Thinking Small

It’s a couple of months since I last wrote a post – it’s an understatement to say that it’s been a busy time! Across the libraries, museums, and higher education, sectors we’ve been redesigning services, combining in-person and online approaches for research, teaching and public engagement, and doing all that faster than we’d probably ever imagined we could. No wonder everyone’s tired.

It’s been such a whirl that it has felt hard to think strategically – or to plan much beyond the next government announcement or the next month or two. At the same time, though, it’s clear that we need to start working out what our sector and our work might become, so that we can see that there is a path out, and a future beyond the current crisis. Setting objectives and plans for the next couple of years is where the challenge is: how ambitious to make these? I suppose the temptation for some leaders might be to create big changes, or to try to keep up the pace of the last few months. But ever since I read it, I’ve been struck by this HBR article about stretch goals which encourages a more considered approach.

What we have achieved in the last few months has been the very definition of a stretch goal: extreme difficulty and extreme novelty. But, the article is clear that for a new set of stretch goals to have a chance of working, you need a team that is building on recent success, and that has slack resources. So, do we have both of those things? Looking at key performance indicators on a page, read with understanding of the context, the numbers can look like success, and they are certainly the result of extraordinary hard work by many people. And I tell my team that, often! But, even so it’s hard sometimes for it to feel like success.

That might be because we still have a sense how our libraries and museums should be, or used to be, in combination with a worry about whether things will ever go back to how they were – or a worry that things will go back to how they were, and that important things that need urgently to change in our sector, won’t. Some people are happy now that libraries are much quieter spaces again, with more rules, but my library team mostly aren’t. Perhaps the only visitors who think museums are better now than they were pre-Covid-19 are the ones who prefer one-way routes through displays, or used to complain about the crowds at a big blockbuster exhibition but now get plenty of space. Me? I miss the buzz – and the way libraries and museums are spaces that bring people together, as active and sociable spaces.

If there have been successes, but they don’t always feel like it, and we definitely don’t have slack resources (you didn’t need to read this blog to tell you that), perhaps now is a time for small wins instead of big goals.

To start our thinking towards setting out a new forward plan to take us out of the crisis and beyond, I’ve started by talking with people in my teams about which of the temporary changes to our work are actually better than what we were doing before, and should be made permanent rather than unwound when all this is over. We’ve also been talking about things we had stopped doing as a result of Covid-19 and its impact on our libraries and museums, and put them into two lists: don’t look back, or don’t let go. Identifying which things we used to do that we could happily leave behind and never restart, as well as reminding each other of the things we can’t do but will make sure we hold close and come back to later, are simple things to do, but they lift our eyes to the horizon and help us think about the future beyond the current crisis.

Those lists of things to leave stopped, of things that are important and we should make sure we restart, or of things to continue after the crisis is over, are where we’ll find some small wins. My natural leadership style tends towards big ideas and ambitious plans, so it’s taking a good degree of self-control to hold back on that for a while longer. But it will be worth it when the small wins start to add up, taking us towards where we’re going next step by step.

Doing more with less?

Working in national cultural institutions in the years following the 2008-9 financial crisis, I heard a lot of talk of “efficiencies” and of “doing more with less”. As public sector funding cuts began to bite, everyone complained about budget cuts, staff made ends meet despite extended public sector pay freezes, and organisations looked for ways to diversify their income sources and to raise and make the money that museums and libraries need to do their work. Making more money from cafes, shops, events and exhibition tickets helped close the gap left by declining public funding, but it didn’t enable cultural organisations to build up reserves for a crisis of the type that 2020 has thrown us, leaving some organisations facing very difficult decisions about how to balance their budget and absorb substantial losses.

