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.

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