Monday, November 20, 2017

Reimagining Museums with Latin America Leading the Way

Earlier this month, I went to a conference that renewed my faith in conferences. I first sensed the difference at the front door. There wasn't one. Instead, I walked into a lush garden in the middle of the city. Courageous speakers from dozens of countries described bold, participatory projects. Birds flew through the proceedings. The sounds of Spanish and English comingled as 800 delegates argued, danced, and envisioned el museo reimaginado.

El Museo Reimaginado is a collaborative effort of museum professionals in North and South America to explore museums' potential as community catalysts. While I've been to conferences with this focus in many countries, El Museo Reimaginado is different. The Latin American delegates in Medellin reimagined change on a level beyond what I've experienced in other places. They were more committed. They were doing the work. They were coming together to celebrate and push forward. And the conference itself resonated with joy, participation, and community. It was an incredible event and I felt honored to be part of it.

Here are some of the things that made El Museo Reimaginado so special:

It seems that Latin American museums are more vigorously pursuing community-based work than institutions elsewhere in the world. I'm generalizing grossly here, but for the most part, I find European museums to be conservative. I find North American museums to be risk-averse. The Latin Americans I met in Medellin seemed way ahead of the rest of us. The delegates appeared collectively convinced of the value and power of community-based work. Everyone seemed to agree on two basic concepts: that museums should embrace community co-creation AND that museums can play significant roles in city-making. There were curators co-creating with prostitutes. Young guns making radical museum radio talk shows. Pioneers of communitario museums. Designers creating space for nationwide reconciliation and transformation. We met in Medellin--a city where cultural institutions were instrumental in turning crime and fear into hope and beauty. The examples were all around us, not just in the voices of speakers but in the physical sites where we met. It was refreshing and powerful to talk shop with shared community values as a starting point.

The host venue was a living, breathing example of how museums can serve as community catalysts. Parque Explora opened ten years ago as a community development project. It offers a science center, aquarium, botanical garden, and lots of open plaza space in a marginalized neighborhood. Parque Explora's staff are deeply committed to co-creative, ambitious, community building work (read a bit about their community work here). It was amazing to see the diversity of visitors eagerly using the site from morning until night. Families playing, vendors hawking, students kissing, old ladies kibitzing. Even the conference itself was a model of social bridging. Big signs, public talkback walls, and open spaces made the conference porous to the community. One evening, there was a free outdoor concert of the Medellin Symphony as part of the conference. Every seat was taken--with conference delegates and neighborhood families sitting side by side.

The conference delegates were geographically diverse and eager to connect. What a treat to learn together with people from so many different countries and contexts! The entire conference was simultaneously translated into English and Spanish. On most panels, it was common to have speakers from several countries. Each room was a diverse mix of voices, perspectives, and language. I heard fresh ideas, stories, and challenges in each room. I was continually hungry to learn more.

The conference was joyful and full of energy. The sessions were smartly structured with different lengths and formats, ranging from panels to workshops to participatory performances to an intense "courtroom" in which co-creation was put on trial. But the energy flowed far beyond the sessions. The outdoor setting lent itself easily to side conversations, wandering from table to table, or breaking into conga lines (yes, it happened). It wasn't uncommon for a group to break into song, or for people to stand in spontaneous applause halfway through a presentation. Many delegates brought gifts. Instead of sponsors and trade shows, individuals handed each other trinkets and tshirts and catalogs. The closing event was a wild dance party. I lost my voice singing along to songs I don't know in a language I barely speak. The whole experience was exhilarating and deeply human. I felt like I made new friends in aggregate, a whole community of people who I look forward to seeing again.

Muchas gracias to the organizers: Fundacion TyPA, AAM, and Parque Explora. I can't wait to go again--and I hope many of you will join me--at the next El Museo Reimaginado in 2019.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Learning to Love the Re-Org: How We Executed a Staff Restructuring

My original "kitchen table" brainstorm.
The Packard Foundation asked me to write a blog post about our 2016 staff restructuring (which they supported with a capacity-building grant). Here's that post, lightly edited for your enjoyment. You can read the original post on the Packard Foundation's Organizational Effectiveness site.

I sat at my kitchen table with a brown paper bag, timer by my side. I sliced the bag open and folded it into 12 rectangles, each about the size of an index card. I set the timer for five minutes and started working. In the first rectangle, I sketched out one version of how our organization could be structured. When the timer dinged, I reset it for five minutes, moved to the next rectangle and did it again. After an hour, I had 12 different versions of our staff structure, each in its own little box. Some were impractical. Some were poetic. But among them lay the seeds of our museum’s future.

By the time we applied for a Organizational Effectiveness grant from the Packard Foundation in early 2016, it already felt late. Our nonprofit museum had outgrown our grass roots. In five years, what was seven staff members when I arrived became 10, then 15, then 20 – and is now 27. When we had seven people, we barely needed an organizational chart. We were a scrappy band of creative folks trying to turn around a struggling organization. As we succeeded, we grew. But I resisted structure. I was wary of too much process. And so we stayed egalitarian and collaborative. It got chaotic. Almost everyone reported to me, and that caused frustration and bottlenecks all around. I was knee-deep in a capital expansion (Abbott Square) that would dramatically change our services, and I had less and less time for everyone. I knew that our smart, talented, wonderful staff could do more. I knew the capital expansion would mean new roles and functions. Our team deserved a new structure that sustained and empowered them.

I was scared. I had never heard anyone at any organization say, “that re-org sure was great!” They always seemed to bring even more confusion, frustration and pain than whatever had preceded them. I didn’t know whether or how we could do it well. I was also suspicious of consultants (the Packard Foundation funds capacity building largely by paying for consultants). Running a small, unorthodox nonprofit, I’d had bad experiences with consultants who didn’t seem to give us their full attention. They wanted to fit us into their boxes instead of helping us excel in ours.

My fears about consultants were allayed when I realized we had a consultant whom we trusted and really knew us, Keri Crask. Keri was like a hidden Jedi consultant. She was a retired HR executive  and a treasured museum volunteer. She had volunteered to run management trainings for staff as we had started to grow, and she had become a trusted confidant to me and to some of my colleagues. At the time, she wasn’t consulting. But we realized that she could help us execute a reorganization, and she realized she wasn’t quite ready for full retirement. And so, with the blessing of our Board, Keri and I worked together on a plan.

Over the next six months, with Packard Foundation support, we worked out a plan for a reorganization with two lead staff members, Stacey Marie Garcia and Lis DuBois. I brought creative vision in the form of folded up pieces of paper with wild ideas on them. Keri brought structure and expert knowledge about how to coordinate the change. Stacey and Lis brought openness and honesty with regard to how their roles would change as they evolved into new director-level roles. And we all brought courage – lots of it.

I spent some time alone at my kitchen table at the beginning of the process, but quickly, planning the reorg became a team sport. At Keri’s urging, we first mapped out a new structure for the organization, one that could scale if we grew (which we did, almost immediately). We defined “buckets of work,” putting them in departmental groupings, noting the intersections. We shaped those buckets into jobs. We kept our eye on our core values and how to bake them into the departments, jobs, and interfaces among them. It was a full six weeks of work before we started talking about names of existing employees and tentatively slotting them into roles on the new chart.

When we started this project, I expected about 30% of the museum’s jobs to change a little bit, and about 20% to change a lot. As it turned out, everyone’s job changed. Some people changed managers. Some people changed responsibilities. Some people changed jobs. Everyone changed titles. Executing these changes was the most coordinated, interlocking, emotionally-intense activities of my career. Stacey, Lis, and I held conversation after conversation, one-on-one and in groups and just us, each dependent on another, urged and cheered and supported forward by Keri.

