Friday, 21 August 2015

AMA Conference 2015 Keynote Interview Part TWO: Mark Holmgren, CEO, Bissell Centre

Mark Holmgren, CEO of the Bissell Centre, will deliver the Saturday AMA Conference 2015 Keynote Address on Upside Down Thinking. This method of thinking utilizes unconventional propositions to force us to redefine how we think and how we see our organizations. In anticipation of his upcoming keynote presentation, David Ridley, Executive Director for the Edmonton Heritage Council, met with Mark to discuss his work with Upside Down Thinking. Click here to read Part One of this interview
DR: Some of these premises that have emerged from your thinking are provocative and intended to prod thinking. But there’s also a potentially demoralizing truth for those committed to the work. The museum sector, when we’re being honest about it, has its own counter-intuitive realizations that point to less than desirable results. How does one go about Upside Down Thinking without hitting a personal or organizational dead end?

MH: We have a lot of people in a lot of organizations that are already demoralized. It varies depending on what field you’re in, but all of the pressures of non-profit sector are no different: resources, talk about transformation, and the need to reinvent ourselves. A good number of people are already wondering - what is so wrong with what we are doing? For me, I am looking for tools to help people wrestle with that. A series of wicked questions would help other people develop dialogue strategies. Dialogue has a structure to it - it’s not just communicating. So I’m really into how to develop tools to help people have those difficult conversations.
In a sense, they are change tools, and the challenge when we talk about transformation, for me, is that it is on the far continuum of change. Small changes, incremental change, we’re pretty good at that. We can rearrange the room and come up with a slightly better system or do something a little quicker, but it doesn’t really impact us in a significant way. It’s just a little bit better. It’s still not transformational. The struggle we have is that organizations are owned by people and perpetuated by people. It’s hard to change because your identity is all tied up with this stuff.
You can’t pose this as a way to make people feel bad; that’s why the setup is so important. This is a go-forward kind of exercise, finding the core of what we need to consider changing, and getting at it in a way that we usually don’t. By proposing what we never propose. Once you identify them, you don’t just say “that’s a lot of junk”, you say “we have something to work on”.

DR: One thing most organizations don’t do is create that reserve for innovation. If we’re really forcing those heretical thoughts and approaches, we should drill down into deeply held assumptions about what we do and why we do it -- come up with some alternate hypotheses about what we’re doing, testing it, why is this true. What are the experiments we do with radical intent, to test things out or to try something new? That’s something that, for many museums, or any organization, demands on resources don’t allow. It’s about the human spirit of an organization and allowing people to breathe and try new things on.

The radical part is interesting. Sometimes the way to tackle becoming more innovative is to start looking at how we do things now - it’s too easy to say we don’t have time or money. I was sitting with my Chief Programs Officer, and I said to him, “our organizational structure does not allow innovation”. And that’s all I said. I didn’t say it was bad or silly. I just said I don’t see innovation coming out of this structure. We talked about it and changed our structure, and now I’ve got managers who are working laterally in ways that they never did before. It doesn’t use up more resources and they’re getting more done by leveraging each other’s programs and each other’s ideas for everything from daily services to administrative stuff. Sometimes I have the opposite problem where I manage just how much innovation we’re trying to do, which is a much better place to be. 
There are lots of way to get a radical conversation going, but one of the ways I’ve done it in the past is to ask: the purpose of museums is what, and what are your main functions? What if you couldn’t do any of your main functions but you still had to meet your mission and mandate? How would you do it? It wouldn’t be easy but I don’t think it would be impossible. Is there only one way to do things?

DR: You write about the “gospel of collaboration”, noting that “collaboration” has become an entirely plastic word: we use it to describe everything we do (like wide use of late of the word “curating”). What do you see as the greasy underbelly of collaboration for organizations? What should we be realistic about in pursuing collaboration?