And yet, here is the old slogan back again: we are once again to “do more with less.” I was no fan of the phrase ten years ago, and haven’t welcomed it back like an old friend – rather, I’m eyeing it like an old adversary. “Oh, I see? You again…”

As much as I dislike the phrase, there are some things about it that I agree with. We should think about how we can maximise the impact of our work, and about how to deliver it without wasting time, money or other resources. Sometimes, a project twice the size, or with twice the positive impact, doesn’t cost twice as much to run, so “doing more with less” can be about efficiencies of scale. In the kinds of large organisations where I’ve made my career, there can be efficiencies of staffing and other resources to be found in breaking down silos and working together across teams. Those are all things we should be doing, in good times as well as tough ones.

That said, “doing more with less” can be – and too often has been – used to paper over the cracks left by a reduction in resources. It is easy enough to say, but it doesn’t start to tackle how a contraction in staffing or money will be managed, or set out an approach for how to start to work out what to do, or help you choose what to stop doing. In the years after the financial crisis, the government-funded cultural organisations were told to create “efficiencies” without impacting on “front-line services” even though everyone at the time realised that there was no avoiding some impact on services if cuts on the scale proposed were to be accommodated. Now, ten years later, few in the libraries and museums sectors have fat left to cut. So, the exhortation to “do more with less” as we cope with the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic can’t mean doing more of the same, with fewer people and less money than we used to have. It’s time for a rethink, and potentially a fundamental and a radical one.

In place of “doing more with less”, I prefer a different phrase: “build back better.” This isn’t only a hashtag, but an approach developed for recovery and reconstruction after disasters, that aims to ensure that countries and communities are more resilient afterwards than they were before. Crucially, “better” here includes questions of wellbeing, fairness and equity, and our values as well as our KPIs and income targets. It’s about doing the right things rather than just more of what we did before.

For libraries and museums, this encourages us to be clear about the core activities, programmes, and values that – even though they may have been interrupted or disrupted by the lockdown – we should not let go of. But it also prompts us to be careful that as things gradually open up we don’t just restart all the old programmes and services because those are what we know and know how to do. Seeking stability and familiarity is tempting after a tough few months, especially when things are likely to remain changeable and uncertain for some time to come. But it would be a missed opportunity not to use this as a moment to renew and to “build back better.” If it’s time to redesign something, or to rebuild a service or programme from the ground up, now is as good a chance as any to do that. If there are things we used to do that have been paused or stopped for a few months and we don’t need to go back to doing, it’s time not to look back. It is time to be bold, and clear, and to meet uncertainty with creativity and determination.

Culture and change

A year ago I started a new job, and expected to be opening a new museum in April, before spending this summer hopefully relaxing and taking a bit of time off. Obviously, that didn’t happen as planned! But, in the midst of the turbulence of the last few months, an opportunity: having talked at various points over the years about how museums and libraries have much to learn from each others’ complementary approaches, I’m now starting a new job as Director of Libraries and Museums. Merging the library and museum teams will take some care, especially at the moment when everyone has been through so much already this year. I’m sure that there are some people who are nervous that I’ll jump in and make rapid changes – but, that’s not the plan. Instead of starting with strategy or structure, I’m starting by thinking about culture.

Peter Drucker’s quip that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is now so well-known that it’s almost passed into cliche. That said, it’s also very true. Talking with a a group of other museum leaders at the Getty Leadership Institute a couple of years ago, almost everyone had experience of difficult teams or workplaces. I certainly know that in a past work context I realised too late that strategy and good ideas weren’t going to be enough, because a team’s culture was so troubled. But, this isn’t that blog, and this isn’t that situation.

Looking for an approach to thinking about cultures within teams that are working well, I found this HBR article setting out eight different types. Looking towards a future merger as well as at working more closely together in the next few months, it gives pointers to identify internal cultures within teams, as well as where coexistence and collaboration is likely to be easier or to need more active support. One of the things that I like about this model is that it’s about different strengths, and about alignment and complementarity of approaches. But, importantly, it isn’t about creating a monoculture, in which cultural ‘fit’ ends up stifling ideas and discussion, and hindering diversity. Libraries and museums are starting to reopen after the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, and we’re preparing to welcome students back to universities in a few weeks’ time – but we’re not finished with the problem-solving yet. We’re going to need those different voices and views to help us work out – together – how to navigate the coming year.