Was the re-org perfect? Of course not. It was a challenging process, and the challenges continue to surface from time to time with our staff. But it was better than I could have expected and ultimately made our organization stronger. In Keri, we had an expert guide who had rafted that whitewater before. She kept us going to the finish line, and she helped us grow as leaders and as an organization along the way.

What have you learned from the re-orgs you've been part of? What were the bright spots? What were the surprises?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

What's Your Vision?

It's 8am in the classroom; 5am in my body. I'm sitting at my assigned seat, next to a man who sells trailers in in Indiana, a woman who runs a Chamber of Commerce in Pennsylvania, and a guy who provides liability insurance to doctors across the US. A cheerful curly-haired deli owner stands in front of 30 of us and shares a quote he loves: "Artists live in the present and write detailed histories of the future." Something tells me this is not the business visioning workshop I anticipated.

Last week, I attended a workshop on Creating a Vision of Greatness at ZingTrain, the training arm of Zingerman's Deli, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Zingerman's is a deli that has pioneered some innovative ways of doing business. One of those is the use of visioning (also called future-casting).

You can write a vision for yourself, your organization, your project, or your team. At the training, we saw examples of small visions--like a restaurant barback who had a vision for a better way to make juice--and big ones--like the 10-year vision for the 700-person Zingerman's community of businesses. We learned how to write visions, how to use them, and how to share them with others.

For me, writing a vision was empowering, exciting, and useful. It was even more useful to learn how participatory writing visions can be. In the Zingerman's model, visioning is for everyone at all levels of the organization. It's for anyone who wants to go somewhere in their day, their year, their life. Writing a vision can empower you, clarify your thinking, and help you change the world.

So here are a few notes on how to write a vision. If you want to know more, I recommend you check out the related ZingTrain articles on visioning, or even take their two-day course.

WHAT IS A VISION?

A vision is not a solution to a problem. A vision is a detailed history of the future. It's a story written from the vantage point of a few months or years from now. It's a story of what happened after you launched that program, gave that speech, conquered that challenge. What does the world look like in that future? What's different about your life, your work? That's the story a vision tells.

HOW DO YOU WRITE IT?

A vision is a story. Write it that way. Write your vision with as many specifics as possible, in narrative form. This is a detailed history from the future. Imagine you're seeing an old friend after a few years, telling them about all the amazing stuff you've done since you last met. Use evocative language, engage the senses, engage your emotions. Make it a positive vision. Put in everything you want to see happen--even if it seems impossible. Don't focus on how you got there. Write about where you arrived.

If you have trouble writing a vision, here are some tips:
  • Before you start writing your vision, write a list of things you are proud of, in any part of your life. The goal here is to write down as many as possible. You'll warm up your hand and get yourself in a positive frame of mind. 
  • Use the "hot pen" or automatic writing technique. Start writing, and don't stop--for ten minutes, thirty minutes, whatever you need. If you get stuck, write nonsense words. Don't take your pen off the paper until the time is up. When you break through stuckness, you might be surprised what you find on the other side. 
  • If you get stuck thinking about the steps to achieve a certain part of the vision, write your way out of it. Imagine you already figured it out. Write something like "It took awhile to raise the money, but once we did, we had even more than we needed." 
  • If you're focused on big picture goals, cast your vision far enough in the future that you're on the other side of all the obstacles you face today. The trainers suggested writing a vision 5-10 years out, and they encouraged us to go for ten if we could. 
  • Dial up the "want." Put in everything you want to see happen. If you want a hot tub in the staff break room, put it in. Don't put in the stuff you're supposed to want. Put in what you really want! No one else is going to guess what you want, and this is your vision. This is your dream. Put it all in. --share it. Get feedback on what parts feel alive and compelling, and which parts seem cloudy or forced. If it's a vision for a group, involve others in the group in the redrafting of the vision. They will make it better, and you will all feel greater ownership over the final version.

A SIMPLE WAY TO TRY IT

This week, we experimented with visioning at my museum in an all-staff meeting. We took 30 minutes for the exercise. Here's what we did:
  • We reconnected about a year-long (already-established) goal to improve our work experience individually and collectively. 
  • I briefly explained what visioning is and why it might be valuable for us. 
  • We took ten minutes to do personal, "hot pen" writing of a vision for spring of 2018. The prompt was to write a detailed story about a day in spring 2018 when we are working even better as a team (whatever that means to you). We all wrote for ten minutes straight. 
  • We paired up, shared our visions with a colleague, and wrote down things we heard that excited us. 
  • We shared those energizing elements with the whole group. These included ideas like "musical chairs job shadowing," "foot massage conference-call room," and "more meetings in public settings." 
  • A small group volunteered to take this work forward to establish a shared vision we can then use to guide us to more collaboration in the coming months.
I'm not sure yet if visioning will become a go-to tool for me or for the MAH. But I'm going to keep trying it. And I hope you will try it too.

In fact, I have a vision for one month from now. It's a Thursday morning, I'm scanning emails, and I'm delighted to get a note from you. After reading this post, one morning, you woke up early, grabbed an old journal, and started writing. You wrote a vision for that big dream of yours coming true. You wrote yourself into a position of agency and leadership. You wrote yourself overcoming obstacles to reach your goal. You wrote a future that is more beautiful because of your efforts. And you shared it with someone. You enlisted them in helping make your vision real. You wrote to me to tell me you tried it. It was uncomfortable, a little weird, but empowering too. I'm looking at my screen, smiling with appreciation for you.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Where Do You Learn Best? My Personal Learning Journey from Conferences to Trainings

The Museum 2.0 blog started because of a conference. In 2006, I attended a big conference for the first time (ASTC). I went alone, sent with a blessing from my boss at the International Spy Museum. I dutifully went to sessions all day, every day. I saw speakers who dazzled me and filled my notebook with their words. But I was shy, painfully shy. I talked with almost no one at the whole event. All those hallway conversations people say are so valuable? I had none.

Instead, I went home and started this blog. Then, I started emailing posts to those speakers who I'd admired. I was offering them a clumsy gift--ideas they had inspired in me. Writing the blog helped me connect with them, but more importantly, it gave me the confidence to show up at conferences with something to say and a reason to connect.

Fast forward a couple years and I was a conference junkie. I reveled in big events like ASTC and AAM. I loved flipping through conference programs weeks in advance, inking stars by sessions I wanted to attend. I loved the options and the energy. And I had rules for myself: always pick a backup session in case the first one is lousy. Attend at least one session that you know nothing about. Have the courage to meet people who fascinate you. Find ways to bump into them again and again. Learn from them. Give them something of value. Become their friends and invite them to be your mentors.

As Museum 2.0 became well-known, I started building a tribe of people I loved to see at these events, and even better, new interesting people kept presenting themselves to me. I hardly needed the social courage I'd worked so hard to cultivate. Conferences became an essential way for me to connect with friends, do business, and learn. I hosted sessions during the day and expanding dinner parties at night. I started to see generous mentors everywhere. I had good questions to ask them, and they had valuable advice to share.

Fast forward a few more years, and now, conferences were ALL about connecting with people. My tribe felt full and fully satisfying. Conferences took me around the world. But with the exception of a few unorthodox retreats, the events themselves became sidelines to the social connections. I'd give a couple talks, sell some books, but otherwise, I hardly glanced at the program booklet. I spent all my time meeting treasured colleagues in hallways, coffeeshops, and late-night karaoke crawls. We found ways to hack the formats to spend more time with each other. I learned from my friends, but I felt increasingly antagonistic to the pomp and bureaucracy of the conference itself. I wasn't getting value from it. It was just a vehicle to get me in the same city and room with people I loved.