MH: So, it’s not about being anti-collaboration. My organization has many partnerships, both formal and understood. I believe in that stuff, but what happens with so many things - outcomes, collaboration, now collective impact - the pendulum swings too far. There are too many people on a bandwagon without knowing why they’re riding it or where it’s going. I was having a conversation with someone and she referred to my organization as a partner and I said we’re not your partner. We don’t have a partnership agreement, we have a funding agreement. You’re a great funder and I support a lot of the things that you do, but we can’t start calling everything a partnership. It becomes a meaningless word. Sometimes things are just cooperative, or coordinated without being full scale collaboration.
There are some that think collaboration will save us money. Research or valuation cannot show they are more efficient, but they can be more impactful. It’s the same with collective impact. Now they want to fund collective impact, but what about the niche things or other small things that should be funded that aren’t necessarily large scale collaborative change?

DR: The plasticity of the word makes it lose its precision. It’s the equivalent of having 22 different words for snow: it’s important in that environment. It’s important in our complex environment as well, we’re starting to lose meaning.

MH: When people say they are collaborating, sometimes they are competing, and it’s important to realize that. It’s not like for-profit where we’re trying to put the other side out of business. I do try to position myself as a top quality organization. We try to think about what sets our brand apart, and so should other organizations. Those are more competitive activities that people should be okay with. I go to any collaborative table with my personal agenda, and so does everyone. That’s how we come up with collective agendas: people sharing their own personal agendas and finding the match. Sometimes collaboration becomes such a strong ideology that we don’t talk about how we’re in a competitive environment.

DR: You have been recognized as a National Thought Leader by the Tamarack Institute, whose goal is to achieve collective impact on complex community issues. How does Upside Down Thinking fit into Tamarack’s work with large scale change?

I wrote a piece called Collective Impact, Watch Out for the Pendulum Swing. I think the genius is in weaving together practices that they noticed across numerous landscapes and identified them. The principles are awesome, but I would say – if I was challenging collective impact (to make it better!) – how can shared management destroy collective impact? Trying to get people to look deeply into the main principles of it and find out why it might not work and then fix that. Tools like this, as well as others that Tamarack pitches, help people actually get to the meat of what their collective impact initiative should look like. Does every collective impact have to have a distinct backbone organization? Is it right for an organization to select themselves as a backbone organization? I’m just trying to find ways to raise those questions, and sometimes you have to raise them in a way that gets peoples’ attention. That’s how it relates to what Tamarack is trying to do, to give them tools to help them have positive skepticism. It’s too easy to get into the flow and be positive about everything, but sometimes we have to get into why it won’t work.
Even working with groups around thinking and what kinds of thinkers you have in your organization– you need creative and critical, and know how to blend the two together. Kids don’t get that in school. Some of it is just creating a culture that helps people have those tools. Anyone can be a creative thinker. It’s not just Upside Down Thinking, it’s creating a culture of change and dialogue where people can be liberated to explore things they have never explored before. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Friday, 14 August 2015

AMA Conference 2015 Keynote Interview Part TWO: Sharon Heal, Director, Museums Association of the United Kingdom


Sharon Heal, Director of the Museums Association of the United Kingdom, will deliver the Friday AMA Conference 2015 Keynote Address, Leading Change: Why Museums Can't Live in the Past. 
In anticipation of her upcoming talk, Lucie Heins, Assistant Curator for Western Canadian History at the Royal Alberta Museum, met with Sharon to discuss her work with “Museums Change Lives”. Click here to read Part One of this interview. 
Lucie Heins: Another principle of Museums Change Lives is “Justice is at the heart of the impact of museums.” Can you elaborate on this principle?

Sharon Heal: I think there are lots of ways this principle plays out. One example is equality of access to the public. This is not just about physical access, although that is very important, but also about intellectual access and emotional access. It’s about unlocking stories and giving people a voice, and making sure individual stories and community stories are respected and given room to breathe. It’s about access and public engagement, and museums are striving to reach out and be really inclusive spaces.

