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.
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.
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.