Too much success?

Posted on December 9, 2012


At MCN2012, I chaired an interesting session call from Proposal to Pay-Off: Three museums get it done. In it, Morgan Holzer, Rob Lancefield and Dylan Kinnett spoke about how a project at their museum moves from being merely an idea to actually getting up and running. The session unearthed all kinds of interesting questions about the decision making process in institutions of different sizes, and with different amounts of control invested in the hands of the individual. But one thing we didn’t talk about that I think is very interesting is success, and what happens when if a project is too successful.

I’ve been thinking about this question for a while, because success isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. Even the sort of success that so many people dream of, like rock-stardom, comes with downsides, as this interview with Australian musician Wally de Backer (better known as Gotye, of Somebody that I used to know fame) suggests:

De Backer isn’t given to hyperbole but admits things have gone ”a bit crazy” of late. ”There’s been plenty of demand everywhere for more tickets, more shows,” he says. ”We’d arranged 30 or 40 shows then just about every single venue started to get upgraded. It’s a blessing and a curse.” He readily admits he’d rather be in a studio making music than out on the road. He gets a buzz when he plays a good gig but the carousel of hotel rooms, tour buses, sound checks and interviews wears him down. He usually hits the wall three weeks in when he reads the schedule and realises there are two months to go. ”It’s so boring and repetitive,” he sighs. ‘‘This is not what I dreamt of, this is not the payoff I expected.

That nebulous thing that we all seem to want but don’t always get around to defining in advance (gosh, even defining metrics for success after the fact is a challenge), doesn’t always come with the payoffs we expect. It’s complicated, and can lead to repercussions that have impact beyond what was hoped for. Excess success can be particularly problematic if you aren’t prepared for it, or if you find yourself unable to innovate and adapt to changing circumstances because of it.

Could your museum cope if one or more of your projects was successful beyond normal? What if you started to get unexpectedly big numbers through the door? Would that impact the experience of seeing the exhibitions, or being in the space? Would you need to hire new staff members to cope? Would your budget handle that? Your processes?

What about web success? If you came up with a digital strategy that was wildly successful and suddenly went viral, could your staff cope with the increased or changed workload? There are a couple of slides from a presentation that Andrew Lewis and Rich Barrett-Small gave at the UK Museums on the Web conference recently that particularly resonated with me when thinking about this topic. As slide number 27 says “A moment’s creative inspiration today is a week of pain next year.” (The slides that follow it also paint a useful picture of the realities of start-up culture versus the longevity required for museums.)

We talk a lot about “success” for and in museums, and that’s good. It’s important to want to be successful. But I think we all really only want and plan for success within a very narrow band of measurement, and indeed actually rely on some level of failure (what if all your grant approvals came back with all the money you had requested?). Things don’t always work out as planned, and it’s worth remembering that sometimes the repercussions of success can be as difficult to manage as those of epic failure (and maybe even more so… I think we are far better prepared mentally for things working out worse than we expected, than better).

What do you think? Could your team or your museum cope with epic success, rather than epic failure? Have you ever had to deal with a program or project that was successful far beyond what you had planned for? What were the repercussions of that success? And how did that change your approach to future projects?

NB – I originally took a different approach to this subject, and one that was not fully thought through. I rewrote following a useful Tweet about some aspects of my original post that I hadn’t considered.