Whole and parts

Back in September last year – what feels some days like a lifetime ago – I’d been to Kyoto for the ICOM conference and was thinking about the debates around the museum definition, as well as about the distinctive things about university museums in particular. I wrote a blog post about it, which among other things talked about how university museums, like some others, are within institutions whose primary purpose is not running museums.

That idea is now front of mind again, as both universities and museums navigate the radically changed context we are in. In Febraury I wrote a business plan for the coming academic year, starting in September. By March it was already looking shaky, and in April was put aside. Strategic planning, which I’d just started working on with the team, is for now out of the window – to know what the next 5 years might look like, we would have to know what will probably happen next year. With the museum team I’m having to rethink core elements of our work, and decide which really must continue. But, despite all this, I’m hopeful – there are some certainties to be found, and areas of solid ground to stand on.

Some of those areas of solid ground can be found in the core purposes of a university: research and teaching and learning. That sense of the whole of which the museums are part is what shaped our work before, and shapes it still, even as specific priorities change. For example, universities are pivoting to deliver the best possible teaching online. So, we are moving rapidly to digitise more of the collection, making it available for research and teaching and learning online, and doing in a few months what we had previously planned would take a more leisurely couple of years. We also created and launched new strands of video content, some for people with children at home, and some to bring a weekly moment of calm and inspiration from our collections to people who need a break, but all backed by properly thought-through learning and social outcomes. More than a temporary adaptation, what we’ve learned from this sudden reprioritisation is already changing our plans for what we will do when we are back in our buildings – there are some things we just won’t go back to doing in the same way.

I’m also heartened by the way that both within the university and in the university and museum sectors the lockdown period has prompted closer and more collaborative working. It can be tempting in a crisis to batten down the hatches and protect what is close to you, and I’m conscious that for some museums that may be the only option given the financial crisis they face. But for museums that are part of larger organisations like universities, the most acute financial challenges are very likely yet to come. So, that institutional context means that as we move from crisis response to resilience, it’s not only important to understand the university’s priorities so that we can use those to prioritise our work, but also actively to articulate our contribution, and to demonstrate relevance and value to our audiences and to the university we are part of. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but the whole is also stronger because of the distinctive contributions each part makes.

This is why despite it all I’m optimistic, in a determined sort of way. Staying focussed on the whole strategic context and our part in it feels to me like a path not only to get through this, but to come out the other side with momentum and with energy.

Compassion

It’s been a tough month since I last wrote, to put it mildly. I’m conscious that there are many ways in which I’m lucky and can work at home through this period of social distancing and quarantine, and especially grateful at the moment for the NHS which (despite everything) was recently there when I needed it for urgent dental treatment.

You don’t need this blog post to tell you that universities and museums, like so many sectors, have been hit hard by economic and other shocks. That makes it a particularly tough time to lead a university museum, not least because the one thing I can’t give my team is what they and I most want – certainty about what is going to happen next. I’ve been looking around with interest at what other museums are doing, but this has had to be a time for sticking to our vision and mission, and drawing strength from our sense of purpose, even though it at times seems like our plan has been thrown out and rethought weekly. When it comes to reprioritisation, I’ve been using the MoSCoW approach to try and see more clearly which of the many things we want to do are the most important, and which the most time-critical. There’s also been much discussion about priorities in the museum sector on Twitter and elsewhere in the last few weeks. Is now the right time to rush out more digital content? Should we take the time to slow down and listen and think? In response to a financial crisis, should the director have taken the tough decision to cut that programme or project? Comments on the decisions taken by individuals or organisations have not always been constructive or kind, although there have also been extraordinary moments of support and community.