We have talked for a long time in the museum sector about museums as inclusive spaces, but I’m not sure we have ever fully achieved it across the board in the sector. By that, I mean a space where everyone feels welcome, where those barriers to engagement have been removed, whether it is at an intellectual or emotional or physical level. There are great examples where museums are working towards it in a really creative way. It can be achieved through display, co-curation, listening to your audiences, listening to the public, and listening to non-audiences - understanding the reasons why people don’t come, and respecting different views and different stories.

It’s about understanding that museums can play a role in tackling some of the injustice in society. It’s not just about equality of access, but understanding things, such as learning outside of the classrooms has been demonstrated to improve literacy and life chances for young people, and is a great way of enhancing young people’s future prospects. Museums are delivering that with communities in terms of creating those opportunities; they’re delivering social justice and enhancing the chances of people who might have otherwise not had those opportunities.
                                                               
LH: The vision statement explores three ways museums can increase their impact: wellbeing, better places, and ideas and people. How can museums enhance wellbeing?

SH: Museums and the cultural sector can, in some cases, be better for people in long term illnesses than medical interventions. In the UK, museums have a strong track record working with people who have dementia, and it’s a range of museums. Again, it’s not the usual suspects. For example, the Scottish Football Museum[i] has worked with men who have dementia (a group that is quite often neglected in that field) using with their collection around football memorabilia as an aid to reminiscence. They’ve rolled that out with other organizations in Scotland so it has a much broader reach. Weald and Downland Museum[ii] in Sussex brings in local community groups who may have dementia and organize tea dances to use them as a community access space. There are some fantastic examples of where that work is being done. It allows these people to explore the museums at their own pace and in a way that is suitable for them, and it really does enhance wellbeing.

LH: Museums are rooted in places; they help shape and convey a sense of identity. How can museums create better places?

SH: This is more than about cultural regeneration. In the UK over the past 20 years, there has been a big investment in cultural hubs and cultural quarters to make up for the decline of manufacturing, and revamp city centres when there has been post-industrial decline. That’s good, and sometimes it works to put an architecturally designed museum or cultural centre into an area of decline, but sometimes it doesn’t. Building a new museum and hoping that it will make people feel better about the area is one thing, but what you need in those cases in community engagement. We’re talking about conveying a sense of identity and giving people the confidence and the voice to talk about and explore what connects them to their local area. This makes them feel a confidence and awareness of that connection and the history of the place.

There is a museum in the northeast of England called Bedesworld[iii] in Jarrow that creates that connection by working with young people and integrating them into their volunteer workforce, and you can see the transformative effects. They may have come as reluctant volunteers with a lack of anything else to do in that very isolated northern town, but now they actively volunteer and want to continue their work after they are done their project.

Museums in Yorkshire have been working with local audiences and sharing the experiences of the cities’ industrial past. This is a very ethnically diverse audience due to the level of immigration into the UK and Yorkshire and the north west of England around the manufacturing industry in those areas. They’re using an industrial museum in Bradford[iv] to connect some of those communities and look at that industrial past, but also look for the future. It’s about local stories, so they’re created from a sense of civic pride. It is about making that connection and reconnecting with communities to give them a voice again.

LH: “Research into public attitudes to museums shows people see museums as places of stimulating ideas, where learning is active.” How can museums inspire people and ideas?

SH: This is something that I feel quite strongly about: that museums should encourage debate on contemporary issues that matter to society and communities. I live in the east end of London and where I live, young girls have left their schools and travelled to Syria and joined ISIS. They feel some sense of disengagement, disenfranchisement, disrespect, or something that drives them away from London and their families, their communities, and their support networks. I think museums in that area - and in any area where that might be an issue - who have collections that might resonate really should engage with those communities and those schools to talk about that issue and why it’s happening. It happens that in my community, there is the Museum of Childhood[v]. That museum should be having dialogue with communities and schools and talk about how they might engage with young women who are under threat of radicalization.

