A thoughtful person asked me today if all museums worked this way. By this way, she meant with long stretches of meetings marked by legislative decision-making, interspersed with back-door conversations, and then short forays into actual work.
Museums are a bit like universities in that they are presided over and populated by academics, often people who love the discursive rather than the constructive. Education, however, is the mission in both fields. But unlike our professorial colleagues, the wards for museum professionals are not just those being educated but also some other THING. That thing could be art, interactive exhibits, knitting needles, or even just a concept such as play.
The trickiness of museum life might be predicated on that duality. If museums were just educational institutions, then the work of museum professional would be simple—teach as best as you can. But, instead, we are charged with taking care of something, say art, getting more of that precious resource, exhibiting those resources, raising revenue at the coffee shop and in the parking lot, and then also teaching. This multiplicity of goals is the issue with decision-making in museums. Everyone holds one element of the mission in hand. And, they all come together motivated by a different aspect of the museum’s mission. Some meetings feel more like tug of war with everyone pushing their agenda.
How can museum professionals work in ways that channel their mission-driven natures but remain productive? Process is a word that gets thrown around in answer to that question. For museum staffers, most of us trained in a field completely unrelated to management, developing a functional structure for accomplishing our goals becomes the focus. Often, museum staffmembers think that creating a structure of regular meetings where work occurs in concert and on display is the best ‘process.’ What actually occurs is that the manager decides that this should occur, the footsoldiers create any sundry assortment of flowcharts and spreadsheets. After countless hours spent arranging the meetings, the group gathers and at least one person decides to parade his ego like an aging peacock, another person decides the whole idea of meeting is counter to work in the first place, or another person has her computer to work on a completely different assignment. (I must confess I am generally the latter.)
I find that there is a pretty clear dichotomy in the worksplace–the meeters and the nonmeeters. I have in my different employed incarnations fallen into both camps. Often, the meeters are characterized by a desire for communal consensus, shared ownership, and kumbaya. These are also people who feel that meetings are themselves a measure of productivity and accomplishment. The other camp, the nonmeeters believe in the power of the work of one individual alone and reading in quiet cubicles. Alright, so these caricatures a little hard drawn. But, the point is that on one hand the meeting culture has strong positives in terms of shared ownership but it also seriously decreases individual successes and responsibility. This though goes back to the game of tug of war. First you have everyone fighting for a different side of the mission, then you have some quality resentment about the existence of the meeting itself. This does not make for optimized productivity.
So, what are the solutions? The decrease and consolidation of meetings could be one move towards increased productivity. To truly decrease the meetings, one would have to increase that which is accomplished in the meetings. This is where another problem lies. You might think this is where a good agenda comes into play, but really, how many meetings have you been in where the agenda is completely disregarded. I would say it is in part about who decides what occurs in a meeting. When the person on high decides that a meeting should occur, but gives no thought to why or how, I promise you that event will be a fiasco. Also, if the meeting is planned with the goal of shared experience solely without a clear action point to occur within the meeting, then that too will be a sorry affair. Instead a really good meeting is short, action-oriented, planned by the person who needs the goal accomplished, and then over.
When I was very young, we played a sort of game where we grasped a parachute, held our arms aloft, ran underneath, and tacked down the cloth under our bottoms. The first couple times there was always one girl or another who got lost at one of the four steps. But, by the third time, we would be happily installed under the miraculous rainbow colored fort. The success was that the teacher communicated her goals, modeled the program, expected us to behave appropriately, and then let us luxuriate in the success of having followed the program.
This is not so different for a good meeting. Good meetings need clear goals, process and end products. I would actually say the issue is often at the core about management (like my preschool teacher). If productivity, civility and sensibility, all at the service to the mission, are not communicated from the top, museum professionals cannot accomplish their goals in a way that allows them to enjoy their chance to luxuriate in their successes, parachute or not.