Monday, October 31, 2016

Three Tips for Grappling with Insiders who are Resistant to Change

At every talk I give about The Art of Relevance, no matter the audience, there's one question I always hear. Librarians and museum directors, park managers and theater producers all want to know: how do you deal with insiders who resist change?

These insiders may be fellow staff members. Trustees. Longtime volunteers or donors. Insiders are people who feel ownership of the institution.

It's natural for insiders to want to protect the institutional status quo. They love the organization. They helped build it. They fight to preserve it.

Sometimes, insiders fear that inviting in new people for new reasons might break something. They fear that efforts for greater inclusion or relevance may destroy the institution they love. Sometimes insiders' fears of inclusive practice stem from privilege and entitlement. Other times, insiders' fears are not about inclusion but about institutional change. Many insiders want more people, and more diverse people, involved in their institutions. But that doesn't mean they are eager to assume the pain and uncertainty that comes with change.

Here are three techniques I've learned to tackle insider resistance. The first two invite insiders into the change, and the third gracefully invites them to opt out.

1. Appeal to their generosity. 

If insiders treasure the fact that the institution is "for us," invite them to share it "with them." The director of a historic house once told me about a trustee who was nervous about opening their institution to new people. As the trustee said, "this is my special place. I'm afraid it won't feel magical anymore." The director gently responded: "it's so great that you feel that this place is special. Don't you want to share that magic with others?"

Insiders may not feel generous in the face of change. They may fear for their own experience, wondering: Will I still have a job? Will I still enjoy volunteering here? Will it still be for me?

But everyone wants to be generous. Invite insiders to tap into the pride they have in the institution, their love for it, and invite them to share that love with others. Invite them to imagine that what is for us can also be for them.

2. Appeal to their bravery. 

Change is scary, and we don't always acknowledge that. Leaders of change proselytize about how great the change is and how exciting and fun the journey will be. But it's not all fun. To insiders, the path is uncertain, the leader of the pack is unreasonably cheery, and no one wants to talk about the dangers along the way. The fear is real. Uncertain insiders feel it--and they may also feel judged for experiencing or expressing it.

Instead of distancing insiders as fearful resistors, celebrate their bravery. Change is courageous work. Thank them for being brave in the face of an uncertain future. Thank them for casting their lot with you and the change.

Insiders may not feel brave in the face of change. But it's an attribute we all want to exhibit, especially when things get tough. If you can invite insiders to see themselves as courageous, they may embody it, helping tackle the change instead of feeling run over by it.

3. Bless and release. 

If you can't make it work together, you have to let each other go. In my second year as a change-making executive director, I struggled with a major donor who constantly called me to complain about how I was screwing up the joint. I would explain what we were doing to invite new people into the museum, she would explain why this wasn't what a museum should do, and we would both hang up frustrated. I couldn't make her happy, nor her me, no matter what we tried. I didn't know what to do.

Then Cookie Ruiz, CEO of Ballet Austin, taught me the phrase "bless and release." As Cookie pointed out, any major donor should feel great about an organization she supports. And I should feel supported by those who fund my organization. If we respected each other (which we did), we should stop fighting. We should be willing to bless and release our troubled relationship.

If an insider is truly unhappy, if they feel that they can't do their best work nor make their best contributions at the institution, release yourself and them from the pain. Tell them, "I have heard your concerns about this change. I respect you, and we disagree. We are moving forward with this change. I understand that doesn't work for you. We appreciate all your contributions here past and present. I truly hope that you find a place where you can feel valued as a contributor."

Life is too short to spend all your time negotiating unhappiness. Thank them for their contributions, bless their feelings of dissatisfaction, and then release them--and yourself--from your toxic relationship. You'll all feel a lot lighter, and you'll have more energy to put into making a difference. Like Socrates said, "the secret to change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new."

What other tips do you have for working with insiders who are resistant to change?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Quick Hit: Art of Relevance Video, Podcast, and a Google Hangout this week

I've been traveling a lot recently, exploring the ideas behind The Art of Relevance with colleagues around the US. Here are two artifacts of my travels... and an opportunity to join in on a virtual/real life meetup this Wednesday.


Want to join the conversation about The Art of Relevance but can't make it to a book event? The Minnesota Historical Society made a video of my recent talk there. The video is well-produced, including subtitles and the Q&A. I talk for the first 30 minutes, and then we're doing Q&A in the second half. Check it out.