Standing back a little, what strikes me is that everything people are doing or not doing, from a glitchy virtual tour of a closed museum, to donating PPE from museums’ stores to health and care workers, to articles about productivity tips (or exhortations to ignore the articles about productivity tips), is people trying to do their best to help somehow, in whatever way they can. Faced with uncertainty, stress, and fear about what’s happening and might happen next, our sector has shown an extraordinary willingness to try to make things better for our comminities, our colleagues, and our organisations. Stress and uncertainty can bring out both the best and the worst in people, but starting from the assumption that people are trying – in difficult circumstances – to do their best, can be powerful, and positive. In the last few weeks, there have definitely been moments when it has helped me to pause, and try to see what someone’s positive intention was, even if they expressed or approached it in a way that might not have come across positively.

Leading a team through a period of crisis needs clarity and emotional balance, or as close to either of those as I can get at the moment, because the wellbeing and resilience of the people in the team is so important. Micromanagement and too-tight control of a team at a time of stress has been shown to have negative effects that linger when the crisis is over. At the same time, if people don’t feel supported and feel like they don’t have the information or guidance they need, even the best plan won’t stand up. Prioritisation can’t be at the expense of empathy. So, I’ve been reading and thinking about compassion and compassionate leadership, in the fragments of time in between planning and replanning, and talking to my team and to staff across the university. Understanding people’s individual responses to a crisis and thinking about how best to help them takes effort but it’s important. Even better, there’s good evidence that compassion not only helps leaders support their teams and colleagues through crisis, but also helps them maintain resilience and emotional balance themselves. So, what better investment of time could I possibly make at the moment than this?

Leading during uncertainty

A week or two I wrote a blog post for the American Alliance of Museums about my experience attending a Foresight workshop run by Elizabeth Merritt, from their Center for the Future of Museums. Among some more general thoughts about the way museums are to some degree all about the future, I talked about the work the team are doing on strategic planning, about the opening of the Wardlaw Museum, and about the ways futuring tools have helped me in my work. The post was published online a week ago (at the time of writing this), and I’d planned to repost it here and then to get started with writing a blog post in a few weeks about the opening of the new Wardlaw Museum. But everything changed, because of pandemic coronavirus.

While the Museums team continued with the final stages of installing and preparing to open the museum, I became more and more actively involved in contingency planning, working with colleagues across the University. By late last week it was clear that all our plans had to change, and we took the decision to postpone the opening of the Wardlaw Museum. As soon as the decision was made, there was going to be a long list of things to do – including stopping the distribution of leaflets with the opening date on them, telling the students curating one of the opening exhibitions as part of their course that there’s a postponement, and preparing the various emails and social media posts that needed to go out in a coordinated way to let everyone know.

Before any of that, though, my primary focus was the museum team. In a time of uncertainty, leading isn’t really about lists of things to do or contingency plans (although you spend long hours making those). It’s about looking at the people in front of you and asking what they need, and making that the priority. Our new front of house staff had just started work and were in their induction and training sessions when I turned up with the news – most important of all was to make sure they know that we will set things up so they still have things to do and are still able to work and be paid for the hours they expect, even though the museum opening is delayed. When I called an all-staff meeting in the afternoon at 2 hours’ notice, I’m sure that everyone arrived having already guessed that I was about to tell them we’d postponed the opening. For a team who have been working too hard for months in the push towards opening a new museum, postponing is a blow – so I also told everyone that I wanted our top-most priority now to be our wellbeing as a team, and as individuals.

It’s time for some rest before we regroup and set a new opening date, and that includes me, however strong the temptation to spend the weekend poring over our budgets trying to work out what the impact of the postponement is, or to replan the exhibitions programme. Those can wait, at least until Monday. There will be a time for strategic foresight, but that time is not now. Now is the time for walking on the beach in the sunshine, and for feeling the gusts of wind and being secretly a little bit glad that we might now be planning to inflate a giant lobster in summer rather than in March. Rest helps with resilience, after all, and gives you more ability to see silver linings in dark clouds.