This is a very difficult, contemporary, and timely issue. Museums may think it has nothing to do with them, but it can be everything to do with them if they’re of that local community and they have collections or subject matter that might resonate with that community. It’s about being bold and brave, not being afraid of that discussion. It doesn’t mean you have to take a side or invite a debate you’re not ready for, but by talking to the community you can unlock some of those issues opening conversations.

In the museum, you’re not a neutral space but you’re a trusted space, so you can foster discussions in a way that might challenge prejudice and assumptions and might help to provide alternatives to where those young girls ended up.

LH: I know that your keynote presentation will touch on other ways museums can take action. How will a museum know they have social impact? What does a museum that changes lives look like?

SH: In essence, it should look like any museum because any museum can do it! It doesn’t matter what the size of the museum is. You could be the Canadian Museum of Human Rights or a small, local museum in Canada or the British Museum or a small, local museum in the UK. Any museum can do it if they want to because it doesn’t matter what your collection is. What you need to do is talk to communities and see what their issues are. If there are things that those communities are saying they want your support with, see how you can work with other organizations that are already in the field to do that work. Evaluation and measurement are important and we have to have the right tools to demonstrate these impacts.

Museums do change lives, but human stories are essential because that’s what people remember. That’s why we tell stories and that’s why journalists create stories. It’s about humanizing - it’s about being able to say we changed this person’s life in this way and that’s how you can replicate this type of work. It’s conferences, sharing practice across the field, and talking to peers about the type of work that you’re doing and learning from each other so you’re not reinventing the wheel, but it’s crucial to go to the community and do needs assessment and really talk to people.

Check back next week to read the rest of our interview with Saturday`s keynote, Mark Holmgren, CEO, the Bissell Centre.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


[i] http://www.scottishfootballmuseum.org.uk/
[ii] http://www.wealddown.co.uk/
[iii] http://www.bedesworld.co.uk/
[iv] http://www.bradfordmuseums.org/
[v] http://www.vam.ac.uk/moc/

Thursday, 6 August 2015

AMA Conference 2015 Saturday Keynote Interview Part One: Mark Holmgren, CEO, Bissell Centre

This year's Alberta Museums Association Conference, Nurturing Organizational Resiliency, focusses on exploring the ways museums nurture organizational health and community engagement on their path towards resiliency.  As museums move towards a sustainable future, it is more important than ever to have a strong sense of social purpose, and utilize intelligent visioning and strategic foresight when engaging with communities.

Mark Holmgren, CEO of the Bissell Centre, will deliver the Saturday AMA Conference 2015 Keynote Address, on Upside Down Thinking. This method of thinking utilizes unconventional propositions to force us to redefine how we think and how we see our organizations. In anticipation of his upcoming keynote presentation, David Ridley, Executive Director for the Edmonton Heritage Council, met with Mark to discuss his work with Upside Down Thinking.


David Ridley: How did you arrive at the idea of “Upside Down Thinking” in relation to your work and personal experience?


Mark Holmgren: I never really coined the term Upside Down Thinking until a couple of years ago, but I've always felt like I think a little differently than other people. Not better, just different. About three years ago, I became involved with Tamarack [Institute for Community Engagement] and really started to talk about wicked questions. I really like wicked questions, but they’re not really the same thing as how I saw a more radical way of getting at difficult questions.

