review by Des Griffin
All enterprises need a strategy. Once there are goals there has to be a plan setting out how to achieve them. That isn't the end of the matter though. Who should develop the plan, how detailed should it be, whom should it really be for? Is it for the higher levels of the organisation only or the funders? And, just as importantly, is this what the best organisations do? The most important question is, 'What is strategy and who should frame it and pursue it?'
I remember being told once that all the 'national' museums in the United Kingdom were required to prepare a corporate plan every year identifying key result areas and targets, and reporting on their performance over the previous year. All the plans were to be forwarded to the appropriate government department where bureaucrats would review them.
The most important statement on strategy I have come across was made by Harvard management guru Michael Porter at the 100th annual meeting of the American Association of Museums in Boston in 2006. Strategy, Porter said, is essentially the crafting of a unique value statement and the communication and implementation of it. While operational effectiveness involves assimilating, attaining and extending best practices (or running the same race faster) it is strategic positioning, 'creating a unique and sustainable position' or running a different race, that is the more important.
Board and staff, Porter says, need to understand and embrace the strategy, build unique and relevant skills and assets, establish a clear identity and strengthen alignment across the value chain. The late Stephen E Weil made the same point when he urged boards and executive leadership to focus on what he called 'purposiveness', the purposes the museum is seeking to accomplish and the way they address specific audiences for stated benefits/purposes, and 'capability', having and controlling the resources required to accomplish those purposes. Effectiveness and efficiency are issues for staff to be reviewed by the executive!
This manual gives us useful guidelines for the strategic planning process. Gail Lord is president of the cultural planning firm Lord Cultural Resources, based in Toronto; she presented the first Stephen Weil Memorial Lecture at the ICOM meetings in Vienna in August 2006. She has previously co-authored manuals of museum exhibitions, museum management and museum planning. Kate Markert is associate director at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and was previously director of the Wadsworth Athenaeum of Art in Hartford Connecticut and before that deputy director and acting director of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Before proceeding to this book, a couple of stories and current examples.
Tim Walker, director of The Dowse, a small cultural enterprise in Lower Hutt, a small New Zealand city north of Wellington, gave one of the most interesting talks at the Museums Australia conference in Sydney in 2005. A review of what was then the Dowse Art Gallery, a craft museum, was completed in 1998. It revealed low attendances and resulting high costs: it was seen as elitist and non-reflective of the cultural expectations and values of local community/funders.
The recommendations of the review were, as we would expect, for a new structure and a new strategic direction. The result, however, was more than that. It was a new vision, 'engaging creativity', developed by meetings of all the staff. The Dowse's program now ranges from cutting-edge decorative arts projects (as before) to projects looking at youth culture, and entrepreneurship in the creative industry. It is New Zealand's most active touring agency, with up to seven exhibitions touring at any one time, on subjects ranging from hip hop to craft/design, children's book illustration to ballet costumes, photography to major painting surveys. All of that plays a big role in its ability to raise revenue. The Dowse is now one of the liveliest and most innovative institutions in New Zealand.
Walker writes: 'What has changed is the development of a team-wide entrepreneurial ethos, based on a revised but undiminished commitment to the traditional roles of an art museum. It is a culture defined by ambition, a real level of respect for community, audience and artists/creative practitioners (which are not seen as being mutually exclusive), a willingness to take risks and a commitment to learn from those risks'.
In a study some years ago of museums of all kinds around the world I spent time on several occasions at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, south of San Francisco. Arguably one of the best aquariums in the world, it is known for outstanding exhibits and excellent interpretation as well as a clearly visible commitment to conservation of marine life and the environment, a commitment which is palpable. In 1996 it opened the 'Outer Bay' exhibit featuring giant tanks with huge marine animals including 200 yellowfin tuna and bonito. Attendances had increased by 50 per cent over the previous year. But there had been no advertising promoting the expansion. Instead, short film clips of director Julie Packard talking about the expansion had been made available to community television stations in the Bay area. I asked the executive staff member taking me around: 'And do you have a strategic plan?' 'Well, we are working on it', was the response. Packard spends much time considering issues of the visitor experience and enthuses executives and staff with what the aquarium can be. In an hour-long conversation, Jim Hekkers, executive vice president and the person responsible for financial affairs, spent the first 45 minutes talking about the aquarium without once mentioning money!