Two years ago, I stopped going to conferences at all unless I was being paid to speak or required to attend. When I did go, I found good people, but also, tiresome trappings: big rooms, bad lighting, deadening panel discussions, an endless stream of honorifics squeezing the clock. I stopped feeling inspired and energized by them. I found ways to make the trips meaningful--usually by staying with treasured colleagues and all of us agreeing to play hooky and do some real work together. I felt frustrated that I couldn't just go with them on a trip to learn together. The tax we had to pay to do so was to attend a conference. It felt like an steep tariff on our growth.

So what to do? I still love to learn, and I love to learn with others. I didn't know where or how else to do it. I started reading books voraciously, which is great, but solitary. I dabbled in webinars--they were mostly terrible. Then about six months ago, I stumbled into a professional training environment. And I fell in love.

The first training I went to was on Public Narrative, led by master facilitator Sarah El-Raheb. Public Narrative is an activist storytelling technique for rallying others to your cause. I experienced a 2-day training with a group of fellow grantees sponsored by the Irvine Foundation. It was incredible. It was intense, extremely well-facilitated, and meaty. There was a workbook full of useful content. The process was distinct and well-documented. It was like learning another language. I was fully engaged, I worked hard, and I got outcomes from it that I suspect I'll use for many years. The other people in the workshop--there were about 40 of us--were definitely part of the process and the experience. But for me, it was an intense personal learning experience, couched in an energizing social environment. When I went out for dinner with colleagues after a full day of training, I enjoyed our time together. But I didn't need them to make it a worthwhile trip. I felt wrung out and full from the training itself.

I felt the same way about the training I just experienced this week. I went to Ann Arbor for a training on Visioning led by the co-founder of Zingerman's Deli, Ari Weiszberg, and master trainer Elnian Gilbert. There were 30 of us in the room, from a mix of small and mid-sized businesses around the US. There were trailer salesmen and insurers and cheesemakers. The people were interesting--many came from contexts completely foreign to me--but the value was in the training itself. Again, the content was rich, deep, and focused (I'll write more about it next week). We did hard work throughout the two days, drafting long-term visions for our respective organizations. I learned a lot, and I know I'll keep building on what I learned. Ari shared his vision that we would become converts to the Zingerman's visioning methodology. It's easy to imagine this might happen to me.

Outside the training room, I had a great time with my friend Nick, who came from New York to join in on the learning. We biked and ate and wandered and worked. Doing the training together added real value to the experience. But again, it felt like the training was rich and valuable no matter what. It wasn't like a conference, riding on the fumes of friendship.

What do I take from these experiences? Right now, I'm enamored of training. These training experiences are leading me to more breakthroughs than I've experienced in other learning formats. The content is highly targeted, the facilitation strong. I'm excited about pursuing other opportunities to learn, in groups, from experts with relevant content and methodologies. I'm going to one more training in 2017--this time, on my own--and I'm hopeful it will be the best one yet.

But my ardor doesn't mean trainings are "better" than conferences. It's possible, if not likely, that I'm going through a phase in my professional learning and growth. At one point I loved conferences. I can imagine the day when I might feel that way again. I'm curious about the range of professional learning and growth experiences out there. I wonder how diverse the options are, and how I could identify the right opportunities for the right times in my life. I'm delighted to explore a new way I can learn and grow. I can't wait to discover others.

What kind of professional learning is most meaningful to you right now, and why?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Platform Power: Scaling Impact

Last month, I sat in the back of a meeting room at the MAH and watched something extraordinary happen. Our county board of supervisors had brought their official meeting to the museum. They were off-site for the first time in years, holding a special study session sparked by an exhibition about foster youth, Lost Childhoods. The supervisors toured the exhibition with some of the 100+ local partners who helped create it. Then, for an hour, former foster youth who helped design the exhibition shared their stories with supervisors. They spoke powerfully and painfully about their experiences. They shared their hopes. They urged the politicians to fix a broken system. It felt like something opened up, right in that room, between the flag and the tissues and the microphones. It felt like change was breaking through.

This was not an event orchestrated by the MAH. It happened because two of our Lost Childhood partners urged it into being. They negotiated with the County. They set the table. They made something real and meaningful happen.

They did it because the exhibition belonged to them. They helped conceive it, plan it, and build it. The Lost Childhoods exhibition is a platform for 100+ partners to share their stories, artwork, ideas, projects, volunteer opportunities, and events.

Nine years ago, I wrote a post called The Future of Authority: Platform Power. In it, I argued that museums could give up control of the visitor experience while still maintaining (a new kind of) power. Museums could make the platforms for those experiences. There is power IN the platform--power to shape the way people participate. This argument became one of the foundations of The Participatory Museum.

Nine years later, I still believe this. Now that I run a museum, I experience the variety of ways we can create platforms that empower community members to do certain things, in certain ways, that amplify the institution. The power IN the platform is real. But I've also become reenergized about the power OF the platform for those community members who participate. I value platforms for their power to scale impact.

Traditionally, museums and cultural organizations offer programs. Staff produce them for, and sometimes with, visitors. Each program has a fixed cost, and expanding that program means expanding that cost. If it takes a staff member 5 hours to run a screen-printing workshop, it takes her ten hours to run it twice. Even a smash hit program is hard to scale up in this model.

At the MAH, we've tried wherever possible to break out of unidirectional program models. We believe that we can most effectively empower and bridge community members (our strategic goal) if we invite them to share their skills with each other. This is the participatory platform model. Instead of staff running workshops, our staff connect with local printmaking collectives. We ask them what their goals are for outreach and community connection. And then we support and empower them to lead workshops and festivals and projects on our site. Instead of "doing the thing" directly, our staff make space for community members to do the thing--and to do so beautifully, proudly, with and for diverse audiences.

Does this work scale better than programs? It's not always obvious from the start whether it will. This work is relationship-heavy, and those relationships take time to build. When we created an exhibition with 100 community members impacted by the foster care system, it took almost a year to recruit, convene, open up, explore, and create the products and the trust to build those products well. But that investment in building a platform paid off.

When you build relationships in a platform, you build participants' power. Platforms can accommodate lots of partners and support them taking the projects in new directions. Since opening in July, exhibition partners haven't just planned a County supervisors' meeting. They've led over 50 exhibition-related community events at and beyond the MAH. They've created powerful learning experiences, diverse audiences, and new program formats. Our staff could never produce all this activity on our own. We put our energy into empowering partners, which ignited their passion and ability to extend the exhibition to new people and places.

Whereas a program is a closed system, a platform is an open one. In a platform model, more is not more staff time and cost. More is more use of the platform, more participants empowered to use it to full potential.

As our organization grows, we are looking for more ways to adopt a platform mindset. Now that we've opened Abbott Square, we have a goal to offer free cultural programming almost every day of the week. This means a huge shift for the MAH (previously we offered 2 monthly festivals plus a few scattered events). How will we increase our event offerings so aggressively? We're not planning to do it by adding a lot of staff to programming the space. We're planning to do it by building new platforms. We are learning from our "monthly festival" platform and building a lightweight, more flexible version. We want to make it easier for community groups to plug in, offering their own workshops and festivals and events, with our support. If we can create the right platform for daily events, it serves our community, by giving them the support, space, and frequent events they desire. It advances our theory of change, by empowering locals and bridging their diverse communities. And it puts the MAH at the center of the web of activity, as a valued partner and platform provider.

