Kaywin Feldman on challenging traditional assumptions, creating a culture of innovation and experimentation, and building an effective museum team. In a volatile world, change is constant but unpredictable, requiring the ability to pivot quickly. Agility, therefore, becomes more important than ever before
About the author: Kaywin Feldman is Director and President of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts where she oversees a staff of 250, its collection of some 87,000 objects, its 473,000-square-foot facility, and an annual operating budget of $30 million. Kaywin is the Immediate Past Chair of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), and past president of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). During her tenure, Kaywin has overseen a series of innovative curatorial projects and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts has strengthened its international presence with ambitious special exhibitions. Kaywin has also led the creation of a contemporary art department, the reinstallation and reconception of the museum’s African art galleries and the launching of innovative programming such as the Sound.Art.MIA concert series.
“Talent is the leading indicator of whether a business is headed up or down”
– Bill Conary and Ram Charan
Introduction: Leadership in a VUCA world
Innovative practice is messy, failure-filled, and full of uncertainty – in a world that is unprecedentedly digital, noisy, savvy, and unforgiving. In the 1990s, the term “VUCA” was adopted by the business world, derived from American military vocabulary, to describe the current era of increased complexity and ambiguity. VUCA is an acronym for:
To thrive in a VUCA world necessitates being agile, flexible, and always open to multiple scenarios. While it should be clear where the organization is going ultimately, there are probably multiple paths to reach that destination.
In a volatile world, change is constant but unpredictable, requiring the ability to pivot quickly. Agility, therefore, becomes more important than ever before. Added to the volatility is uncertainty, making it hard to hypothesize about any kind of linear future. This world is also complex and full of inter-dependence, making it more difficult to achieve anticipated outcomes. Ambiguity means that there may be several different ways to understand and resolve a situation.
“In a volatile world, change is constant but unpredictable, requiring the ability to pivot quickly. Agility becomes more important than ever”
The general public sometimes seems to assume that museums are immune to these external societal changes. The physical permanence of our buildings and collections, the weight of our histories, and the loftiness of our missions can give the impression that we operate in our own isolation tanks. Of course, museums are not immune to the challenges of operating in a VUCA world and are just as effected by the confusion and global uncertainties in the world around us.
Despite the volatility of our operating environment, museums don’t always have the most quick and nimble track record for risk and innovation. It is ironic that institutions housing so many concrete examples of human creativity can be highly bureaucratic, inflexible, risk-adverse, and replete with siloes. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) is changing its practices — from the inside out. A recent hire at the MIA described the experience of working at the museum as that of working at a “100-year old start up” due to its institutional culture of agility and experimentation.
“Museums must develop practiced innovation leaders across the entire institution that can drive experimentation, organizational learning, and strategy refinement”
Hiring great people is only part of assembling an innovative team; the team also has to develop the right muscles and then use them – repeatedly. Embracing failure and iterative development are key parts of innovative practice, but this can’t just be rhetoric. The journey also includes an examination of institutional culture and challenging traditional assumptions about accepted practice. Museums must develop practiced innovation leaders across the entire institution that can drive experimentation, organizational learning, and strategy refinement.
Ultimately, the goal of doing innovative work is to engage current and future visitors with experiences and content that animates, enlightens, and inspires. We must experiment with different ways of operating in order to embrace new audience needs and to exceed their expectations. As a result of the transformed staff practice at the MIA, visitors are experiencing the MIA’s remarkable collections like never before, as evidenced by a 50% increase in attendance in recent years.
What is talent strategy?
Many museum conferences and publications address topics such as innovation, strategic alignment, audience engagement, and digital experimentation. As important as these topics are, the most important path to future success is a museum’s talent strategy. A big vision and exciting strategic plan cannot be successful without an engaged, motivated, and rewarded staff. A talent strategy complements the museum’s strategic plan to ensure that the people in the organization can achieve the strategic goals. In fact, all of the museum’s strategic goals should tie back to the talent strategy.
“A talent strategy will enable you to harness the collective excellence of your team so that you can do the best possible job in serving your audience. It should be explicit and detail expected outcomes”
A talent strategy is a point of view about what you uniquely are trying to do, and it differentiates you from other similar organizations or competitors. It will enable you to harness the collective excellence of your team so that you can do the best possible job in serving your audience. It should be explicit and detail expected outcomes.
After defining your point of view, elaborate on the most critical aspects of it. How will you hire for it? How will you develop leadership for it? At the MIA, making art and human creativity accessible is our motivating point of view. Therefore, we only hire people who want to make our collection, programs, exhibitions, and technology accessible to our audience. Elitists need not apply.
