A newsletter on progress-space research and audience development for cultural leaders. One reader calls it, "sometimes funny"

Update: You can now register to join the Writer Roundtable with the author of this post, Dr. Kiehl. The roundtable is scheduled for Thursday, July 9th at 2pm eastern. We’ll go deeper into the questions Kimberlee asks here and explore why strategy is more important than ever for cultural organizations.

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Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem has been stuck in my head lately.

There is a crack in everything,
That's how the light gets in

Those lines do a good job of describing the museum world today.

The COVID pandemic Is showing us that many museums and cultural organizations were not equipped to manage a crisis of this magnitude. Walls that seemed secure are now cracking, and, in some cases, the light pouring in has exposed years of flawed thinking, poor planning, untenable business models, and brittle, cumbersome strategic plans. I find myself wondering if, for some, efforts to “stay relevant” and top-of-mind among visitors were made too hastily.

For example, some museums shut their doors and quickly ran to the virtual world, taking their programs and events to the internet. Sadly, for many of these museums, the people they are able to reach now are those with the means to access the technology that supports those online experiences.

It’s not clear how many of these decisions were made using a specific strategy for moving the organization forward. Had we stopped and breathed for a bit we may have found ways to get our content into neighborhoods in ways that were more accessible — museum spots like the Little Libraries, things to be picked up at grocery stores, or connections and partnerships made with teachers who were desperately also trying to transition their work online.

What strategy is — and why it matters now more than ever.

Research has shown that high-performing leadership teams spend nearly 20% more time than low performing teams defining strategy, 12% more time aligning the organization around that strategy, and 14% more time checking progress against strategic goals by reviewing key metrics and shifting resources accordingly.

Many museum leadership teams seem to be in reaction mode right now, and strategy does not appear to be top of mind. But it’s times like these that strategy is more valuable and important than ever.

When I say “strategy”, I’m not talking about the goals written in your strategic plan (which may have many parts that are now totally irrelevant and probably need to be revisited).

I’m talking about a roadmap to a new future — not a list of activities that you are doing to try to “manage” the crisis.

Strategy is about who you want to be in the future and how you will get there. It’s about making thoughtful decisions about what your role in the community is now and what it will be in the future. And strategic thinking means carefully considering who your audience is, who you are programming for, and seeing if the things you are doing actually match who you want to be reaching.

The Oxford definition of strategy is “a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.” The word “plan” is the key here.

A strategy is a plan with specific actions that take you from where you are to where you want to be in the future. Strategy shows what roads to take to our destination, and planning ensures we arrive at the designated time.

A crisis is not the time to step away from strategy and simply react.

A crisis is exactly the time we should stop and ask ourselves what story we want our organization to tell, internally and externally, for the coming years.

The strategy that you develop will shape the story you tell the public, as well as the story you tell your employees. It will ultimately tell the story of who you are as an organization, what you value, and how you fit into your community.

While you are thinking about the “new normal” for your organization your visitors are probably still thinking about their old normal — the one they are longing to return to. So are your employees. And maybe you are, too.

But I don’t think that’s where our heads should be right now.

Instead, it’s better to focus on redefining who you are and what you offer the community — and to ask the questions that will form a real strategy for how you will make the story you are writing a true one.

Questions to help get us from here to there

Have you taken the time to make a roadmap to help you get from where you are now to the new place that is where you want to be? Not the “returning to normal” place but to the reinventing-normal place.

Perhaps more than ever now is the time when we as leaders need to be asking ourselves these questions:

  • What is your strategy to get to who you want to be for the future?
  • What will your strategy for reopening be? What will you stop doing and what will you do that is brand new?
  • What does your community most need from you? What do you really need to be for your community?
  • Are you simply a “place” or are you an “idea” that doesn’t necessarily rely on place?
  • Are you a set of interactive experiences or a trusted source of information?
  • Are you the place that holds the remnants of past lives or the place that tells the stories of those past lives in ways that reach people wherever they are and speaks to people’s emotions?
  • Will people want to come to have an experience that is so different from what they have come to expect? Will they be willing to wait 6 feet apart for interactives or are you better off to either not open at all or recreate the experience so they are having a totally new experience?
  • How can you create this totally new experience that won’t disappoint visitors but will introduce them to a new way of experiencing the world?
  • How often will you assess how well things are working and whether you are using your now limited resources in the best ways?
  • Based on the decisions you have made so far, what is the story the public believes about you now? Is that the story you want them to see in the new world we are facing?
  • What story do you want your organization to tell in the future? What strategy will you take to get there?
  • What do you need to do to make that a true story? What actions make up the roadmap to activate that strategy? Will your planned actions support or contradict that story?
  • What is the story you are telling internally? Are your actions reflecting that story in a true way?
  • How can you make the visitor the hero of their own story in the future with your organization as the helper?
  • In what areas is it clear that you can’t/won’t achieve your goals with the story you have now and how do you need to change it to make sure you do achieve those goals?

Four questions for Strategic Doing

As you think about these questions, it may be time to appoint someone to monitor these questions — a “Chief Doing Officer” if you will.

A Chief Doing Officer continually nudges you to next actions and reminds you to measure the success (or failure) of the actions you’ve already taken to move forward.

Purdue’s work on Strategic Doing states that our most difficult challenges are embedded in complex systems. These complex systemic problems do not have a single solution. The COVID problem is a prime example of a complex systemic problem.

To help guide our actions, Strategic Doing suggests we iteratively ask four questions:

  • What could we do?
  • What should we do?
  • What will we do?
  • What’s our 30/30? (When will we review our actions, report our learning, adjust and set our next actions, typically 30 days).

Strategy is about doing the right things, planning is about doing things right.

What if we welcomed the light coming in through those cracks in the walls?

How can we use that light to create a better future for all of us? Can we create a strategy for the museum field that can guide us toward smarter and more thoughtful planning?

All stories have a turning point. This pandemic is one for our organizations and for our field.

William Stafford wrote, “I have woven a parachute out of everything broken.”

What parachute can we weave together that allows us to all land a little more softly? Are we going to try to go back to our old stories or will we write a new one? Our answer will determine our futures.


Note: Be sure to check out Kimberlee’s latest article in Informal Learning Review: Museums During COVID-19: A Liminal Space.
— Kyle

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