Building platforms is not the same as building programs. It flexes new muscles, requires different skill sets. But to me, the benefit is clear. In a platform model, our community takes us further than we could ever go on our own.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Guest Post by Seema Rao: How Museums Can Resist Racism and Oppression

This guest post was written by Seema Rao, a 2017 MuseumCamper and brilliant GLAM visitor advocate. Seema wrote it (original post here) in response to her experience last week at MuseumCamp... followed by the painful news about racism-fueled rallies and mob violence in Charlottesville, VA. 

Like Seema, I've been looking for ways to increase active resistance of racism, hate, and bigotry--both as an individual and as the leader of a museum. Seema and I have started an open google doc to assemble ideas for specific things museums and museum professionals can do to resist oppression. Please check it out, add to it, and join us in taking action.

I had the extreme pleasure of being part of this year’s MuseumCamp hosted by Nina Simon at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. For those who are unaware of this program, it’s sort of a hybrid museum conference, personal growth program, and summer camp smushed into three days. Intense would be a useful descriptor. Useful, impactful, and thought-provoking also work.

Monday morning, after such wonderful experiences with people from around the world in the cossetted kooky culture of Santa Cruz, I had hoped to create a blog post from my MuseumCamp notes. Instead, my heart feels exhausted. I wanted to share some of the hope a community of change-makers felt. Instead, my brain is misfiring. I wanted to pass on useful advice to colleagues who couldn’t be in Santa Cruz. Instead, my soul needs rest.

Why? Well, because for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In this case, for all the changemakers aimed at an inclusive society, there are those who want exclusion. There are those who fear more people at the table will mean less space for them. There are those who only feel full when others are starving.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. You can choose your opposite reaction or not. If you don’t react to negativity, you are still acting. Your lack of action is still a reaction. So, when you see evil, when you see people actively fighting inclusion, and you decide it might be too political to act, you are being political in your inaction.

Today, everyone in America woke up in a country where people spouted hate publicly and proudly. Today in America, we saw the emblems of enemies past parading in the streets of one of the nation’s best college. Today in America, we remembered that our own worst enemies are our own neighbors.

What does this have to do with museums? Museums are the best of our nation, even literally, holding our national heritage for eternity. Museums are ideas. They are hope. When the best of our nation doesn’t do anything, they are choosing—and they are making the wrong choice. There is a simple binary: chosen action (1) or choosing inaction (0).

How can museums react? Here are a few ideas to get started... please add yours to our open google doc.

  • Staff can be allowed time to share their feelings together 
  • Staff can raise money for organizations that support inclusion 
  • Staff can reach out to colleagues in Charlottesville with unencumbered, unquestioning support 
  • Museums can host conversations for visitors 
  • Museums can share their stories of colonialism and inclusion as a model for growth 
  •  Museums can model inclusion in their programming 
  • Museums can work together in regions to create safe spaces for inclusion

So what is your museums doing? Let’s grow this list until every museum has something they can check off. After all, action is so much more fun.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Seven Emotional Stages of Opening a Major Project

1. Plan. Meet with stakeholders, staff, partners. Dream. Sketch. Pick dates as if you had any control over the concrete. Schedule. Sell. Prepare.

2. Fight. Get exhausted. Get pissed. Scrap about nothing for no reason except that everyone is on edge and scrambling to get it done on time. Or not on time. As fast as possible, without stomping on too many toes.

3. Flight. Get scared. Consider leaving the country. What if they don't like it? What if it doesn't work? Wouldn't it be better to skip town and not confront potential disaster?

4. Big Night. Not quite right. The doors are open, everyone's smiling, attaboys flying. You could enjoy it if you could find your calm, find your deodorant, stop finding fault with the little things that aren't done yet. But you can't. Sleep. Yet.

5. Punch. Hit the list. Tick it off. Watch the to-dos dwindle into trivialities. See the end in sight. Start to see the greatness growing.

6. Release. Take a break. Take a weekend. Let your guard down. Sit in the sun of what you've done. Feel the hole intensity vacated. Sit with it.

7. Bask. Trade the fake smile for a real one. Say thank you. Take the hugs and hold them in your heart.


p.s. Abbott Square's soft opening is underway, and it's fabulous. I couldn't be prouder. Come on down.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Announcing The Art of Relevance Audiobook! Get Yours for Free Today.

Last year, when I released The Art of Relevance, people asked if there was an audiobook version in the works. It honestly hadn't crossed my mind. Since then, I've learned how many people read books with their ears instead of their eyes. I knew if I wanted to make the book relevant and accessible, I should get on it.

So I am thrilled to announce that The Art of Relevance audiobook is now available for YOU to listen to on AudibleAmazon, and iTunes. I narrated it, with the help of engineer Jason Hatfield and the folks at Indigital Studios in Santa Cruz, CA. The great Jon Moscone lent his voice to his preface, too.

If you have never listened to an audiobook and want to try it out, you can sign up for a free trial membership with Audible and get a copy of The Art of Relevance for free. Go to the page for the book and hit the "Free with 30 Day Trial Membership" orange button to the right. You can also listen to a five-minute sample from the introduction to get a sense of what it sounds like.

And if you prefer your media in audio-visual form, here are two videos from recent talks about the book:
  • 12-minute talk about The Art of Relevance for a broad audience at TedXPaloAlto 
  • 30-minute talk plus Q&A, with a slant towards science centers at ECSITE in Portugal
Finally, I'll be sharing stories of relevance live and in-person this fall at the following events:



Tuesday, July 18, 2017

How Do You Inspire Visitors to Take Action After They Leave?

This month, we opened a new exhibition at the MAH, Lost Childhoods: Voices of Santa Cruz County Foster Youth and Foster Youth Museum (brief video clip from opening night here).

This exhibition is a big accomplishment for us because it incorporates multiple ways we push boundaries at the MAH:
  • we co-designed it with 100+ community partners (C3), including artists, foster youth, and youth advocates, with youth voices driving the project from big idea to install to programming.
  • we commissioned original artwork that was co-produced with youth.
  • it uses art, history, artifacts, and storytelling to illuminate a big human story and an urgent social issue.
  • it encourages visitors to participate both in the exhibition and beyond it by taking action to expand opportunities for foster youth and youth transitioning out of foster care.
There's lots to explore about this project, but today I want to dive into this last element: inspiring visitors to take action. 

When we developed the big ideas for this exhibition, MAH staff and C3 partners agreed: we wanted visitors to "feel empowered to take action and know how to do so."

This big idea excited us all. But at the very next C3 meeting with our partners, we ran into two big questions of content and design:
  1. The issues facing foster youth are huge and complex. How could visitors take actions that are both meaningful and achievable?
  2. How could we develop a clear, explicit, and appealing way for visitors to take action?
We addressed the first question with guidance from one of the former foster youth who helped develop the exhibition. She pointed out that while big things like becoming a foster parent are super-important, there are also a lot of little things people can do to help foster youth succeed. We decided to hone in on the little things - from baking a birthday cake to donating clean socks to volunteering - in our TAKE ACTION center. 

The TAKE ACTION center has two components - a woven artwork (left)
and a set of business cards visitors can take home with them.

We crowd-sourced "little things" from our C3 partners. Then, we worked with one of the commissioned exhibition artists, Melody Overstreet, to create an artwork that weaves all these little things into one tapestry. Youth handwrote the little things on the woven strips, in English and Spanish. The artwork metaphorically suggests that we need to do all these little things to build a supportive social fabric for foster youth.

