Useful Dialectics, Part Five: Culture vs. Values

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Values. CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Nichole Burrows

Values
Museums love to talk about their values. A quick Google search of “museum values” will turn up a long list of worthy-sounding concepts like Cooperation, Courage, Determination, Generosity, Integrity, Optimism, Positive Approach, Respect, Self-Discipline, Teamwork, Trust, Sacrifice, Volunteerism and many, many more.  Over the past twenty years or so, “values” has crept into the sanctum sanctorum of museum master planning. You can’t be a self-respecting museum without a values statement. It’s even part of the American Alliance of Museums how-to guide for developing mission statements. According to AAM, mission is purpose; vision is future; and values are beliefs.”  If you’ve ever doubted the power of standards, just go Google how many museums in the U.S. use this Mission-Vision-Values formulation.

This is part of the problem I have with values. They’re easy to copy, write and forget.  Jeanne Vergeront wrote an excellent dissection of museum values statements that concludes, “If values are to be authentic and effective, effort, tested [emphasis mine] beliefs, and even sacrifice are required. That doesn’t seem to be too much to expect of the beliefs for a museum that wants to matter or, perhaps, to be indispensable.” And yet…

Every values statement I’ve looked at fails to give staff any guide for how to embody them. Maybe it’s the archaeologist in me, but the clear gap between the lived realities of museum employees and the grand pronouncements of the vision and values statements seems to cry out for the equivalent of a middle-range theory to fill that ideological/philosophical gap. The size of that gap is clearly stated in the photo from Jan Gunnarson’s presentation at Alibis for Interaction 2016. He neatly summed up the trouble with values statements for me. “Values have a tendency to be bullshit. Translating them into a culture, actually acting on those values, is the really challenging part.” Or, as a good friend once said, “You can say the truth, but sometimes you can’t live it.” Like Gunnarson, I believe that culture is the manifestation of values, and that as a field, we need to spend a lot more effort manifesting.

Gunnarson

“Values have a tendency to be bullshit.” – Jan Gunnarson

Culture
The famous Peter Drucker line, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” is a mainstay of business school teaching for a reason. Substitute “mission statement” or “values” and the line still holds true. Many museums have great-sounding visions and missions, but workplace cultures that do little to deliver those values and mostly maintain the traditional way of being a museum. Harking back to the post on design vs tradition, it’s hard to evolve without reflecting on why we do what we do, and evaluate it’s efficacy constantly, and do something differently if we’re not getting closer to our goals.

This reflecting in action and reflecting on action goes back not only to Schön, but all the way back to Dewey and his conception of intelligent action. Dewey called it dogma rather than tradition, but the idea is similar, the unquestioned assumptions that have authority over our actions. For Gillie Bolton, reflective practice requires us practitioners to pay “critical attention to the practical values and theories which inform everyday actions, by examining practice reflectively and reflexively. This leads to developmental insight”. Does how you spend your workdays reflect the values of your organization. If so, how? If not, why?

Building a digital culture

“A digital culture will get you through a time without a digital strategy much more than a digital strategy will get you through a time without a digital culture”

–  Nick Poole

Since my current position is in digital media, I tend to focus on all things digital. Hence the fixation on digital transformation as a desirable outcome for museums. All the digitally-inspired examples I use are not meant to indicate that what I’m talking about only applies to the digital realm. Insert your own specific interests and I think you’ll see that the examples still hold up. Let me know if they don’t.

For me, having goals like “digital transformation” and values like “digitally literate” aren’t sufficient in and of themselves. Figuring out how we concretely act on those values, is the part requiring conscious effort and labor. Janet Carding, in her CODE|WORDS essay on change, wroteI think that we won’t create museums that are appropriate for the digital age without changing our organizational cultures and how we work.” Our culture, the manifestation of those values, is everywhere; in our org charts, how we hold our meetings, the schema behind our repositories, our labels.

All of these are the designable surfaces upon which managers can design new processes and ways of doing business that consciously attempt to reach up towards the values and missions of our institutions.

Conclusion

When I started on this series of posts, I was trying to understand the forces that seemed to tug at me when thinking about new projects and work. These dialectics I’d been collecting for awhile reflect the opposing forces that are always at play. If you’re designing a project to be more network-oriented, it will be less hierarchical and therefore probably create issues within your hierarchy. If you’re using a traditional model, it’ll be a challenge to try to design it differently.

When Ariana French first asked me to join her panel on “Breaking out of the Rut” I had this clear idea that there was a dimension of thinking around scoping new projects that I did half-consciously at best and wanted to be more explicit about. In addition to getting work done efficiently, there were a crop of considerations that could apply to any project to make it more reflective and productive in terms of creating what Nick Poole calls “a culture that is biased towards doing new things rather than towards the past.”

So for project managers looking to incorporate innovation into their teams, I’ve boiled down my ramblings about dialectics is into five questions you might ask yourself at the launch of any new project:

  • Should this project aim to be transformational or bring about more discrete change?
  • To what extent should this project design its own process, or use traditional ones?
  • Does this project derive its value from creating a network of actors, or as a hierarchy?
  • How should this project increase professional literacy, fluency, or both?
  • How should this project create culture that actually manifests (or creates) values we support?

I’ll try it out on the crowd at MCN and see how it goes over. Fingers crossed!

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