Wednesday, December 20, 2017

What is the Turkey and the Bread (or the Sourdough Starter) of the MAH?

Last month, I went to an amazing training called the Skid Row School for Social Change. The mission of the Skid Row School is to train leaders to scale solutions to the world’s biggest problems as rapidly as possible. It's run by Becky Mangiotta and Joe McCannon, two brilliant nerds who led national movements in homelessness and public health and then decided to teach others how to do it. I attended because I'm seeking new ways to share the MAH's model and support the development of more community-centered cultural institutions around the world.

I learned a ton at Skid Row School, but the lesson that still keeps me up at night is this one: when you want to scale and spread a model, you have to distill it to its essence. Unless you're going to franchise, you can't maintain control of 100% of how your model spreads. Nor should you want to. The power is in unleashing the model, ceding control to others who will adopt it and take it further than you ever could.

But if you're going to unleash something, you better make sure that you believe in it 100%. Some people are rightfully fearful of "dumbing down" their model for scale. As Becky and Joe noted, it can sound like taking your amazing craft beer and distilling it into a Bud Light. But they suggested another metaphor: the turkey sandwich.

Imagine that your existing project is a turkey sandwich. You've spent years making it the perfect, artisanal turkey sandwich. You've got just the right mustard, two slices of lettuce, pickled onions... it is dialed-in delicious.

But if you want to share and spread that turkey sandwich, you've got to focus on the basics. To make a turkey sandwich, you only need two things: the turkey and the bread. When you want to scale, you need to get clear on what is the turkey and what is the bread. If you insist on all those artisanal fixings, you severely limit the clarity and scalability of your model.

That's not to say the mustard isn't important. The mustard matters! But it's not the heart of what you are trying to share. And if you get it right, others who adopt your model should be able to pick their own mustard, or leave it out entirely, to the tastes and needs of their community.

What is the turkey and what is the bread of the MAH? I've asked myself this a thousand times in the past month. Is it partnerships and participation? Treating the museum as a community platform? Igniting events and activities? Social bridging? Our participants reflecting local age/income/ethnic diversity?

I love asking people what they think the turkey and the bread is--especially folks who appreciate the MAH but aren't deeply involved. Sometimes, a donor might identify something I hadn't considered--like being located right in the middle of a vibrant downtown. Other times, a visitor might use the exact language of our strategic documents. The more people I ask, the closer I get to understanding what's a condiment and what is core. (And if you have an opinion on this, I'd LOVE to hear it.)

I've also started tinkering with an alternate food-related metaphor for this quandary: sourdough. When you make a loaf of sourdough bread, you begin with a "starter." The starter is a living culture of bacteria, yeast, flour, and water. Each time you bake a loaf, you use a little bit of the starter to get it going. In-between loaves, you feed the starter flour and water to keep it growing and healthy. The starter is alive and infinitely expandable. You can share it, split it, grow it, or let it die.

As I think about how the MAH might share our model, I find myself gravitating to the sourdough starter metaphor instead of the turkey and the bread. Like the turkey and the bread, the starter is the epicenter, the beginning, the core. It has a unique flavor profile, but when you bake it you can add other ingredients to your preferences. It can be shared, used, and expanded. But starter is more than just core ingredients. It is alive and mutable. It's a catalyst for expansion, but it needs love and attention to keep growing.

Do you have any ideas for me on the identity of the "starter" from which the MAH's work grows? If we shared a slice of the MAH's starter with you, what would you hope it might cook up in your world?
blog comments powered by Disqus