In a recent Economist Intelligence Unit study commissioned by KPMG International (“Rethinking Human Resources in a Changing World”), 81% of companies’ top executives who responded to the survey said that putting in place the most effective talent management strategy is key to the competitive success of their organization.
Starting with the point of view, a talent strategy should outline the internal programs, processes, and systems that are necessary to achieve the institution’s strategy. These internal systems need to develop, empower, and connect the employees within the organization. Like any business strategy, a talent strategy will change over time, to reflect a changing operating environment, expanded audience needs, and strategic initiatives. Like strategic plans, there is no single accepted format for a talent strategy. Any successful talent strategy, however, should address the following key topics:
• Mission, vision, values, value proposition
• Defined institutional culture
• Diversity and Inclusion
• Learning and training across the entire organization
• Focus on retention, not just hiring
• Continual employee feedback loop
In this article, I will focus on the key steps involved in the development of a talent strategy, as well as tactics for a talent strategy for an innovative organization.
Key considerations in developing a talent strategy
Start with the Big Picture – “The main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing”
– Stephen R. Covey
The most important place to start is with the vision for the museum. The vision must be articulated clearly, consistently – and repeatedly. The institution should use every possible communication vehicle to keep the vision in front of the staff. A museum’s charitable mission is its daily raison d’etre, but the vision describes a powerful destination. The statement should be both memorable and motivational. In a volatile and uncertain world, the vision identifies the ultimate goal, even though the paths to get there may be non-linear and frequently changing.
“The museum’s leadership team must work diligently to connect the staff’s work to the vision. An effective talent strategy will enable employees to see themselves as integral to achieving not only the museum’s mission, but also its ultimate impact”
The museum’s leadership team must work diligently to connect the staff’s work to the vision. Most recently the IBM/Kenexa organization (which oversees employee engagement at thousands of companies worldwide) announced, for the first time, that the number one reason for top engagement is employees believe in the future of their organization, and they see themselves as a part of that future. This compares to the long-standing top reason, which had always been “trust in management”. An effective talent strategy will enable employees to see themselves as integral to achieving not only the museum’s mission, but also its ultimate impact.
Examine your dominant logic
One of the most difficult – and ultimately most liberating – stages of any strategic process is the examination of an institution’s dominant logic, or institutionalized thinking. Dominant logic reflects established business practices based on deeply ingrained, often implicit assumptions about the logic of an institution’s operations. A museum’s dominant logic consists of all of the assumptions about the organization and/or museum industry that reflect accepted practice. These assumptions may not be wrong, but they may no longer be relevant or effective.
“Museums are starting to think differently about staff roles and responsibilities. As societal behavior and attitudes change, museums are reconsidering accepted practice and exploring new opportunities in order to better serve audiences”
Challenging the dominant logic is more disruptive than simply changing processes because it questions closely held beliefs about the museum’s operations, staffing, and priorities. This examination is critical in the development of a talent strategy as it helps an organization to evaluate programs, projects, and staff needs in an ever-changing environment. Convergence, or a diminishing of distinctions and boundaries among things previously thought to exist in separate categories, is all around us. Consequently, museums are starting to think differently about staff roles and responsibilities. As societal behavior and attitudes change, museums are reconsidering accepted practice and exploring new opportunities in order to better serve audiences.
Identify, define and communicate your institutional culture
Peter Drucker famously noted that, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Workplace culture is a sum of a museum’s values, traditions, behaviors, and attitudes; it makes us who we are and it can either enable or prevent success. The culture reflects the character and personality of the organization and determines engagement with colleagues, stakeholders, and audience. Ideally, culture and strategy interact and are mutually reinforcing.
Creating a culture plan starts with a self-reflective process that includes soliciting, evaluating, and analyzing multiple points of view. A culture plan should reflect current culture, but also be aspirational. It is critical that the museum’s culture be incorporated into its hiring criteria, job descriptions, onboarding, and evaluations.
At the MIA, the museum is an audience-centered institution where staff strives to provide excellent service and cultivates honest and positive relationships. The MIA has identified the following cultural attributes of the museum:
Generosity: Staff gives time and praise freely, going the extra mile and valuing others’ unique perspective.
Agility: Staff members think on their feet and turn on a dime, being creative and open-minded and taking advantage of promising opportunities – and learning along the way.
Emotional Intelligence: Staff members understand that self-awareness is key to success and accept personal responsibility for words and deeds. Criticisms come nicely wrapped in solutions.
Positive Energy: Staff members are enthusiastic advocates for all things MIA and they work at the museum because they believe in the institution’s mission, vision, and values. If you want to work with people who smile, hire smilers.
Driving Results: Understanding that our success is directly related to visitor satisfaction, staff keeps an eye on the ball by setting goals and achieving them – meeting deadlines and understanding that doing less with more ultimately means we can do more.
