20 years in museums & galleries, what have i learnt about myself…?

Writing as i announce my departure from ACMI, i’m reflecting on what i have learnt and what’s next. What i have discovered will make me a better employee, manager and leader in future. And it gives me a greater clarity of what i want to do, and the climates in which i will thrive.

A cactus would die in a swamp, a lily would shrivel in the desert. Neither of these plants or ecosystems are bad or wrong. The right plant in the right place will thrive, that’s all. So here’s what I have learnt about the kind of plant i am, and the kind of ecosystem in which i will thrive.

I value impact for the many, not the few

It goes without saying that the impact i want to have is something that makes life better. And something that impacts a few thousand people is not for me: i’m a populist and proud of it. Something that impacts only a narrow/closed/elite social group is not for me.

And the sorts of change i value are…

…knowledge-building products over emotion-building ones

They’re both linked, they’re both important. But it’s a distinction I would now draw between museumy things and gallery things. I think the former seeks to build knowledge, and the latter are platforms in which an artistic expression of emotion is primary. Both are necessary and excellent — but my value is in contributing to the former, not the latter. And how do i think we develop ‘things that build knowing’…

I value strategy built from both empirical evidence and instinct

I don’t think either is sufficient alone. Visionary individuals with amazing instincts are needed — otherwise it’s all pale and stale. Evidence didn’t build the iPhone. But neither did a single moment of genius by one person. Audience research, bench-marking, peer review all usefully hone instincts and shape good decisions. Another way to say this might be that I value a climate where decisions are both ‘known’ and ‘felt’, which brings me to…

I value transparent systems and decision-making

Progress is built on the foundation of the past, and for that to be stable, it needs to be understood. We all need to know what we are supposed to be doing. But to be our best professional selves, we need to understand the purpose — why are we doing option A, not option Be clear that a decision is needed, who will take it, and when. Then, be clear that it has been taken and stick to it.

Good process is scalable, liberating and reflexive. Bad process is a straitjacket that stifles all movement. Fear of bad process shouldn’t stop implementation of good process — because without process any teamwork is just chaos leading to late, expensive, unsupported hideous things.

I value sustainable, long-term progress and change

It is hard to make something amazing. It’s almost impossible to do that consistently, through feast and famine, through staff change and in the face of the pressure of expectation. I think that’s about building a brand, and a culture of impact, in the long term, rather than focusing on one project, one change, one partnership in the next year.

The museum sector (often without choice, due to their business model and funding context) has fetishised the Major Project, focusing effort and attention on flash-in-the-pan change whose impact in the long term varies considerably.

I value what Nina Simon created at MAH Santa Cruz. Slow build, in which an ecosystem of museum / partners / collaborators / audiences / critics all build a future together, in which the museum plays a new, evolved part. I believe in changing the system — ‘radical bureaucracy’ (1, 2, 3) — so that new roots can embed, and whole new forms can flourish above. And mentioning Nina Simon brings me to…

I believe attending to culture and process gets the best output

The deep Systems Thinking organisational design at Museum Victoria is my touchpoint. Hire great people, set a clear destination, and then work to maintain a fair, open culture and methodology — the outcome will take care of itself. As just one example; constant reinforcement by the CEO of consultation being expected shaped all of Museum Victoria’s leaders, and reduced silo thinking more than any other place i’ve ever worked.

…the collective over the individual

It is a pervasive fallacy of Western culture that individual geniuses have the greatest insights, make the greatest things. Every artist has arisen from their culture; science is always emerging from collaboration, not a lone Frankenstein. A method of securing the best wisdom of ten people will always be better than the best wisdom of one person.

And in that, a culture of respecting the differences we all bring to work. Respecting we bring value at different timescales, different volumes, maybe alone not in groups, maybe fastidious rather than flashy, maybe flashy rather than fastidious. We need the diversity, but it only thrives if the culture and systems are set up to leave space for these differences.

Prioritise emerging leaders over established leaders

My joy at work, my success, the core of what i aim for, is to enable others to thrive. Great leaders arrogate the blame, and pass the praise and credit liberally.

Recognise public / private isn’t always a useful distinction

The best workplaces blend these together. A great shop is part of a museum! And whether someone is a long-term public sector employee or a short-term consultant isn’t really relevant — the question is how we generate value for people, not the contractual method by which people are engaged.

Fun

We spend so much of our lives at work. I don’t think it has to be just a slog.

Difficulty

I like a challenge, i like to learn, i like to have great things expected of me.

Humility

I — and almost everyone reading this — has been the beneficiary of some form of privilege. Our innate talent, our hard work have all contributed to our position here, today. But so has systemic biases in our favour. I value a workplace where this can be acknowledged, owned, wrestled with; not discounted, feared, hidden or, worst of all, allowed to fester as a paralyzing guilt that prevents action. Continuously improving cultural safety must be part of all effective workplaces. I value a workplace where we are humble, learning, sharing and caring, which brings me to…

Last but not least — continuous feedback and learning

No-one’s perfect. We all need to grow and change. And a climate in which we are all growing and changing is both more effective and easier. We can help each other, support one another, when we are all growing.

Purpose first, then developing people, culture and systems to better deliver. @reneworgau, formerly @acmi @museumsvictoria @railwaymuseum @NHM_London. he/him