Details and repetition

A couple of weeks ago I realised that I’ve been in my new job for 6 months – and this week two new staff members joined the museums team, so I’m no longer the newest arrival. I’ve still got more to learn, but it’s feeling good. The outline vision that I spent the first couple of months in the job giving some shape to has settled down well, and we’re starting to work out how that translates into the strategic planning the Museums team will be doing later this year. But I’ve noticed something in the last couple of months that I also remember from other senior jobs.

When you start a new job, everyone is delighted you’re there and getting started, but still sussing you out and to some degree still trying to make their best impression on the new boss. You talk about the changes you’d like to make, and gradually you start to gain momentum and start to see things happening. Then, almost imperceptibly, even though things are still going well, a few months in you start to feel a little drag. Usually not as strong as resistance to what you’re trying to do (although that can happen, and I’ve experienced it before, too) but a more gentle sense of “oh, I see, she wasn’t just saying that – she means it – things really aren’t going to stay as they were before.” As the relationship between a new leader and their new team settles down the enthusiasm for change ebbs and flows a little, especially if (like for this team at the moment) things are busy and it’s entirely normal and natural to do things as you have been doing rather than to question every assumption. This is where the clarity of vision and sense of direction developed early on is crucial – it means I’ve been able to stay focussed on where we’re going, and to keep in view why our work is important. But I’ve found that success in doing this hangs on two things: repetition and detail.

Repetition in that I have to keep talking about the new vision and goals while I and the team are still working out the detail of it. At the same time, from the new director’s perspective the new vision and direction is so settled and clear, but the team might be in different stages of the transition from the old way of doing things to the new one, so it’s important to have patience with team members who are more nervous about the change, or who are still working out how it might change their work. I remind myself that it’s easy for me to quickly align my thinking with the new vision and goals, because I haven’t been working with a different set of goals until now – it’s all the new plan as far as I see. So, I keep talking about the vision and plan, and connecting that to someone’s work or a particular project, but finding different ways of articulating it so that the repetition doesn’t become, well, too repetitive.

Detail, because making the vision real is in a thousand details, not all of them in the obvious places. What should we do with the ugly patch of mud in the museum garden given that we’re opening before the grass will have grown back? How can we do this marketing evaluation that no one has time for because we’re busy with the campaign and launch, but which we know it’s important? What about that list of all the things we’ve paused because of the capital project – can we take the opportunity to just stop doing some of them, to make capacity for new things? What should the text be on this poster? How should we set up the financial systems for the new museum shop? Any comments on this video rough cut? Did you see this interesting article? Will you teach this class? Shall we delay the start of this events series or go ahead as planned? Which of the questions landing on my desk or in my email are urgent, and which are important, and where should my attention be?

Thinking about small things now – about marketing copy, or about what we should do about the ugly patch of mud in the museum garden – is a way of making the vision real, but it also brings risks. I’ve found I have to be willing to pay attention to details, but also to hold back so that I don’t become a control freak and disempower the team. Intervening in the details too much (or too unevenly) could mean both I and the team lose focus on the big picture of where we’re going, and it could mean that my capacity becomes a bottleneck that later on slows us down. So, just as important as finding different ways to keep communicating the vision and goals, and paying attention to the details that matter, is finding some room for things to be not quite as I’d like, or that I’m not sure about, and to be comfortable with that as part of my still-ongoing process of learning about the new job.

What I’ve been trying to do – although it’s not easy in the final stages of a project – is to think about an imagined future where we are already the kind of museums we’re striving to be. What would the choice or the decision be then? And can that be the choice now, or is there a reason it should be different? This second part is important, because the ability to turn many small decisions and details into forward momentum and larger change are often questions of timing. If something needs to change, is this the right moment to do it, or could I live with it a while and come back to it later, if that helps my team feel more excited than unnerved by what’s changing, or if it helps me learn more? Is focussing here the place where I can see the most impact, or does it lay groundwork for something that I know is coming? I find it useful to think of change using Kotter’s model of it as a cycle, that gains momentum and strength each time round. Just as important as repetition and detail, then, is choosing when and how to do things, and leaving room to trust the team to try things out, too. Not every detail has to be perfect as long as the direction is the right one and the momentum is building – and, I’m glad to say, it really feels like it is.

