Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Quick Hit: Upcoming Talks on Leading Change

Let's say you want to transform an organization. What's more effective: drastic change with incremental progress towards that new vision, or incremental change that builds a new vision?

I'm prepping for a week of talks to museum, zoo, and library folk, and this is the question that is driving some of what I plan to share. Note: if you are in NYC area or Toronto, I have FREE talks in each - see bottom of this post for details. Preparing talks is always a great opportunity to reframe my thinking about what's going on in my work and how it might be relevant to others. And this time, since a couple of the talks I'm giving are explicitly for directors, I'm thinking about leadership and institutional change.

In thinking about some of the changes that have happened at our museum in Santa Cruz, I've realized that they were predicated on setting a clear, big vision first, and then incrementally moving towards that goal. When I write it down, that sounds like a pretty obvious approach. But change doesn't always happen that way. Sometimes there's a new direction but not a known destination. Sometimes an organization noodles with change in many areas and finds itself wobbling into a new place entirely.

Here's my hypothesis: while a top-down approach may seem autocratic, it can be incredibly inclusive and democratic in implementation. When there is a very clear, explicit vision and goals, many people across an organization can become leaders in the change. When the vision is clouded or the goals uncertain, you are stuck with a "I know it when I see it" approach to change that may leave people frustrated or mystified as to how they can make a difference.

I'm struggling with this now as we embark on our next phase as an organization--one with more distributed leadership. That distribution hopefully means more collective ownership. But if we don't do it right, it could also possibly mean more confusion, and, paradoxically, less participation.

I remember talking with a director of a large public radio station about many innovative things happening at his organization. "But you know," he said, "when I'm really honest, I realize that most of these ideas ultimately come from my desk." When I heard that, I wondered if everyone in his organization knew what his vision was for tremendous work. I wondered if he was articulating it clearly enough for others to bring brilliant ideas forward. I wondered what I could do to avoid that kind of feeling.

When I see projects at my museum that I'm proud of, more often than not they are things I have very little to do with directly. They are projects led by staff members, volunteers, and collaborators who are infused with our vision. They can make magic and scale up our impact because they know what we are trying to achieve and they want to be part of it.

So I'm planning to use these talks to encourage people--especially directors--to articulate clear, powerful visions. To fight for those visions, support people who want to further them, and protect those people from detractors. I'm not sure this is the best way to lead institutional change. But it's a way that has allowed our work to get out into our community quickly and powerfully, often without having to touch my desk at all.

If you happen to be in New York/New Jersey or Toronto, I will be speaking:
  • JERSEY: Monday January 27 at Seton Hall at 7pm in the Walsh Library, Beck Rooms. I don't really know where that is, but I'm sure we can all figure it out. No RSVP required.
  • TORONTO: Thursday January 30 at the Textile Museum from 4-6pm. This is a more informal talk/dialogue. They can only fit 70 people, so you must RSVP to
I look forward to traveling, speaking, and learning with you in the next week.
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