Develop a talent value proposition
A talent value proposition is a useful way to state why people should work at an organization. It helps the staff to articulate what is different about working at your museum. Ideally, your talent value proposition will also relate to your institutional value proposition.
At the MIA, our talent value proposition states: “An engaged, creative, and rewarded staff doing meaningful work makes art and human creativity accessible to our audience.” This statement is particularly effective for the MIA because the job description of every single employee at the museum includes a statement about service to our visitors (keeping the main thing the main thing). It also ties to our institutional value proposition, “a fresh and accessible approach to a classic art museum where friends and family gather to enjoy the triumphs of human creativity”.
Tactics to ensure your talent strategy’s success
“If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need”
– William McKnight, First Chairman of 3M
Identify and Empower Creative Agents: The execution of a talent strategy for innovation must include the incubation and nurturing of creative and innovative behavior in every part of the organization. Of course, creativity springs from an environment that inspires, cultivates, and supports it.
“Foster innovation across the museum – the best way to truly foster talent and leadership in an institutio is to identify and encourage team members across the organization that demonstrate the potential to be creative change agents”
The most effective way to foster innovation across the museum is by embedding it throughout the institution. All too often, it is assumed that the responsibility for institutional change and advancement should reside exclusively with a museum’s director and leadership team. The best way to truly foster talent and leadership in an institution, however, is to identify and encourage team members across the organization that demonstrate the potential to be creative change agents. With some careful observation, it is usually quite obvious who the creative agents are in any museum. They reside in departments across the organizational structure, both horizontally and vertically.
These innovators are highly creative people who are able to make new connections across fields and often maintain multiple interests outside of work. One of the most creative and effective colleagues that I have ever worked with was a chief preparator and art handler who was also a surfer; John learned many of his life lessons from the ocean. He could be relied upon to develop novel (and usually cost-effective) solutions to problems by making analogies to the design and functionality of a surfboard or the unpredictability of a wave. John also worked as a volunteer ski patrol officer, while also building a boat in his backyard, and all of these interests influenced his creativity at work. He is a highly ambidextrous thinker who can bring thoughtful and novel solutions to a museum’s challenges, both big and small. Like many creative agents, John could also be grumpy and cynical about the motivations of museum leadership. His expansive creativity, complete dedication to the mission, and abundant skepticism combined to make John a leader in innovative practice at the museum.
An institution’s creative agents are generally effective and efficient, which is to say that they get things done with agility. They are adept at working the system and achieving results, even if it is not always in the most orthodox fashion. They know how to leverage their own authority and also how to engage the right decision makers, all the while putting the museum’s interests ahead of their own. Very often these folks exist on the periphery of their organizations, remaining at a distance from the institution’s’ orthodox behaviors.
“Creative agents are effective and efficient – they get things done with agility. They achieve results, even if it is not always in the most orthodox fashion”
All organizations have these creative agents, but not all organizations recognize their transformative role in inspiring innovative practice, regardless of where they appear in an organizational chart. It is critical to identify them and give them the resources and permission they need to lead the institution in new directions.
Create the right teams
Museums are adept in the use of cross-functional teams. It is important also to think about the kind of people who make up these teams, and not just their job function at the museum. University of Michigan Ross School of Business professor Jeff DeGraff has developed a helpful framework called “Competing Values” to describe the ideal make-up of teams.
According to DeGraff, an effective team contains people who demonstrate the following dominant characteristics: entrepreneurial thinking; competitive tension; control; and human focus. A team filled only with visionary entrepreneurs is probably not be able to get a project off the ground, let alone make it sustainable. An innovative project needs not only idea people, but also people skilled at budgeting, scheduling, and nurturing talent. As noted by DeGraff, a business needs people with all of theses characteristics on a team, but it will probably need more or less of them at different stages of innovative practice.
The importance of failure
“Fail Early, Often, and Off Broadway”
– Jeff DeGraff
Rhetoric aside, what does it really mean for a museum to “embrace failure”? Who gets to try – and who gets to fail? How is risk-taking promoted, acknowledged, and rewarded? It is hard to institutionalize risk-taking, especially in 100-year old institutions founded on missions of preservation and sustainability. The only way to nurture innovative behavior and risk-taking in an organization is to embrace failure along the way.
The MIA equally acknowledges experiments that succeed and fail during monthly all staff meetings, as part of an agenda topic titled “shots on goal”. The purpose of this agenda item is to highlight and reward innovative behavior, regardless of the experiment’s final result. Every employee’s annual review asks the question “what risk did you take this year and what did you learn from it?” Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the accounting office that balks at this question, noting that it is their job to minimize risk! We encourage them, nonetheless, to think about new ways to experiment with processes and procedures. Of course, all risk-taking has to be analyzed carefully to ensure that the museum can afford the down side.