Being thoughtful about travel

Perhaps appropriately, given this month’s theme relates to travel, I’m writing this on a train journey. I’ve been lucky throughout my career to work in large and well-resourced organisations, which has meant I’ve been able fairly frequently to go to academic and museums-related conferences. The best of them have developed my research, changed my thinking, and helped me build partnerships and connections – and they’ve sometimes also given me an excuse to visit some interesting places that I wouldn’t otherwise have gone to. I’ve always appreciated the ease of travel that comes from living in a capital city, and even more so now that I don’t live somewhere with a large and active museums sector. When it takes more effort to see exhibitions or attend events, because there are fewer happening on your doorstep, it takes a more proactive approach to keep professional horizons broad – but does that necessarily mean more travel?

Getting to know what other people are doing, and what’s working, has been an important part of my professional development, and as well as thinking about my plans, I’m also encouraging my team to think about it as we all plan our work for next year. We’ve already started doing some simple things that don’t take too much time while we’re still wrapping up the capital project. For example, at each month’s all-staff meeting, theres a standing agenda item where people mention interesting things they’ve been to or seen recently. I quite often mention a fab exhibition I’ve seen; someone told us about a museum with such bad internal navigation that they accidentally exited the museum half way round the displays and weren’t allowed back in without buying another ticket; someone else mentioned an interesting and thought-provoking event they’d been to. More than once, people have realised that they’d both seen the same exhibition, and we then heard their different perspectives on it. It’s simple, but a really nice way of sharing ideas and thoughts, and helps us connect to each other and to learn from each other’s experience.

Next year, once the museum is open, it’s going to be important that everyone in the museums team has opportunities to present and be recognised for their contributions to the capital project. We’ll also all need to refresh our ideas and inspiration by learning about what’s currently happening in the sector, to feed and nourish our post-opening plans. Conferences – at least, the good ones – can be excellent ways to do both things. But most of the money we have is going towards the capital project, so there’s tough decisions to make about what we can and can’t do so that we protect the training and conferences budget for the team, and make the best use of our limited travel budget. I’m also much more consciously thinking about invitations that come in, often to me in the first instance, and trying to make sure that the opportunities are shared among the team. Most importantly of all, though, it’s not about sharing money and opportunities in the right way, but increasingly it is a question of being careful about travel choices in support of our environmental sustainability goals.

The environmental impact of attending conferences is being discussed more in academia than in the museums sector at the moment, and some conferences are working to be carbon neutral. Tackling the typical assumption that going to conferences is a vital part of a successful research career, an interesting recent study from the University of British Carolina found that senior and better-paid academics were responsible for more emissions than their earlier career colleagues, but that there was no relationship between emissions and academic productivity. So, they concluded, researchers could choose for environmental reasons not to travel as much without worrying that it might damage their academic career. The museums sector has much in common with academic research – and especially now that I work in a university museum I am in some sense at the intersection of the two. But there’s a difference between the two sectors in that museums conferences much more frequently involve sharing professional practise and practical experience, especially mistakes and missteps that probably rarely make it into published case studies.

The travel strategy for the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research talks about the ways that meeting colleagues at conferences can stimulate ideas and create personal connections, but argues that those benefits do not justify a high-carbon research culture. It talks about the need to develop new ways – using social media, or online platforms, for example – to communicate and engage. There’s already some good webinars available, like the series organised by NEMO – I listened in to one on Museums and the Sustainable Development Goals with a few the museums team last month. Podcasts can be good ways of hearing about interesting projects and practise, too, and two of my current favourites are Museopunks and The Wonderhouse. It takes some focus and self-discipline to really listen to a podcast or an online video when you’re sitting in your office (and to not get distracted and start replying to emails that are coming in), but the coffee in the museums office is definitely better than at most conference hotels I’ve been to.

