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.