Closeup of the woven artwork by Melody Overstreet and C3 partners.
While the artwork is beautiful and inspiring, it's not a clear, explicit call to action. In C3 meetings, we experimented with different activities related to the weaving. We tried making bracelets to remember an action you want to take, or weaving your action into the artwork. But we decided that these were too conceptual. We wanted to live up to that big idea that visitors would feel empowered to take action and how how to do so. 

So we took the actions in the weaving and translated them into business cards. The front of each card shares the action, and the back shares the contact info for the person/organization to make it happen. We discussed creating a single "take action" postcard instead and pushing all the action/contact info to a website, but that felt like it added too many steps for visitors from inspiration to action. We wanted visitors to have all the information they need to do a given action on the card itself. The cards are clear, brief, bilingual, and granular. You can take it and use it right away.

A few of the TAKE ACTION cards.
Front/back closeup of one card.
We opened the exhibition with 40 different action cards. We had debated whether to pare the number down so as not to overwhelm visitors, but ultimately, we felt that more was more. We've even held a few extra slots open to add new cards in the future in case our partners' needs change over the 6-month run of the exhibition.

How will we measure if people take the actions on the cards? We're tracking this in two ways:
  1. We are counting how many cards of each type get taken. Already in the first few days of the exhibition, we've had to replenish some cards multiple times. 
  2. We are asking C3 partners to report to us on the extent to which people take action. We started a simple google doc to catalogue these reports. We've already heard from partners who have had new volunteers sign up based on the cards.
I'm really curious to see how the TAKE ACTION center evolves over the run of the exhibition. I'm cautiously optimistic that we may have found a system that works for Lost Childhoods - and may work for other projects as well.

What's your take on this approach? How have you inspired visitors to take action in your projects? How have you measured it?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Want to Work at the MAH? Now's Your Chance.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History keeps growing and experimenting in our quest to build a stronger, more connected community. We're expanding beyond our walls this summer with the opening of Abbott Square. We are dreaming big, reaching out, and going deep... and we're looking for two great folks to join the team.

We are now hiring two full-time positions:
Both these people have important roles to play in the future of the MAH.

The Exhibitions Catalyst will lead the way in bringing together artists and diverse partners in the development of powerful exhibitions. We've built a community-based, collaborative exhibitions strategy, and we're looking for the right person to bring it to life through great writing, project management, partner engagement, activity design, and event production.

The Marketing and Communications Catalyst will shape and execute our marketing, press, and communications strategy. With Abbott Square opening, the whole idea of what the MAH "is" is evolving. The MAH now oversees a museum, a community plaza, a garden, a market, and all the activities that go with these diverse offerings. We are rethinking our program model, and we need to rethink our marketing strategy as well. The person in this job will lead the way.

We believe that the strongest teams come from diverse backgrounds. You won't find requirements in these job descriptions to have a master's degree or a million years of experience. You WILL find applications that ask you to demonstrate your talents and perspective. We hire high-performing people who are ready to work hard, collaborate, experiment, and get shit done in a fast-moving, fun, community-minded environment.

If you think that you are the right person for one of these jobs--or if you know the right person--I hope you will check out the job descriptions and consider applying. These jobs are open until filled, and we are ready to hire immediately. Thanks in advance for spreading the word.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Are Cultural Organizations Built to Fail to Scale?

My new audial obsession is the podcast How I Built This, in which Guy Raz interviews entrepreneurs who built notable companies. The podcast offers incredible stories behind the making of businesses like Chuck E Cheese, Southwest Airlines, and Zuumba. I've also been reading more about social impact nonprofits that went big, like Goodwill, CASA, and YMCA.

One of the biggest questions on my mind as I listen is: why isn’t my industry scaling up the way these organizations do? I can think of many extraordinary innovators in the nonprofit cultural sector--people and organizations creating brilliant programs, site-based experiences, and products. Many of these projects seem replicable. But I can think of only a few who have scaled up and out in a meaningful way.

Why aren’t our collective best ideas growing and spreading all over the world? Why aren’t more cultural organizations franchising, scaling, and replicating like comparable businesses?

Here are a few of my hypotheses (and I’d love to hear yours in the comments). I am not suggesting that any of these factors are bad or immutable. I'm suggesting they may be reasons we aren't scaling.

Precarious business model. Even if an institution or a project is fabulous, it may not have a solid, replicable business model behind it. If the work is financially dicey on the scale of one building, it can be disastrous to scale up.

Too much emphasis on innovation. The more we tinker with and change our products, the less time we spend scaling those products. Arts institutions have beat the innovation drum for decades now. Change may be necessary... or it may distract us from opportunities to grow.

Too complex and diversified a business. Cultural organizations tend to have many programs, projects, audiences, and goals. Businesses that scale are simpler and more focused. If it would take a thousand-page manual to replicate your programs (which are always changing!), it's too hard to reproduce.

Friendly industry that encourages sharing and copying. There are no NDAs in the nonprofit culture sector. Professionals share program models, exhibitions, and design techniques across organizations, often for free. This intermixing means there's less distinctive value to scaling any one entity's offerings.

Too much emphasis on unique experience and local idiosyncrasy. Many cultural organizations put the singular, authentic experience first. Many of us are proud of how our cultural organizations reflect and respond to our local communities. This can lead to assumptions--not always true--that what works here can't be copied and won’t work somewhere else.

Skills mismatch. The skills needed to create an incredible program are different from those needed to spread that program around the world. Our industry cultivates and rewards creative dilettantes who make beautiful things. We often look with suspicion on MBAs and people who want to commodify our work.

Mission mismatch. What's the upside for cultural organizations to scale? Most don't see any benefit to spreading that program around the world. It might be nice if it happened, but it's not the goal. The goal is local engagement, authenticity, scholarship, prestige, or keeping the lights on and the art pumping. I suspect most of us would be loathe to cut programs or make hard tradeoffs in favor of scale. The argument for it isn't worth the pain.


What's missing on this list? What counter-examples have you seen?

Please share your questions or comments! If you are reading this via email, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Why We Moved the Abbott Square Opening - A Mistake, a Tough Call, & a Pivot: Introducing Abbott Square, Bonus Post

Excited to open... but not quite yet.
This is the eleventh in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

Twelve days ago, we started the two-week countdown to opening Abbott Square. We sent out hundreds of flyers with the eight-night Opening Week schedule. We lined up press. We shifted staff schedules. We had 2,000 t-shirts to give away, 850 balls to drop, and over a hundred artists, accordionists, salsa dancers, taiko drummers, and bubble ladies ready to go.

Ten days ago, we called it all off.

Why? The reason is simple: we weren’t ready. Abbott Square is a plaza, a garden, and a marketplace with 6 restaurants and 2 bars. Marketplace construction isn’t complete. All those chefs haven’t had a chance to stock their food or train their staff. We know food and drink are essential parts of Abbott Square. They are worth the wait. And so, at the last moment, we pulled the rip cord and postponed the events.

The more interesting question is this: why did it take so long to make this decision?

I knew for months that construction was delayed. I knew for weeks that we weren’t going to be able to do all the restaurant prep we had planned for. Why didn’t I make the decision to postpone sooner?

I think the answer comes down to three things.

1. I was too optimistic.
Leading an entrepreneurial project requires a lot of optimism. For years, I’ve been a cheerleader, fundraiser, and spokesperson for this project. When people were skeptical of the vision three years ago, it was my job to win them over. When we needed funds two years ago, it was my job to inspire people to give. When staff were unsure how it would change their jobs a year ago, it was my job to get colleagues onboard. And now in construction, I’ve been telling the community how great the project will be when it opens.