It’s also increasingly easy to arrange online presentations, and a few weeks ago at the suggestion of one of my team I invited Michelle Kuek from the National University of Singapore Museum to talk about their talk Prep Room projects via Skype, We were interested in this as inspiration for one of our own programming strands for the new Wardlaw Museum, and had lots of questions, and it was great to be able to talk about the NUS Museum projects and to learn from their experience. Whether webinars, or ad hoc online presentations, these sorts of sessions may not be able entirely to replace travel and conferences – not least because I met Michelle at the ICOM conference in Kyoto earlier this year, and the whole team is now so excited that they want to go to Singapore to see the Prep Room for themselves! But sessions like this are ways of staying connected with, and learning from, our colleagues in other museums without having to travel to a conference hotel somewhere, and I’m planning to organise more webinars and online conversations for me and for my team in the coming year. Learning together is a powerful thing for a team to do.

Although this is going online in December, consider these my professional new year’s resolutions for 2020: to be more careful and thoughtful about work-related travel and conferences, and to proactively find online and other opportunities for professional development. If you have tips or ideas, I’d love to hear them!

Setbacks and optimism

If I was writing a list of characteristics of leadership jobs, it would have to include that they involve helping your team stay on track when things aren’t going as you’d hoped and planned. All projects have tricky patches, and setbacks, and even things that you’re sure should work sometimes go wrong in ways that couldn’t have been predicted. That’s certainly been the case this month, when we’ve had a few surprises – the perennial ones in the museums sector, about whether we will have enough money and enough people to make everything we’re planning happen.

As you might expect, this means that I’ve been writing briefing papers, assessing scenarios, and having lots of meetings and discussions. Just as important for me has been to think about resilience and optimism, and about how to make this not set us back too much. There’s a delicate balance to strike here as a leader, between telling your team too much about the tricky things you’re dealing with, and telling them too little. I always try to give my team a sense of optimism and determination, and to make sure they know that I’ll work to make sure they have the resources they need to do their work. At the same time, though, too much optimism and keeping too much of it to myself could be seen as fake – and in the past I’ve seen that approach make people worry more rather than less.

Looking beyond this current project, we’ve been having some interesting conversations in the team about how our work will change when we open the new Wardlaw Museum, and start developing and piloting some new types of programmes. We’re excited about the possibilities, but know that despite all our detailed and thoughtful planning some things won’t work as we expect – we just don’t yet know what they will be. So, for now as well as to get ready for the longer-term I’ve been reading up this month on resilience in periods of change, and about trust and psychological safety in teams. The evidence backs up what feels intuitively to make sense, which is that if you know your colleagues will support and help you when things aren’t working as you’d hoped, it’s easier to decide to take a risk, to try something new, or to change things.

To start us thinking and talking together about some of this, I ran a workshop this month with the museums team using some tools and techniques I learned from Elizabeth Merritt in a Futuring Workshop earlier this year. One was a fun exercise based on taking an imaginary failure or disaster and quickly turning it round into something more positive: “The front wall at the museum has collapsed? That’s great – we wanted to replant and reinterpret the garden anyway!” Slightly silly, but it does us good to laugh together and to talk about the ways that we can pivot and change path, and help each other out of tricky situations if we need to. In slightly more serious mode we also used a simplified version of the Implications Wheel to think through some of the things we’re planning but feeling a little uncertain about. We sketched out how those could develop, in both optimistic and more challenging ways, and from that identified some things we should do now to make the less positive scenarios less likely. There are still some risks and uncertainties, but talking them through and reassuring ourselves that together we can deal with them, is important.

