Guest post: What can Museums learn from nonprofit leadership?

This post is written by Janet Carding, Director and CEO, Royal Ontario Museum, who very generously offered to share some core takeaways from attending a Harvard Business School executive course on Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management. Although the focus of museumgeek is ostensibly technology and its impact on museums, questions of change, strategy, and complexity intersect with any discussion that occurs in this space, as does the subject of museum leadership. Janet’s insight as a museum director, then, is one that I am sure all readers will benefit from.

Janet Carding
Director & CEO, Royal Ontario Museum

When you are leading a museum you get lots of advice from all different directions. Some of it is lobbying about specific issues. It often ignores the complexity of running a mission-driven organization, which serves many different audiences with limited resources. And whilst there are mountains of management texts for business leaders, very few of them spend much time on the nonprofit sector. So I felt very fortunate this year to secure a place on the week-long Harvard Business School course for non-profit leaders called Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management. There were around 140 Directors and CEOs in Cambridge, MA for the course, and I was one of only a dozen from the cultural sector. For me one of the main draws of the course was a chance to hear more about the challenges CEOs from charities, independent schools, development agencies and non-profit health care providers were facing now, and how they were adapting to deal with them.

It is not too big a claim to say that the week was one of the most intense learning periods of my life, and I am only now really starting to process what we discussed and think about how it applies to the ROM. But there were many areas that are very relevant for museums and other cultural institutions, and I’m very happy to share and have others help me reflect through this guest blog!  I’ll just pick three highlights from the many that I could choose.

Firstly, every lecture and discussion flagged the importance of a clear theory of change. On our first full day Professor Dutch Leonard, one of the course leaders said, think about exactly what you are trying to accomplish, and be clear about how what you do brings about what you are looking to achieve.  I think museums often dance around these questions, perhaps because in the past the role of museums wasn’t questioned so much. Now I think we are all trying to answer the question, “what are we trying to accomplish?” If the answer to that question is framed in terms of impact, then the next questions we should ask are about the activities, outputs and outcomes that are required to have that impact. This kind of logic model was used again and again during the week at HBS. (See this Kellogg Foundation guide that usefully outlines the theory of change, and logic models.) While conversations about outcomes are not new in museums, I feel we still spend a lot of time talking about what we do rather than what change we are trying to make, and when we are asked to measure success, it sometimes exposes gaps between the programs we create and the claims we make.

Next, many of the case studies we reviewed looked at the array of different pressures that our various stakeholders put on nonprofits, and in those circumstances how hard it was to avoid fragmentation, and forge alignment of your different activities. Allen Grossman talked about the importance of managing upstream (your funders, donors and those who buy from you), and reinforced that a clear theory of change was a starting point that then led to performance measures, not just to demonstrate to funders, but so that you know if your organization is succeeding. He also spoke about the importance of building leadership capacity, and of creating cultures where measuring impact was seen as important. It feels to me that performance measures are often seen in museums as hurdles imposed by funders, rather than important tools for us to use in assessing our own success. Similarly, while we are places of learning for our visitors and users, we often reduce our own professional development, and don’t invest in the capacity building and culture changes Grossman flagged as important.

The third highlight came courtesy of Frances Frei, whose lecture was something of a revelation for the whole group.  Based on her new book Uncommon Service Frances explained that her research had shown that, in order to succeed in customer service, organizations had to trade off being excellent at some things, with being bad at others. She convinced us that the alternative was not to be excellent at everything, but exhausted mediocracy. What a lovely expression! Again and again I hear from colleagues that the reality of working in a museum is not what they thought was the potential, and so that phrase, “exhausted mediocracy” really resonated with me.  It is tough to consider being bad at some things when you are a public service, but I think her approach is spot on, and would encourage you to look at her research. How do you choose where to be bad, and where excellent? Frances suggests you ask your audience what is important to them, and concentrate on being excellent in the areas that they say matter most.

Now you might be reading this blog and think, well none of these ideas are exactly new, and I would agree, but I think the clarity the HBS faculty brought to the points they made, coupled with a chance to consider them when away from the messy reality of day-to-day life in the museum made them very powerful. The net effect for me was one of validation. They provided an evidence base through their research for issues that, in less focused form, many of us spend a lot of time talking about, but aren’t always sure how to start changing.  This week gave me a lot of material, in a very concentrated form, which I think will help those conversations.