Despite the adage that failure should happen out of public sight (“off Broadway”), the MIA staff often likes to show visitors experiments along the way, it is part of the museum’s approach to iterative development. For example, why not print the experimental new visitor orientation information and maps on giant sheets of butcher paper and hang them in the lobby for a week? They don’t look very refined, but surely it is better to discover that visitors can’t actually find the Impressionism galleries before actually fixing the vinyl to the wall? It makes for a more interesting and relevant institution if our public experiences some of our experiments first hand, while also giving us helpful feedback. Our work isn’t so precious that we can’t occasionally share half-baked ideas with the public while in pursuit of the fully baked.
A culture of experimentation needs to be supported with resources of time and money, even if in small amounts. While working in Memphis with an enlightened philanthropist, we developed an R&D fund open to every employee, giving small but meaningful grants to enable staff research and travel (including both funding and time). The key driver of these grants is that they enable open-ended exploration that may or may not have an immediate and obvious tie back to the employee’s daily work or measurable annual goals. The HR director, for example, would not be eligible for a grant to attend the annual human resources professional conference (which belongs in the operating budget). They could, instead, apply for funding to visit Pixar to study first-hand the way that Pixar offers exciting and out-of-the-box learning opportunities to its staff. Happily, a similar program also exists now at the MIA, enabling staff to: research urban bee keeping in Germany in order to better understand corporate responsibility in the area of sustainability; to visit the annual Comicon festival in San Diego to learn how Comicon leverages content and social media in promoting program and brand; and to travel to Panama and the Czech Republic to look at alternative models of artist residencies. Not only does this program produce creative ideas and solutions in unlikely places, but it also communicates that the institution will invest resources in open-ended research and exploration – all across the institution.
“During 30 years in business I’ve never seen an HR initiative that improved morale. HR departments might throw parties and hand out T-shirts, but if the stock price is falling or the company’s products aren’t perceived as successful, the people at those parties will quietly complain -and they’ll use the T-shirts to wash their cars” – Patty McCord, former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix
Most studies of employee engagement note that people are not exclusively motivated by money; the intangibles matter just as much. While large bonuses and stock options are not realistic in charitable institutions like museums, there are lots of ways to reward employees and leadership should never lose sight of the importance of rewards and rewarding experiences. All people want to be recognized, rewarded, and thanked for jobs well done. Of course, praise should be sincere, but it should also be prolific and given easily. It is critical that museum staff members take the time to celebrate successes and milestones, both personal and institutional.
“It is important to be authentic, offering people the opportunity to work at a place that values them, that demonstrates compassionate behavior, and models the institution’s culture”
Rewarding experiences include having some fun. At the MIA, we like to do serious work playfully. It is important to be authentic, offering people the opportunity to work at a place that values them, that demonstrates compassionate behavior, and models the institution’s culture. Most rewarding of all is the ability to do meaningful work and enjoy success alongside with effective and respected colleagues.
A 2014 Harvard Business Review article, “Building a Game-Changing Talent Strategy”, stated that the three successful companies studied from three different countries, were all “purpose-driven, performance-oriented, and principles-led….and all of these companies have superior talent strategies”. As charities, museums are by definition purpose-driven, and most are principles-led. An effective and well-defined talent strategy, tied to operational strategy, will enhance a museum’s ability to innovate and experiment in service of a compelling mission and motivational vision.
Director and President, Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Notes, References, Bibliography
1. Conaty, Bill and Ram Charan. The Talent Masters: Why Smart Leaders Put People Before Numbers. Crown Business, 2010
2 “Rethinking Human Resources in a Changing World,” KPMG, <http://www.kpmg.com/global/en/issuesandinsights/articlespublications/hr-transformations-survey/pages/default.aspx>
3. Jolton, Jeffrey A. “A Candid Look at Employee Engagement: Five Global Truths. IBM Software Whitepaper, 2014.
4. DeGraff, Jeff and Shawn E. Quinn. Leading Innovation: How to Jump Start Your Organization’s Growth Engine. MCGraw Hill, 2006.
5. Cameron, Kim and Robert E. Quinn, Jeff DeGraff, and Anjan V. Thakor. Competing Values Leadership: Creating Value in Organizations. New Horizons in Management, 2007.
6. McCord, Patty. “How Netflix Reinvented HR” Harvard Business Review January 2014.
7. Ready, Douglas A., Linda Hill and Robert J. Thomas Harvard Business Review, “Building a Game-Changing Talent Strategy” January 2014.