And let’s be clear: it WILL be great. But my realist brain never got the full attention of my cheerleader brain. Partly, I was inexperienced; when construction managers gave me a date, I figured they knew more than I did. But considering how often those dates slid, I should have seen the writing on the wall sooner. I should have taken a break from cheerleading to identify the likely outcome of the trend of construction delays.

2. We had a hard opening date instead of a go/no go threshold.
Back in March, I asked our market partner when he thought construction would be done. He said April 15. And then they’d want two weeks of soft opening - May 1. We added a month to be safe and agreed to have a big grand opening June 2-9. Once we locked this in, I focused on those dates, driving towards them, cranking to get done in time. I felt that a reasonable goal would focus us to get to a successful opening. As that goal became unreasonable, instead of adjusting, I dug in harder. I pushed to open on time, and got more and more stressed as it seemed like we might not hit our dates. By the time of that key decision, I’d barely slept in days.

How could we have avoided this? Instead of pushing to hit a date, I wish I had defined thresholds for a quality grand opening, like “we must have a Certificate of Occupancy at least three weeks prior” or “chefs must have at least 2 weeks to train/soft open.” If I had taken that tack, we would have postponed sooner.

3. It felt easier to commit to dates than to embrace ambiguity.
I felt pressure, both in myself and within our staff team, to provide a date. We are pros at event planning at the MAH, but all event plans start the same way: with a date. It felt like we needed to lock in a date so we could book collaborators, schedule staff, market the activities, and plan everything. So we did. We picked dates we thought were extremely safe… until they weren’t. When construction delays started to get too close to June 2, we started reframing the events—calling them “previews” instead of “opening.” Ultimately, even this reframing wasn’t going to fly, and we had to postpone.

Weirdly, once we decided to postpone, it seemed much less overwhelming than I expected to move everything. Now it feels like we have an amazing event-in-a-box ready to go whenever we are able to lock in new dates. That fixation on dates may have been unhelpful from the start.


I am so grateful to our staff, board, and community for supporting this change. I made the mistake, and they made the solution work. Our staff did an amazing job communicating the change with press, members, and partners—even shifting a huge cover story that went to print just hours after we made the change. Our team clearly, quickly told everyone about the change, and we emphasized that we were postponing so we could offer members the best experience possible. People were understanding about the delay and excited about the opening to come. And I went back to sleeping at night... while spending my days working hard to make the project live up to our community's biggest dreams.

Have we reset new opening dates? Heck no! Here’s our new strategy:
  • We’ll host an Abbott Square Preview Night on June 2 as part of First Friday activities.
  • When the Market gets its Certificate of Occupancy, we will work with the Market management to determine how many weeks of training and soft opening they need to open successfully. We'll start soft opening our new programming in the plaza during this period too.
  • We’ll set new grand opening dates based on soft opening needs and fire up our events plan with a few tweaks. 
And next time we open something comparably complex, we’ll set this kind of plan from the start.


Please share your questions or comments! If you are reading this via email, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Ask Me Anything about our Expansion... and Enjoy All the Posts in the Abbott Square Series

We’re just weeks away from opening Abbott Square to the public here in Santa Cruz, CA. Over the past ten weeks, I’ve written about some of the most potent, confounding, and pivotal moments in making this $5,000,000 community plaza project real.

Here are all the posts in the series. For every story I wrote down, there are ten others rattling around in my head. I’d love to hear your questions and comments. What do you want to know about the project or the process? No question too small. Let's learn more together.

Add your questions to the comments here. Enjoy these posts. And if you are in the area, join us for the Abbott Square Preview June 2 in downtown Santa Cruz. You can also check out the great cover story in the Good Times.

INTRODUCING ABBOTT SQUARE

  1. Introducing Abbott Square - welcome to the blog series
  2. Why We're Expanding in Public Space - and Why You Should Consider it Too - if our community lives beyond our walls, shouldn't our work go outside too? 
  3. Community Participation Builds a Community Plaza - how we involved community stakeholders and citizens from day 1
  4. The Most Important Question to Ask in a Capital Campaign - what is your project worth?
  5. What a Board is For - how trustees help you go beyond your limits
  6. Two Prioritization Techniques We Used to Negotiate a Great Lease - how can you decide collectively what you value most?
  7. How Getting Sued Ruined My Vacation and Taught Me about Stress - a cautionary tale
  8. From Mine to Ours - Sharing Ownership of Our Expansion - when and how do you bring your staff into a new project?
  9. Think Like a Real Estate Developer - a new way of looking at opportunities on the horizon
  10. What's More Inclusive: Food or Art? - questioning long-held beliefs about gentrification and inclusion

Please share your questions or comments! You can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What's More Inclusive: Food or Art? Introducing Abbott Square, Part 10

This is the tenth in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

When we started working on the food side of the Abbott Square project, it raised some basic questions about community inclusion. How could we build a market that was as diverse as our museum? Would adding a major commercial component to the project make it more or less welcoming?

Our staff and community saw these questions differently from the start. Staff members wanted to protect the MAH’s focus on reflecting the diversity of our community. We’ve worked hard for years to make the MAH a place that includes and welcomes people of all backgrounds. Success for us looks like MAH participants reflecting the age, ethnic, and economic diversity of our county. We’re very close to hitting all these targets. We didn’t want Abbott Square to be a step back on the path to community representation.

At the same time, we heard from community members how essential food was to make Abbott Square a compelling place to visit. People were hungry for more lunch, dinner, and happy hour options downtown. And the kind of food they wanted—fresh, local, diverse cuisine—didn’t lend itself to the cheapest options possible.

When we started working with the master tenant/developer on the market, he promised the market would feature “real food for real people.” Diverse chefs would present cuisines from around the world. There would be no white tablecloths—nor any table service at all. But some of us were still wary. Were we creating a gentrifying space instead of an inclusive one?

So our whole staff went to visit another public market the developer had started: San Pedro Square Market in San Jose. The food was mid-range in price. The cuisine represented many countries and flavors. The space was loud, friendly, and packed. And the staff and clientele were more ethnically diverse than any museum in the region--including ours.

Visiting San Pedro Square Market was a humbling wakeup call for me. Here we were, feeling righteous about our inclusive work, and there they were feeding a more diverse crowd than participated at the MAH.

No matter how focused we are on inclusive work at the MAH, we’re still doing it in the frame of a museum. To many people, an art museum is a more potent symbol of exclusivity and elitism than a hipster coffeeshop or a poke bar. In some communities’ eyes, art is a bigger gentrification concern than food.

Visiting San Pedro Square Market reminded me of all the community members who got excited about Abbott Square and the MAH because of the food. There are many, many people in this world who do not feel welcome, invited, or interested in museums. All those people eat. Many of them (more and more every year) eat out. More people, and more diverse people, go to restaurants than go to museums. Many people might feel a greater sense of invitation from a West African rice bowl or custom popsicle in Abbott Square Market than from MAH exhibitions.

I don’t want to discount the potential for Abbott Square Market to be a force for gentrification. It could be. We have to be attentive to its impact on the MAH community and our downtown. But I'm not willing to give the MAH or any art institution a pass in this attentiveness. I don't assume that nonprofits are automatically more inclusive than businesses.

We have to keep working on many levels to include diverse participants—and we will keep doing so, indoors and out. In Abbott Square Market, we’re working with diverse chefs, with diverse staffs, to welcome diverse customers who like to eat out. In the plaza and the museum, we're working with diverse partners, on diverse programs, to welcome diverse visitors who like to connect through creativity and culture. We’re offering many experiences, at many price points, with many partners. It’s all part of opening up the MAH to more of our community.


