Tag Archives: reflective practice

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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Useful Dialectics, Part Two – Design vs. Tradition

“The opposite of design is tradition.”

– Johanna Koljonen

Jean Le Tavernier, "Portrait of Jean Miélot." Public domain image from Wikimedia user Leinad-Z~commonswiki

Doing it the old fashioned way.

In the last post, I talked about the distinction between change and transformation, and how the former feels more finite and time-bound while the latter is bigger in scope and more ongoing. In this post, I want to explore and refine the dialectical relationship between design and tradition. What I mean by that is that design and tradition can be seen as the distinctions between reflective and non-reflective practice, as Donald Schön and his ilk would say.

Tradition

I would argue that one of the greatest challenges of working in an institution of any longevity is the burden of tradition, the things we do because “That’s how we do things here.” These usually unspoken ways of doing work get transmitted via a kind of social osmosis, and often at an an almost unconscious level. If you’ve ever started a job, you know what I’m talking about; those things you “just kinda pick up” as you go about learning the job. They make implementing real transformation a daunting task. The unwritten and the informal are hard to overcome precisely because of their lack of specificity and mutability.

Tradition is not exclusively the realm of the informal. Plenty of processes and workflows outlive the situations they were designed for. And even moreso than the informal, these can become pernicious because they have the weight of the institution explicitly behind them. “Our process was developed over a long period of time and has been used here for ____ years.” “We’ve used this process to develop big projects.” The difference between reflective and non-reflective practice, I think, is that the burden of designing your processes should be a never-ending one. Just because somebody else designed a process once, that doesn’t make it right for the current situation. If the only tools in the box are hammers, even though they might be high-quality, expensive ones, the temptation will be to treat every challenge like a nail.

Design

I took the quote at the top from a talk be the experience designer Johanna Koljonen. It was only one of many truth bombs she dropped that day, and in this context (reflective vs non-reflective practice) it really gets right to the heart of so much that is frustrating and broken about museum work processes. They often don’t respond to the current players and challenge. They were a response to a previous challenge that has been passed on and replicated. Obviously, not every process can be redesigned every time, but the amount of tradition we tolerate is impressive. Resisting this tendency motivates a slew of methodologies that aim to help us work smarter. That is the whole motivation behind Lean approaches; looking for places in processes where there are inefficiencies and removing or reworking them. It’s really a very formalized way of trying to encourage reflective practice.

For Johanna, challenging elements of traditions to solve a problem is a crucial part of thinking like an experience designer, which was an identity I never assumed until then. Innovation happens through making active choices, from looking at a situation and asking “What are the designable surfaces here?” and recognizing that answer is EVERYTHING. For me, this resonates strongly with Schön’s idea of reflection as knowing-in-action. 

The Magic Circle

The other part of her presentation that made a strong impact on me was her assertion that “the magic circle” idea that I previously thought of as something exclusive to game design, was in fact a broadly applicable tool to think about any kind of experience design.

magic circle

The magic circle of experience design. Do your meetings look like this?

For the deep divers, the term “magic circle” first appears in Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture”. It’s current vogue though, is due to Katie Salen’s and Eric Zimmerman’s influential 2003 book “Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals”. For them “the magic circle of a game is where the game takes place. To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins.”

The idea of the magic circle is straightforward enough. When people enter into a game, they take on a distinct role, different from their default identity; they become players. And while they are playing, they accept new rules and way of interacting with the other players and the game. In good games, that’s where the fun happens; the learning and mastery of rules, the meaningful wearing of the persona of “player”, and maybe even winning. That’s what happens inside the “magic circle” of a game. Once the game is over, the players cease being players and resume their old roles and life goes on.

Project teams and meetings can be magic circles, if you approach them as opportunities to design. Everyone comes to the table with all their expectations in tow. In the team, or meeting, they take on a role (like “You’re here because of your expertise in x, y, or z.”) and can (and should) be empowered to temporarily try on new roles and reflect in action.

“The opposite of design is tradition.” I think there’s great truth in that. For our needs, though, I’d turn it around and say, “The opposite of tradition is design” because design is the tool that is going to allow us to replace traditions with processes that serve the needs of the time.

Next up: Network vs. Hierarchy

On saying “Yes”

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“Yes” CC-BY-NC 2.0 image by Flickr user Jeremy Brooks

The Inbox that stubbornly refuses to empty. The “To Respond” list that keeps getting longer. The sudden, important meeting that sinks your day’s plan, and most of your day. The point where you mentally switch from “How much will I accomplish this week?” to “How much will I let slip this week?”. Sound at all familiar?

I’ve been having a week. One of those weeks. And something I’ve noticed about my stress response is that I tend to go into “damage control” mode, putting off people and tasks in favor of the thing that needs to be tended most. The impulse often feels soothing, like I’m asserting control and being decisive. And there are seemingly easy things to ditch. My to do list is full of them. The professor trying to find a project for her class. A PhD student asking for an interview. A request to give a lecture at a local museum. That book I’ve been lugging around for a couple of months that I still haven’t finished, let alone made notes on. It’d be easy to say “No” to and cross off the list. But often that damage control actually creates more damage than I’m preventing. The opportunity costs of saying “No” too quickly can be high.

As I was staring at the list, I had one of those little epiphanies that can realign your brain. Having decided to say no to a bunch of things, I didn’t feel any less stressed, or more free to focus. So I asked myself what it would look like if I said yes to the things I was thinking of crossing off. And for a few of them, saying yes didn’t really kill my crowded calendar any more than it already was. And once I started thinking about them as possibilities rather than intrusions I was able to see strategic value. For them, saying “Yes” turned into “Yes, and” in a way that Jen Brown would be proud of. The interview would provide data for other things I was working on. The student project could be a useful testing ground for an idea. I said “Yes” and immediately felt better, even though I’d theoretically added more to the pile.

The opposite was also true. The lecture, while appealing to my vanity and wallet, would require a ton of preparation on a topic that wasn’t really a current interest of mine. Saying yes would mean digging out books I hadn’t read in years, finding old presentations I could retool, and spending time that I would otherwise spend on other items on the to do list. Saying “No” to them was actually the right thing and felt right. But turning the default question around allowed me to differentiate more strategically.

And, of course, the other benefit of this epiphany was that I like saying “yes” and “yes and”. It feels good to engage with the world and the work, and not get stuck in the swamp of Too Much to Do.

Now if I can just finish that book and take notes before MCN2016