For example, a wicked question could be: how can we continually move towards achieving our outcomes while at the same time questioning if they’re the right ones? What it doesn’t do is question the very nature of outcomes – it assumes that outcomes are a given, and I wanted to go deeper than that. Sometimes what we really need to do is propose something that’s outlandish - like “outcomes destroy innovation” - and then seek out why that might be true. It is not to be a jerk or to create demoralizing dialogue, but to create a frame and rules about how it’s okay to talk about it. Why not look at what’s on the downside of that: how do outcomes get in the way of being creative and innovative? It is not meant to destroy being results focussed, but if you’re so results focussed you stay in the status quo, it starts to affect how you view things like innovation. It’s going to be iterative as you go forward. If everything is put into a logic model, we’re doing ourselves an injustice.
I realized that years ago when I was Executive Director of Operation Friendship. When I got there, they had somehow convinced the government to build a multi-purpose centre with a rooming house for hard to house seniors. As we built it, we got to the point where my team and I were trying to decide who lives in this rooming house. So we started talking about admissions criteria, and started doing what anyone else would do and thinking ‘those aren’t hard to house people’. It hit me – let’s have eviction criteria be admission criteria. They must demonstrate they’re hard to house in order to live here. People shook their heads, including me, but that’s exactly what our intent was.
When I talk about wicked questions, they are a provocative inquiry. You have two polarities and try to deal with both of them concurrently. Upside Down Thinking in the frame that I use it is heretical proposal, and what you do with your colleagues is you try to prove it true, not prevent it. It’s an exercise at looking into change, looking into issues, what’s stopping us, what’s hurting us, what’s not working, how we can get better. All of those kinds of questions are in that process.

DR: It sounds like it presses staff to raise their comfort level with paradox, and how to hold a couple of things together that seem diametrically opposed.


MH: Who is the guy who talks about opposable mind? [Roger Martin]. He talks about being able to hold two opposing things in your mind concurrently, and being able to deal with them – not necessarily pit them against each other. When I present on Upside Down Thinking, I spend a lot of time talking about thinking – critical thinking, creative thinking, integrative thinking – and you can do Upside Down Thinking with all of that. It’s not a separate, distinct cognitive tool. I don’t mean that there is only one way to do it – I do talk about conditions where it might be helpful, or how an organization might ready itself for it, but I don’t want to prescribe it beyond saying “ask yourself a heretical proposal and free yourself to consider it.”


DR: So that is one of the important conditions. What are things that need to be in place? Ground rules? Conditions? Atmosphere? Climate? Ecology?


MH: My background is organizational leadership and change, and a lot of that is adaptable. If the culture in your organization is such that you have a hard time talking about anything, I’d suggest that should be the first thing you tackle. The answer for people unable to speak or have really good conversations is some tools or protocols and rules on how to dialogue and have generative conversations. There is a certain readiness; there is a cultural assessment you have to do. If there are enough people that are willing to try this Upside Down Thinking thing, then probably you might be ready. You wouldn’t entertain it without some sense that you could pull it off.

I think people should talk about what it is first and try to identify their own work and where they’ve seen it, personalize it before we just jump into creating heretical proposals. Some of it is about taking the time – it’s not a day long retreat, it’s more of a process. I do think someone should facilitate it, at least at first. Organizations should do it together, and there are a lot of people who would animate that. You need someone who will not only help you through the disruptions that will happen, but also be a bit disruptive by making sure you’re asking heretical questions.

DR: This draws a parallel with what’s happening in the cultural sector. We seem to be in a period in which everyone is trying to identify their core values. There are a lot of challenges to that. Is Upside Down Thinking the answer? Or are these things strategy? In your own work with other organizations, how can you start on that process?


MH: I’ve not yet done it with the entire organization – I’m selective about who is in the room with me. There has to be a certain level of trust. [It’s] about having the right people in the room. Who can play in that space? I’ve had real life people call me a poverty pimp. They don’t even know me. That’s how they view the work that we do. It’s not a pleasant feeling. My staff hate it. So I said, “Let’s prove that’s true. Let’s prove that we do perpetuates poverty, and talk about the ways we do that.” I can’t say that to my frontline staff out of the blue, but I can say that to my Lead Team. So one of the small examples for me was to consider: what do we do that perpetuates poverty? We came up with some of the roadblocks we put up to people getting help. We didn’t go out to identify those, or blame people, but now we knew how to fix it.


David Ridley

Executive Director
Edmonton Heritage Council

Check back in the following weeks to read the rest of Mark's interview, as well as the interview with Friday's Keynote Presenter, Sharon Heal, Director of the Museums Association of the United Kingdom.


For more information about AMA Conference 2015: Nurturing Organizational Resiliency, please visit museums.ab.ca


This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.