If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Think Like a (Real Estate) Developer: Introducing Abbott Square, Part 9

This is the ninth in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

Studying engineering taught me to think like a designer: state the problem, brainstorm, test, iterate.
Working with creative people taught me to think like an artist: observe, explore, dive in, look out.
Partnering in community taught me to think like an organizer: listen, connect, build shared purpose.
Building the Abbott Square project taught me a whole new mindset: that of the real estate developer.

Real estate developers have two distinctive qualities I’m learning to adopt: they think from the outside in, and they balance flexible optimism with clear criteria for success.

OUTSIDE IN

Before the Abbott Square project, I approached planning from an internally-driven perspective. We develop the ideas. We explore the possible programs. We develop the projects. The “we” isn’t always staff; in most cases, our staff work with community partners in a participatory, co-creative model. But we mostly start projects from the dreams and challenges of the partners in the room.

Real estate developers don’t think this way. They approach planning from the outside in, starting with the external conditions of the land around them. Each site provides its own set of opportunities and constraints. The question is not, “what do I want to do?” but “what can I do with this?”

This mindset expands my world. Even as we talk about “abundance thinking” in nonprofits, we tend to restrict ourselves to a limited landscape of opportunities. We don’t look too far beyond our existing programs, sites, and partners. We don’t scan every new encounter for its potential. Because we want control, we start by controlling ourselves, pre-selecting a narrow window of possibilities based on the frames we’ve already installed.

Real estate developers taught me to stop focusing on my own locus of control. Now I look outside the window and wonder what opportunities different sites and partners could unlock. It’s like Pokemon Go for professional opportunities; that site has some gold sparkles, that park is hopping with party animals, that collaboration request has a rainbow guarded by trolls.

FLEXIBLE OPTIMISM + HARD CRITERIA

Real estate developers blend optimism and flexibility with clear-eyed assessment of what external conditions make a project go. Developers will move mountains to make a project they believe in work—but they’ll also drop a project in an instant if the external conditions make it untenable. If a project doesn’t pencil out or meet the criteria they feel spell success, developers walk away. There will always be another site, another project, another opportunity for a better fit.

This approach requires being explicit and honest about criteria for success or failure. Every developer I’ve talked with can list specific things that will make them pursue or drop a project—at any stage. One guy will only work in specific municipalities. Another has to own the building. It doesn’t matter how attractive the project is if they can’t have what they feel they need to make it succeed.

In my nonprofit world, I’m neither required nor challenged to develop such clear criteria. My general nonprofit MO is to pursue a project and to keep adjusting and learning our way to the finish line. There are some projects that go on too long before they get axed. We identify flaws emergently rather than starting with clear “go/no go” criteria.”

Thinking like a developer has made me more comfortable pursuing many early-stage possibilities in parallel instead of marching forward in sequence. I assume most early-stage opportunities won’t end up lining up, but I won’t know which ones are viable until we get further down the road. I want the “deal flow” of opportunities—and I’m working to hone my own mental checklist of necessary criteria.

***

An engineer says: “I’ll try this and learn something, then I’ll try that and learn something, and eventually I’ll get it right.”

An artist says: “I’ll explore the world, pull ideas from it, and craft a response.”

A nonprofit manager says: “Based on what we’ve learned and the partnerships we’ve built, we’ll move forward like this, together.”

A developer says: “I’ll open many conversations, and when I find the one that meets all my criteria, I’ll go full steam ahead on that one and drop the others that don’t.”

All of these are valid ways to approach the world. Which will you use for your next project?


If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

From Mine to Ours - Sharing Ownership of Our Expansion: Introducing Abbott Square, Part 8

MAH staffer Sandino Gomez extolls the virtues of Abbott Square.
This is the eighth in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

When we started the Abbott Square expansion project, I knew it would change our facility. I knew it would change the museum visitor experience. I knew it would change our downtown.

But I completely missed something else it would change: our staff.

It's absurd in retrospect to think this project could change the downtown without changing our organization. But when we started Abbott Square, I saw it as a new program. I assumed it would grow alongside our existing work rather than reshaping it. We were developing something that departed from our core services, on a site that we didn’t currently activate, with money we didn’t yet have. It felt separate from the ongoing work of the organization. For the first two years, the board was deeply involved. The staff was not.

The Abbott Square development team started with one staff member and one trustee. I brought the community visioning and planning process. Peter Orr (the trustee) brought the business planning and operational know-how. For over a year, Peter and I built the plan, negotiated partnerships, crunched numbers. We worked with community partners, stakeholders, and trustees to hone the plan.

When the capital campaign started, the staff team grew from one to three. I hired a development director whose primary focus was the capital campaign. Our marketing and engagement coordinator expanded her role to produce campaign collateral. Working closely with trustees and community partners, we raised the $5,000,000 needed to make the Abbott Square a reality.

All our staff members worked fundraising events. They heard the pitch. They knew the broad strokes of the project. But internally, many staff (including me) treated the Abbott Square project as “my” project. I felt both excited and isolated by the project. I sat alone in the corner reviewing contracts and architectural plans. Abbott Square was still an idea conjured in site plans and fundraising brochures. It existed outside the real world of museum exhibits, events, and visitors our staff worked with every day.

For the first couple years, I was comfortable with this division of labor. I had my job; my colleagues had theirs. Since there wasn’t yet concrete work for them to DO related to Abbott Square, separation felt appropriate. In staff meetings, I treated Abbott Square as an inspiring distraction. Something to be aware of and informed about. Not something to focus on.

But as we started shifting from vision to action, we had to change this approach. Abbott Square wasn’t shaping up to be another project in a portfolio of MAH projects. It was changing our community, and it had to change our organization. I needed to desilo the project. I needed to open it up to our staff’s expertise. I needed to invite staff members to feel like owners of it.

Even once I understood this, I wasn’t sure when and how to shift. There were so many questions about Abbott Square where the answer was, “I don’t know yet.” There were so many parts of the project that took up a ton of my time but shouldn’t concern others. There were stressful moments—getting permits, settling the lawsuit—that could have been big distractions for our staff. I felt protective of their time. I wanted to insulate them from the strange world of the project. I wanted to wait until I could answer their questions with something other than “I don’t know yet.”

And so I waited.

It never felt like the right time to make the shift. I never felt like I had enough information for staff. I never felt ready to ask people to shift their attention to something that didn’t exist yet. I hated being unsure of dates and timelines. I kept telling myself we should wait a little longer.

But then two things happened that made me feel like I had to act. First, our Development Director moved on from the MAH when the campaign wrapped up. My main staff partner on the project was gone. And Intersection for the Arts fell into crisis.

Intersection is a San Francisco-based arts organization I had long admired. In the mid-2000s, under the leadership of Deborah Cullinan, they entered into a partnership with a real estate developer to move into a new building and transform their business model. The move was ambitious, innovative, and bold—everything Deborah was known for. Three years after the move, Deborah left Intersection to become the new CEO of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. She thought she was leaving Intersection in a strong position. Instead, within a year, it fell into financial crisis.

I know very little about Intersection’s move, meltdown, and subsequent regrowth. But I do know this: the financial crisis underscored the need for the whole organization to understand and embrace the move in all its complexity.

The Intersection crisis was a wakeup call for me. If Abbott Square launched as “my” project, or even as the board’s project, MAH staff might not be ready to lead it. They might not seize all the opportunities it presents. They might struggle to tackle the challenges it introduces.

And so I started opening up. I asked colleagues to partner with me on an operational vision. I invited them take the lead on several key elements. I got more comfortable saying, “I don’t know.”