Some think museums and galleries need to more business-like, but in many ways after this course I think we instead need to be better nonprofits, say clearly why we make the world a better place, work closely with our users, and demonstrate the impact we make.

My thanks to the HBS Club of Toronto who, with the support of KPMG, awarded me a scholarship to attend this course.
My thanks also to Suse for the opportunity to do this guest blog, and for her interest and enthusiasm for all things museum!

This post will be republished on the Royal Ontario Museum website.

Concrete, clear & specific: Practical ideas for building digital practices into museums

The museum blogosphere has lately been enlivened with posts about risk, leadership and incorporating digital into core museum operations – all questions that relate to the problems of dealing with institutional change in museums in response to the changing social/technological environment.

Last week, I had coffee with Janet Carding, Director of the Royal Ontario Museum, and she too mentioned the widespread acknowledgement within the sector that this is a time of paradigmatic shift for museums. The theme of MCN2012 also reflects this. The Museum Unbound: Shifting Perspectives, Evolving Spaces, Disruptive Technologies “focuses on exploring how the quickening pace of technological innovation is expanding the very definition of what it means to be a museum”, and the discussions of the Program Committee certainly revolved around these issues.

As such, I’ve started thinking about the practical steps that institutions can take to build digital practices into core museum practice. This article – A call for leadership: Newspaper execs deserve the blame for not changing the culture (tweeted by Matt Heenan) – has some useful thoughts about the newspaper business that are applicable here. Obviously museums are different to newspapers, but the article by still has some instructive ideas (emphasis mine):

Changing a culture is not a top-down or bottom-up proposition: It’s a dance between leaders and their organizations… Leaders must examine their own actions carefully to determine what they reward and what they punish, what the day-to-day routines of their organization reflect, and how best to create an environment in which open and constant communication is a priority. They must develop concrete reward systems that encourage risk and help employees make digital duties as much a part of their routines as the traditional

…One daily newspaper of less than 50,000 circulation we studied struggled with the change to a web-first organization because, though its leaders acknowledged the importance of the new medium, they did not reinforce that desire through their reward and accountability systems. Print revenue and circulation remained the benchmarks of success, not digital revenue or pageviews. As a result, newsroom staffers struggled to develop the kind of online content needed to expand the web audience…

…[M]any of the people executives dismissed as anti-change curmudgeons were often much more thoughtful and accepting of new digital strategies than expected when asked directly. While they had concerns about change, the root of their trouble was lacking clear, specific goals from on-high. Staffers hungered for specific direction on how to reprioritize their workloads, which had increased substantially as staffs shrunk and responsibilities increased.

The application of these lessons to museums seems straightforward. For digital work to be incorporated into core museum business, staff need clear goals and guidelines for doing so. Museum workers right across the institution – and not merely those working in web/technology focussed departments – need actionable and clear benchmarks for success that include creating digital and online content, pageviews or revenue. And once these benchmarks are set, staff then need guidance for reprioritising their normal workloads to account for the changes.

In Rob Stein’s great MW2012 paper Blow Up Your Digital Strategy: Changing the Conversation about Museums and Technology, he writes:

The key to building trust within the organization is beginning to build internal confidence among staff and to demonstrate the success of metrics that are important to the whole organization…

… If your museum’s strategic plan does not have clear metrics that help you know what success looks like, then a document that describes what they are and how they are measured would be much more useful to the museum than a technology strategy. If your strategic plan talks about reaching new audiences, how will you measure whether or not they are being reached? If the plan seeks to improve access to collections, then the ability to measure that access is crucial. Once those metrics are known and accepted by the staff, creating technology strategies that enhance those metrics is a much clearer task.  Rather than debating whether a particular effort was “worth it”, such metrics can clarify the discussion about how museum resources were spent. The impact of technology then becomes less about opinion and more about whether or not the museum’s goals were met.

He’s right. Having clear metrics is important for defining what success looks like. However, once those metrics are defined at a strategic level, staff right across the institution whose work could (should?) intersect with the digital world need to be given their own benchmarks for digital success, along with specific directions as to how to incorporate these new accountabilities with their already-existing work. Large-scale strategy is important, but so are the individual strategies that are built into it.

Has your museum developed any clear goals and guidelines to help staff incorporate digital work into their routines? Do staff (including curators, marketers, educators etc) across the institution have concrete, actionable and specific benchmarks for digital success, as well as guidance for how to reach those goals? If so, who has driven this process within the museum? And has it made a visible difference to the incorporation and acceptance of digital into core museum business?