A couple of weeks later, things are settling down – there’s still work to do, but we have momentum. This month was also when we had the formal half-year review of the museums and their performance against business plan, with the people who I report to. It was a good meeting, and we’re on track with our objectives and targets. The best bit, though, was an unexpectedly lovely moment when someone commented on the fact that we seem to have a really good energy in the team – and if we can keep up the energy and creativity in a tougher month, we can get through most setbacks together.

Taking (some of) the guesswork out

I’ve done both a Clore leadership course (a while ago) and the Getty Leadership Institute Fellowship (last year), so I often get asked whether these kinds of courses are worth doing. My answer? Definitely. There’s a syllabus, talks and discussions, and everyone carefully takes notes and has good intentions to review them and use all the tools and approaches they learned about on the course. But although the course content is thought-provoking and useful, it’s not the only reason I think that courses like these are worthwhile. Both the Clore and GLI were opportunities to reflect in a structured and supported way on what I wanted my career to be and to become, and what my strengths and my areas for development are. Both also meant that I got to know groups of other leaders in the sector through fairly intense shared experiences on these residential courses, and at different times since I’ve been in touch with people I met during Clore or GLI to ask their thoughts on something, catch up over lunch, or just to see how they’re doing. I’ve found it incredibly useful to be part of networks of extraordinary people who are at around the same career stage as me, that I can talk to about work- and career-related questions. Now that I’m nearing the end of my third month as a new Director, I’ve found it particularly invaluable to lean on some of them for advice and insight.

I’ve reached the point where I know I still have more to learn, but I can already see some areas where I want to make changes, and have started to do that. Given that there’s no immediate crisis or major issue to tackle, and things are basically running really well, I’m spending some time looking at areas where small changes now could either grow into big opportunities later on, or where sorting out small niggles now can stop bigger problems coming up later. I’m also paying attention to my key working relationships, particularly with my team. They are still getting to know me, and I’m still getting to know them, but it’s important that we work together with each other really well as we move into the final six months of a major project to extend and redisplay the main museum. To work out how best to do that, I turned to someone who knows me (flaws and all) from the GLI Fellowship, and who has a really different and complementary leadership style to me, Halona Norton-Westbrook (Director of Curatorial Affairs, Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. Halona has recently been working with a new interim Director so she’s got a particularly useful perspective. I asked her advice about a whole range of things, in a long and wandering Skype call. On the topic of building really strong working relationships with my new senior team she said something that at first sounded a little odd to me: don’t expect them to work it out themselves through trial and error, tell them how you like to work. It was odd at first because I already know that my team are smart and perceptive, so surely (I thought) they have worked all this out anyway? What kind of egomaniac sets out in a meeting how they like to work, as if it’s the rest of the team’s job to align with that? But Halona explained how helpful she’d found it when their interim Director had done this, because it had taken some of the guesswork out of things – on both sides of the conversation – so I took her advice and decided to try it.

The first step was to think about what to say, and how I would articulate things that seem so obvious to me. I thought about how I approach delegation and authority in key areas, about the amount and types of information I prefer to have at different stages of projects, and about how I typically run meetings. I wrote notes on these areas, as well as a list of the things that the team can always rely on me for, and just the process of writing this down was a useful self-reflection. It became even more interesting when I took my notes to meetings with each of the people in my senior team and talked it all through with them. To give just one example, in one of the conversations it became clear that a tiny moment of confusion the previous day had been down to the two of us being very similar in our approach to something as simple as having a meeting agenda in our heads (but not always writing it down). So often, misunderstandings come from people being more similar to each other than they realise, and this insight was so useful for me, as well as I hope for them. Overall, even if my team might have already worked out everything I said, it felt to me like it was useful to talk it through rather than guessing our way through these incredibly important workplace relationships. As well as strengthening the way we work together, I hope it also sets a tone of openness and trust, which will be what we’ll rely on (as well as lots of cups of tea and chocolate biscuits, which this museum team seems to run on) as we work together to open the Wardlaw Museum next year.