These stories epitomise the tension about, and the real purpose of, strategic planning. A myriad of books and articles crowd out the business shelves of bookshops, most of them treating the process either as another operational issue to address accountability or as a response to the proposition that, if you don't have targets, how do you know whether you are succeeding. The point is that at a strategic level the risks are mostly so big it is often difficult to know what is around the corner. In other words, strategic planning, as practised, has become in many cases a fool's paradise, a place where you can think you are doing the right thing without actually making any difference. The main gain from strategic planning is not a recipe for the next year or five, or a set of statements which can serve as a way of holding people to account, but the bringing together of board, executives and staff to recommit to a shared set of goals to achieve a distinctive mission and vision that will make a difference.
Is Lord and Markert's manual a useful publication then? Yes, as a manual to have with you as a checklist. It deals with the reasons for a plan and the structure of the planning process and the methods. It takes us from 'problems to strategies' and outlines the writing of the plan and the implementing of it, the evaluation of the plan and lastly what can go wrong and how to fix it. Making planning a top priority is rightly emphasised. Managing expectations in an environment of limited resources gets attention as one of the issues to be addressed. The importance of a financial plan is explained. There are a useful glossary, bibliography and index.
Planning is justified as a way to improve performance and to qualify for outside financial support and as a way of preparing for new initiatives. Museum director and board chair are rightly seen as being at the heart of the planning structure and in providing leadership. Environmental scans, interviews, external and internal assessments, comparisons and benchmarks lead to identification of critical issues that culminate in the setting of goals and objectives within a mission and vision.
Lord and Markert correctly say that reporting progress to management at regular intervals must then be relevant to the goals of the plan and not to the functions of the museum, the more traditional internal focus for many staff. The manual identifies the tasks that people at each level of the museum need to be responsible for. Prominence is given to the involvement of board members, something very common in North American museums but often less so in Australia. The role and responsibilities of facilitators and consultants are developed in some detail. Lord and Markert suggest that there may be circumstances where a consultant writes the plan. This is an area to which I will return.
There are a number of case studies, written by museum executives, including framing a new mission for the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, challenges at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and Industry in Texas, engaging the community at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and meeting twenty-first-century challenges at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in the Basque country of Spain. These case studies give general information about the processes. But they lack any genuine personal experiences of the struggles and traumas of the process, the excitements and the disappointments.
Museums are places that can excite passion and wonder; they are also places where views of the world are contested. As I write there is a report of text labels being 'adjusted' at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa in an exhibit dealing with the 1945 firebombing of Dresden as a result of pressure from Bomber Command veterans' groups and sympathetic politicians. There have been previous protests in 2005 about that museum's exhibits dealing with the bombing of German cities. Memories of the Enola Gay fracas at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum. I wonder if the War Museum people have a strategic plan.
Strategy is vital. It requires thought. And it requires commitment. All of that requires leadership. A fundamental aspect of leadership is the ability to communicate effectively and comfortably to staff and those interested in the enterprise. As Lynda Gratton and Sumantra Ghoshal of the London School of Economics once said, 'Conversations lie at the heart of managerial work. Managers talk. It is through talk that they teach and inspire, motivate and provide feedback, plan and take decisions. Conversations lie at the heart of how companies develop new ideas, share knowledge and experience, and enhance individual and collective learning.'
Leadership also involves passion, passion for the ideas and prospects. Passion energises other people. To suppose that anyone other than the leaders of the organisation would conduct the frank and open discussions which lie at the heart of strategic planning is to defeat the process. And since people only really commit to goals and strategies they have helped to develop, to imagine that someone other than those in the museum who are to implement the plan might write it is to condemn the plan to failure.
The Manual of Strategic Planning is a good manual. But to lead a museum you need passion and commitment as well as strategic planning.
Des Griffin is presently the Gerard Krefft Memorial Fellow at the Australian Museum.
2 Tim Walker, 'The Dowse—built on RESPECT', Artery, vol. 1, no. 2, 2005, 3–5.
3 Lynda Gratton and Sumantra Ghoshal, 'Improving the quality of conversations', Organizational Dynamics, vol. 31, no. 3, 2002, 209–23.