Immediately after leaving the Minnesota Historical Society, I sat down with Levi Weinhagen as a guest on his Pratfalls podcast. Levi is an excellent interviewer, and he got me talking about lots of things I don't usually talk about: living off the grid, finding my path, learning from my parents, being a mom and museum director, dreaming of being a ninja warrior. It's an hour interview, and if you enjoy it, I strongly recommend checking out Levi's other episodes interviewing creative people about how they approach their work.


This Wednesday, I'm participating in an experimental Museumhive event. It combines a real life meetup (in Boston) with a virtual Google hangout. I'll be joining in via hangout to talk about distributed museums with Brad Larson, Ed Rodley, Paul Orselli, and lots of Boston area colleagues. You can participate virtually, or if you are in the Boston area, register (for free) to be there in person.

Enjoy the media, get connected, go outside!

Monday, October 10, 2016

What Does a Great Distributed Digital Museum Experience Look Like?

Museum technology nerds: this post is for you.

I've been thinking recently about distributed content experiences--ways for people to interact with museum content (art, history, science, etc.) as they make their way through the world outside the museum. There are a zillion apps for making your own tours, podcasts, maps, or QR code-infested games... but none of them are great.

Distributed mobile content experiences seem to suffer from two basic problems:
  1. Underwhelming entry points. It's extremely hard to get people to download a new app. Where and when does an institution ask you to do so? At the museum? At the historic site? While walking down the street? The impulse to download an app is driven by curiosity or an urgent perceived need. While museums may cultivate curiosity, they rarely offer sufficiently clear, urgent use cases to encourage you to go through the drudgery of downloading an app.  
  2. Unlikely reentry points. Once you download an app, are you really going to remember to (re)open it to find an interesting historical fact tagged to your geolocation? Are you going to use it to scan for public art near you? Most of these apps seem so niche, so useless for anything other than accessing semi-interesting content in a clunky interface, that they end up languishing in the Siberian outback of your phone.
In contrast, successful distributed projects seem to have one of two characteristics:
  1. Compelling and/or versatile mobile experience. What do we use our phones for most? Communicating, playing, exploring. Quality content experiences tend to piggyback on massive social media platforms apps that are already well-used (i.e. facebook) or create very compelling whole worlds unto themselves (i.e. Pokemon Go). 
  2. Prominent real world presence. One of the simplest, effective distributed projects I've seen recently is Walk [Your City]. It's a system for creating signs, zip-tied to existing traffic/lightpoles, that direct people to points of interest, special experiences, and surprising encounters. Some cities use them for straightforward wayfinding, but in many towns, the signs have a whimsical or poetic nature. It's amazing how much impact simple signs can have. I'd choose repeated physical presence over a fancy digital interface any day.
Thinking about these two characteristics, here are some highly speculative ideas and questions:
  • What is the most effective way to have lots of physical presence in the built environment? Working with cities and public property involves a lot of regulation (though if you can push through the red tape, a lot of potential impact). It's often easier to make deals with private property owners than to lobby the government for use of public space/sidewalks/streets. Projects like Little Free Library and the Peace Pole Project work this way; individuals choose to build them on their own land. How can we activate movements for people to participate in producing and sharing content on the land they already control?
  • What's the cheapest advertising money can buy? I generally assume nonprofits can't afford to compete in the advertising world, but there's so much advertising in our visual landscape, some of it in very odd (and affordable) forms. Could you give out free coasters at bars? Make beautiful bike racks? Provide your local coffee shop with thousands of sleeves for paper cups? Is there a distributed layer to life (in the form of advertising) that is hackable for good?
  • How can we creatively hack into mobile apps that lots of people already use? Of course you can create content for podcasts, twitter, instagram, etc. But what about apps where you don't have to build a whole media presence? What about creating geo-fenced Snapchat filters connecting people to art nearby, or making Tindr profiles for historical figures in the area? Are there other ways to piggyback on popular apps for content experiences?
  • Who's going to build the killer app for distributed learning experiences? Part of me feels like learning is just so low on people's priority lists that distributed museum experiences will always be niche... but then I think of the huge success of online learning platforms like Khan's Academy. I wonder if we just need one (or a few) powerhouse app to take the lead on facilitating quality distributed learning/augmented reality experiences. I think it's possible an institution could do this... but only if it was more focused on building an industry-wide solution than building something custom for their own museum or historic site.
I know that there are very smart people working on these problems. Who's tackling them? What are some of the most interesting approaches underway?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here

And a note to readers in the Boston area: I'll be participating in a MuseumHive real world / Google hangout on these topics (and others) on October 26. Register today.