The more I did this, the more it became clear that Abbott Square could and should have a transformative impact on our whole organization. About a year before opening, we did a major restructuring of our staff to meet the opportunity of Abbott Square. At first, I’d assumed two or three people’s jobs would be impacted by Abbott Square. Instead, everyone’s job changed. To treat Abbott Square as an expansion of the MAH and not an ancillary project, we all had to reset our idea of what the MAH is and what we do here.

The restructuring was tough, time-consuming, and necessary. We rewrote job descriptions, reoriented teams, and redistributed work. Now, we have a staff team who think of MAH + Abbott Square as one big entity which we are all responsible for.

This transition work is far from done. There are still aspects of the project I have a hard time letting go of. Every day, I have to tell a colleague “I don’t know” when I wish I could give them a definitive answer. But I’m trying to be honest about these items as they arise. Our goal is that when we open this summer, the operation of the expanded MAH is in the hands of our whole team. I think we’re getting there.

I still wonder what would have happened if I hadn't had that wakeup call. I still wonder when the perfect moment was to start this transition. Should I have started sooner, so more staff members co-owned the nascent vision? Should I have waited longer, so staff could do their best work on existing programs and not waste energy on uncertain outcomes? When we’re in this situation someday with the next big project, what will we do?


If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Introducing Abbott Square Part 7: How Getting Sued Ruined My Vacation and Taught Me about Stress

This is the seventh in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.


My husband and I had just come back from a glorious four-day trek through the Pasayten wilderness in the fall of 2015. We were reconnecting with family at dinner when the email came in. My museum was being sued over the Abbott Square project.

All the energy I’d restored on our hike came crashing down around me. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t calm down. I didn’t have the tools to make it right.

Before Abbott Square, I thought I knew how to manage stress. I come from a family of hard-driving women. I love intense challenges and the bursts of stress that come with them. I see stress as a motivating factor, a catalyst for action. Even in tough situations, I find ways to push through, solve the problem, make a decision, and get zooming again.

When the Abbott Square project started, a trustee told me: “this is a marathon, not a sprint.” And while I heard him, I didn’t listen. I thought I’d be fine. I didn’t take the time to learn how to retrain my energy for the long haul.

Four years and too many sleepless nights later, I’m still slowly, painfully learning. Abbott Square laid bare the fact that I’m only good at managing stress in situations where I have a lot of control and can work my way out of the stress. I can’t apply hustle to resolve a lawsuit. I can’t push through a lack of communication from a regulatory agency. When it rains, we can’t pour concrete.

It turns out this isn’t a marathon at all. It’s a group road trip where you don’t always get to have your hands on the wheel.

I wish I could tell you that I’ve figured out ways to manage this kind of “group road trip” stress. I haven’t. I’ve learned some small things: how to stop obsessing when it’s not my turn to drive, apply my energy more judiciously, and be more protective of time away from work. The lawsuit was instructive because it had rules, like a game. In the most stressful of situations, I learned to play my turn and stay in my role. A year later, we settled the lawsuit. We were zooming again. But I still had—and have—more sleepless, obsessive nights than I’d like.

I’ve been told that the hardest things to change are the things you feel naturally good at. Until you’re pushed to the limit, you don’t see them as areas for growth. And once you're at that limit and decide you need to grow, it’s hard to abandon patterns that have felt successful for so long. I’d always told myself that I knew how to make stress work for me. Now I’m a little more humble and cautious. If I want to grow and work on even bigger projects, I’ve got to feel okay about those times when my hands aren’t on the wheel.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Introducing Abbott Square Part 6: Two Prioritization Techniques We Used to Negotiate a Great Lease

This is the sixth in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

Imagine this situation: you’re about to negotiate a long-term partnership for a massive expansion project. Money is on the table. Values are on the table. Everything’s on the table. How do you decide what to prioritize?

18 months ago, I entered lease negotiations with real estate developer, John McEnery IV, who our board had selected to develop the food component of Abbott Square. John would run Abbott Square Market, a multi-vendor food and drink business, adjacent to the plaza, adjacent to the museum. John would manage the food, the MAH would manage the museum, and we would co-manage the plaza. That’s all we knew going into negotiations.

There were lots of big unresolved questions. How much money would we each bring to the table? How much would John pay for rent and how should we structure it? Who would manage construction? Who would steer the design? Who would pick the food vendors? Who would be responsible for what in the plaza? When would the market be open and under what conditions?

I was overwhelmed and under-confident. I needed a way to focus. I needed a way to get direction from our board and staff on what was inviolate and what was negotiable. I needed the board’s leadership without having all of them involved in every little deal point.

So we did two exercises—with board and staff, separately—to develop our priorities. I suspect these exercises might be useful in any complicated project. It is in that spirit that I share them with you.

MISSION/MONEY MATRIX

Nonprofit folk are familiar with this 2x2 grid, with mission fulfillment on one axis and financial sustainability on the other. Nonprofits use this grid to analyze program performance and to explore ways to shift UP towards higher mission fulfillment and/or RIGHT towards higher profitability.

In the case of the Abbott Square Market negotiation, we used this matrix to get a basic sense of our goals. We'd been leasing the site of the future Market as commercial office space for years: solidly profitable, with no mission impact. That (red) dot was our starting point.

We gave board and staff members this diagram and asked them: when the Abbott Square project is complete, where do you want this dot to go? Do you want us to make the same amount of money but increase the mission impact? Would you sacrifice some money for greater mission impact? Would you sacrifice some mission potential for more money?

They drew their dots, building consensus around the blue dot shown. The project had to increase mission impact. And it had to do as well--or better--than the office building financially.

So we structured the rent in a “base with kicker” format. The museum is guaranteed a monthly base rent that is stable and comparable to what we were receiving when the space was leased for offices. But if the Market does better than a certain threshold, we get more money - a kicker - above the base. That's the dotted line potential for the revenue to increase.

YOUR TOP THREE PRIORITIES

In the months leading up to the lease negotiation, trustees and staff voiced lots of different priorities for the project. Some focused on the need for Abbott Square to be as welcoming and inclusive as the MAH. Others cared about it being clean. Still others wanted local food vendors. And so on.

We couldn’t succeed in negotiations if everything was a top priority. There had to be some things we could trade to get other things that mattered more.

So I wrote up ten distinct priorities we’d heard throughout the process and invited board and staff members to each pick their top three.

We tabulated all the top priorities by votes to generate a ranked list. While trustees and staff had different top priorities, the cumulative priorities were clear. We were able to split the original ten priorities into five “must-haves” and five non-essential preferences. You can see them in this chart. The must-haves on the left, and the negotiable non-essentials on the right.

Unsurprisingly, the five must-haves were the ones that hewed closest to the MAH mission. But they were not the ones people talked about the most in the months leading up to this exercise. Once we had to prioritize, some sexy, much-discussed ideas—like celebrating local food—gave way to core MAH values—like celebrating cultural diversity.

Focusing on five priorities gave me focus and freedom. I could focus on what was important, and I had the freedom to pursue and protect those important elements in whatever way I felt best. In many ways, the five “non-essentials” were even more helpful than the must-haves, because I knew I could deal them away as needed.

In the end, we signed a contract that answered all the big questions about how to manage the project. Any contract would have done that. But the answers hewed to the priorities articulated through these two exercises. No matter how small the deal point, I knew I could use these big priorities as a guiding light. And board and staff knew that I was acting on their collective wisdom and our shared vision for success.

What techniques have you used to set priorities for a big, complicated negotiation?

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