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.

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