partnering with other organizations, and outsourcing to other service providers. Also, the plan incrementally implements the Museum’s evaluation initiatives over time. The Museum will begin with small steps in their efforts to affect great change.

Read Full Post »

25th Anniversary ButterflyFor me, intentionality, a concept I view as essential to museum planning, emerged from two core experiences: results from hundreds of exhibition and program evaluations; and observing museum staff wanting to put too many concepts into an exhibition. Intuitively I knew there was a connection between exhibitions that didn’t fare too well (at least according to the evaluations) and staff not letting go of ideas that are near and dear to their hearts—regardless of whether those ideas supported the thesis of the exhibition.

When I have the good fortune to attend planning meetings, I always find myself thinking critically about what should be included in the exhibition under discussion and what could be saved for another time. My consideration always includes the big idea of the exhibition, what the museum would like to achieve with the exhibition vis-à-vis the public, humans’ capacity to process new ideas when in unfamiliar environments (like that of an exhibition hall), evaluation results from other projects that show what leads to quality visitor experiences and what might move visitors away from having quality experiences, and my utmost respect for scholars’ knowledge and passions. While passionate individuals love their subject matter (and really, I love their subject matter, too), one’s willingness to recognize that not all good ideas (or even great ones) belong in an exhibition and then exercising follow through are traits of intentional practice.

Embedded in intentional practice is the concept of alignment—ensuring that project concepts, components, and elements are present because they support the impact the team wants to achieve. If there are concepts, components, elements that do not contribute to the Intentionalitycore idea of the exhibition and its potential impact on audiences, they need to be omitted. I certainly don’t mean to sound ruthless, but I am acutely aware of how easy it is to keep putting more and more into an exhibition plan and how painfully difficult it is to take anything away. I am also aware of how challenging it is to stay focused on the exhibition’s big idea and have the discipline to say no to ideas because they do not support the intended impact of the exhibition. Learning to say “no” is a necessary survival skill and saying “no” is deeply connected to intentional practice. When practitioners are intentional, they are focused on the impact they want to achieve; they exercise discipline and restraint when determining how to best move forward; and their decision making is egoless and for the sake of achieving the results the team envisions.

Intentional practice represents the culmination of my experiences to date, and my passion for it is directly is tied to my evaluation experience. Over the years I started to realize that when exhibitions tried to do too much, visitors’ experiences didn’t amount to much—from their perspective; their heads were full but descriptions of their experiences were nebulous. Sense-making seemed futile. Nudging me was my memory of exhibition development discussions and tensions about what to put in (everything) and what to take out (nothing). Clarifying the intent of the exhibition and then staying focused on the intent of the exhibition is hard work—not likely to end soon, which is okay. Seeking clarity—whether in thought or action—is a never-ending pursuit.

Read Full Post »

25th Anniversary ButterflySometimes when learning surfaces slowly, it is barely visible, until one day the world looks different.  Responding to that difference is the first layer of that complex process often labeled as learning.  The Cycle of Intentional Practice was a long time coming—emerging from many years of conducting evaluations, where I worked closely with museum staff and leadership as well as with visitors.  The Cycle of Intentional Practice is an illustration of an ideal work cycle that started to form when I was writing “A Case for Holistic Intentionality”.  I am visually oriented and I often have to draw my ideas before I write about them; in this case, I was writing about my ideas and then I felt the need to create a visualization to depict what I was thinking—in part to help me understand what I was thinking, but also to help others.  I included the first iteration of the cycle in the manuscript to Curator, but the editor said the Journal does not usually publish that kind of illustration, so I put it aside.

That original cycle differs from the one I use today—it was simpler (it included “Plan,” “Act,” and “Evaluate”), and while I didn’t know it at the time, it was a draft.  There have been several more iterations over time (one was “Plan,” “Act,” and “Evaluate & Reflect,” for example); as I continue to learn and improve my practice, I change the cycle accordingly.  Most stunning to me was that the first draft of the cycle showed nothing in the center—nothing!  I feel a little embarrassed by my omission and I am not entirely sure what I was thinking at the time, but I hope my oversight was short-lived.  At some point I placed the word “Intentions” in the center, and as I clarified my ideas, with the hope of applying the cycle to our evaluation and planning work, I eventually replaced “intentions” with “impact.”  I recall how difficult it was to explain the concept of “intentions” so I eventually needed to remove the word from the center (as much as I loved having it there).  If my goal was to have museums apply the cycle to their daily and strategic work, the cycle needed to represent an idea people found comfortable and doable.  Soon I realized that intentionality was the larger concept of the cycle and what needed to be placed in the center was the result of a museum’s work on its publics–impact.  So was born our intentionality work with museums.  Then I realized the true power of intentionality—mission could go in the center as well as outcomes, or anything for that matter.  The artist’s rendition below demonstrates the versatility of intentionality as a concept.

Cycle of Intentional Practice

An artistic rendering of the Cycle of Intentional Practice by artist Andrea Herrick

What I find most amazing is that two crucial ideas—reflection and impact—were not present in the first iterations of the cycle, although they were discussed when I talked about intentionality.  Our intentional planning work (which we refer to as impact planning) would be rudderless without the presence of impact and our ability to learn from our work would be weakened without reflection.  And that brings me to another realization, which I am reminded of daily—the never-ending pursuit of achieving clarity of thought, followed by writing a clear expression of that thought.

Today I talk about the Cycle of Intentional Practice as a draft—it will always be on the verge of becoming, but these days I am more comfortable with the idea of the Cycle being a draft—an idea in process—than I was a decade ago; in fact, I have come to realize that all work is a draft and that if one is serious about learning and applying new ideas to work and life, then all ideas, all products, all knowledge are mere drafts because learning is continuous, right?

Humbling?  Yes indeed.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »