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.