Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Activity Level Discussion in Museums: Is a Role Marketplace an Answer?

Written by Seema Rao and Robert J. Weisberg

A few years ago, I had this crazy idea to write a book to support a single conference session. I wasn't alone in my zeal. A friend, Robert J. Weisberg, had the same idea. Together we wrote a how-to manual for organizational change, called Change at Work: Not Just Surviving but ThrivingThe weekly calls and the Slack channel in preparation for writing the book was incredibly impactful for me. I'd managed for ages by then, and I'd certainly put in place change management. But until I started talking big picture with Rob, I don't know that I was truly thinking out the big issues. Now, not all of you will get to spend every other week for months chatting with Rob about museums, but I wanted to offer you a slice of how wonderful that can be.

This week Rob will share some ideas about museum work. What I particularly like about this post is that he's turning a critical eye to something many of us take for granted.

The Activity Level Discussion in Museums: Is a Role Marketplace an Answer? By Robert J. Weisberg

 Activity level is a problem for museum staff. The solution is unclear. A marketplace of museum roles is worth a look. Many museum staff realize that the model of more-with-less is unsustainable. Perceptions among staff subcultures differ, however. Is the problem too many exhibitions? Too few staff? Too much collecting? Too much digital? Too much perfectionism borne of high-achieving academic backgrounds? (And what does "too much" mean, anyway?) If you answered "maybe" or "it depends" to all of the above, pat yourself on the back for your honesty. But if you want other people's projects canned so your great projects can continue, then we have gotten nowhere.

Museum leaders often see their institution in terms of ambitious expansions of buildings and collections. These generate more work without corresponding increases in funding for staff and benefits. It's a pernicious culture of seeing rank-and-file staff as costs, not assets, nevermind as people.

Staff cuts aren't the answer when those who are left end up overworked. We've heard the question, who should pay for art? But who should pay for those who work with the art and connect art to people? People make museums.

The answers aren't simple. The terms "innovation" and "engagement" have become buzzwords thanks to too many outcome-unclear professional development classes and staff surveys without corresponding action. It's no wonder why—creating the atmosphere for development to bloom or acting upon staff frustrations requires top-to-bottom organizational changes, not just a vague resetting of priorities. Collecting staff opinions is easy. Giving staff the authority, time, and trust to experiment, fail, learn, and teach the organization is far more difficult.

What does it mean to tackle activity levels in real terms? Reducing the amount of work everyone has so that most people can leave work on time? Cutting the number or intensity of projects? And if projects are cut, does that mean that staff will no longer have the agency to experiment, which might raise staff morale and yet might unleash some chaos?

The "Google 20 percent" innovation idea, allocating some portion of staff hours to self-managed time, has its supporters. However, 20 percent of an insane workday isn't the solution. Museum workflows have trouble with cross-team or -departmental projects. What happens when everyone has a project they want to pursue? (Gasp—would that mean figuring out how to compromise at scale? Can a trust potion be put in the water coolers?)

A more profound change would be to rate work across the museum on its impact with visitors—being sure to value how internal workflows and the unsexy infrastructure projects influence visitor outcomes. This creates a measure which organization leaders can share widely and which would help staff see how their work connects with the public. (This exercise can also help clarify how work like preservation, conservation, and research can matter to the public.) The institution can sunset work which doesn't connect, such as legacy projects which don't matter to visitor experience.
Then—and here's the radical part—give staff the opportunity to take part in higher-rated projects across the museum, seeing work as roles and responsibilities, and not just titles and boxes on an org chart.

A larger organization could test this approach in a few departments, with results made public internally. Staff could work anywhere in the org for a few hours a week. Departments that fear losing the attention of their workers would complain, but this might get leaders to make their own projects and responsibilities more appealing, leading to a marketplace of projectsBalancing organizational needs and staff satisfaction is an institution-wide endeavor.

Museum staff who strongly identify with their authority and expertise will need the humility to learn what their colleagues are doing. This is not playtime at work. Staff will have to interrogate their own understanding of their museum's mission and strategy—the why which staff training programs rarely address, not just the what.

A marketplace of museum roles would be a challenge to implement, but it is an experiment worth trying. Museums might learn something, and museum workers can't be much unhappier. Staff salaries and benefits are a problem, but if museum leaders are serious about dealing with the vicious spiral of activity levels in ways other than hacking at budgets and projects, they can't afford to ignore any option.


Rob Weisberg is the Senior Project Manager, Publications and Editorial, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He usually blogs at Museum Human
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