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  • Writer's picturePhillip Ratliff

Creating a results oriented museum team

Updated: 3 days ago

A younger colleague recently contacted me about issues he was having as part of a museum team. His job: to process a rather hefty donation to the museum using a collections management software program. His problem: his bosses weren’t convinced he was moving quickly enough. In fact, they were convinced he was dragging his heels.

I made the following recommendation to him. Document everything you do. That includes logging in hours worked and on what tasks.

But don’t obsess over just that. What’s more relevant is the number of artifacts recorded every day. Pretty soon, you’ll see patterns. On average, how many artifacts can you process a day? What sorts of issues tend to trip you up? Could those difficult artifacts be processed later, after key elements of their records were worked out? What sorts of tasks could volunteers perform?

A record of all these dynamics shows bosses that the job they wanted to see move more quickly is more than simple, but multifaceted, complex, and often fraught with challenges if you’re committed to doing it correctly.

With the right documentation, this younger colleague could be well on his way to effectively managing up.

Frankly, he, like us all, needs managing down, too.

I recommend to middle and upper managers out there to help your team think reasonably and thoroughly about your team’s goals, about their pace of work, about how they communicate their progress to you.

It’s often lost on entry level team members that upper managers have their own bosses. They are the ones reporting to CEOs and boards. And they are undoubtedly hearing from various stakeholders: “When will my donated artifact become a part of your collections, a part of your interpretive strategies?” “How are you spending my money?” “Should I give you any more money?” “Just what is my impact through you?”

Documentation at the ground level helps everyone have ready answers. I call this a dashboard. Every organization needs to think about theirs. Some metrics spell the difference between organizational life and death. Others, you just don’t need. A dashboard helps you be not just process oriented but results oriented.* And it ensures that those results are the ones to care about.

Let’s talk through what you want on this dashboard, department by department. Besides the processing of artifacts, what else can your interpretation department document?

How about tours? This area more than most carries both a qualitative and quantitative element.

There’s how many tours. A tour management program can easily tell that story. Here, I recommend getting granular. How well are you reaching this zip code or school system? Your tour management platform will help you tease out all those analytics.

And then there’s how well you’re doing. I highly recommend that every teacher on an educational tour receive a teacher survey asking about how well you’re advancing your state’s course of study goals. Have a volunteer committee looking at content and responding to those surveys.

I also recommend that you regularly spot-survey families and individuals for insights into your performance on non-school tours. Use zip codes to help you determine demographics. Your museum might be resonating well with visitors from that toney neighborhood nearby but getting goose eggs with working class visitors of color two miles away. If that’s the case, figure out what’s going on and adjust your messaging and your programming accordingly. Find grants to help bridge the gap. Don’t leave anyone behind. But first, you have got to know the facts.

These principles carry into other areas.

Take your development team, for example. They work in a deadline-driven enterprise, those deadlines bestowed upon them by granting agencies who do not care about how busy you are.

Grant writing is a game of prediction and percentages, right? Your development team probably knows the wells it can keep going back to and the wells that are consistently dry. Development probably knows what it can expect by way of ask-to-award ratios. “This organization tends to give around 60 percent of what we ask for. Let’s plan to either scale back our project budget or find other sources.”

Keep records. Look for patterns. Make your long-term plans based on what has happened before. Be smart and strategic.

Yeah, it’s a game. Play it. Have a calendar with all your grant and “ask” deadlines laid out, the amount of your ask, an indication of what those funds will likely actually be, and a statement saying what they will go toward. If they support a particular project, say so. Those are your restricted funds. If the funds can go toward general operating expenses, say so. Those are your unrestricted funds.

Big difference! Some sources put you on the hook to do certain things more than others do. Indeed, some sources become liabilities if you accept them but then don’t have the project fully funded through other sources. Tread wisely.

And when it comes to grant funds, loop in your marketing team. They need to tell a compelling story about how these funds are going to good use. If the organization publishes a magazine or newsletter or email blast, tell the story of what your funding sources have made possible. When it’s time to write the follow-up report, you’ll have proof that you implemented what you said you’d implement and that you acknowledged the grantor.

Marketing teams are, what, the lifeblood? No, maybe that’s development. They’re the voice. (Yeah, that’s it.) They’re the ones who say “I'm well-fed or I'm hungry for more,” and “I’m doing well now but I’d like to keep doing better.” Marketing teams are also effective record-keepers. They take photos. They turn out copy, maybe on the daily. They produce proof that others are working and that that work is relevant to furthering the goals of the organization and the goals of the granting organization. (That makes them not just the voice but, what, also the short-term memory center? Analogies inevitably break down. Oh, well.)

Finally, I have found that marketing teams are the best at saying “thank you.” I’m not saying they’re the only ones who need to practice this habit. (Lord knows, we all need to be thankful.) But often marketing is the best at, the most attuned to, managing this habit in say, your education team, who is often wrapped up in the throes of implementation.

Notice something else. These teams are talking to one another, in effect, managing one another. They have to. Development is raising money for programs that Education will have to implement. PR/marketing is promoting those programs and then developing stories about them with Education as a source that then go back to Development as documentation. Operations is staffing according to what Education says they need, with their eyes on ensuring everyone’s safety and reducing the organization’s liability. The opposite is ensilement (is that a word?), that is, everyone in silos, out for himself rather than the team.

When departments communicate with one another they move from being effective at just moving their own needles, so to speak, to becoming an efficient, living, high-functioning organism, of sorts. They increase numbers, revenue, visibility, and impact, while reducing risk and protecting everyone’s interests. They know how to respond when things go wrong -- and things will go wrong -- not by pointing fingers but by rolling up their sleeves.

I’ve seen it work. And I’ve seen the other thing: an amalgam of disjointed, ensiled departments not with each other but constantly at each other. The latter is miserable for everybody.

Finally, another note for managers: this sort of communication can’t just live in your head. In other words, simply appointing yourself the sole synapse isn’t enough. Build a complex neural network, instead. You’re undoubtedly smart but you’re not that smart. Variables arise before you can even know they do. There’s just too much going on for you to be in the middle of everything.

Here, instead, is how to increase your value. Keep your trained eye on communication. Make sure that it’s happening. Facilitate conversations. Record and remind team members of the best practices you’ve all landed on.

And watch for results. Remember that dashboard? That’s where they live. When your team succeeds, you succeed. Share the glory of that victory lap, but be there to take it yourself, too!

*Note that people-oriented isn't the opposite of results oriented. You can be both. Process-oriented is a better opposite. Being process-oriented is arguably the more machine-like approach.

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