By Susan B. Spero
We are still early in the New Year, a seasonal time for thinking about resolutions for the year ahead. In December I usually get some time away from my responsibilities at JFK University, and that break from my often too-full work life makes me (perhaps foolishly) more optimistic about what aspirations are possible. Consequently, the goals I set in January are often bigger and more change-oriented.
I’ve been around long enough to realize that deciding to make any real change requires risk on my part, as change means doing things differently. As I think about what I want to shift in my professional life in the upcoming year, I start asking questions: What am I willing to take on that I’ve never done before? Will I have to persuade others to let me tackle this idea? If it is really something new for me; how much chaos and ambiguity can I tolerate regarding what I will be doing? Will I be ok if it doesn’t work? What am I really willing to risk in order to change? The questions go on and on.
The JFK University Museum Studies community addressed ideas around risk during our annual Helzel Family Foundation Colloquium in the Spring of 2009. Jonathan Katz, CEO of Cinnabar California Inc., and a new board member of the Western Museums Association (WMA), was one of the speakers for this event, titled Risk & Reality. Jonathan presented his Seven Rules of Risk at the colloquium. Given that risk was on my mind, I called him to return to our conversation to see if he had any new perspectives on it.
SBS: We last talked about risk five years ago as we compiled the lessons learned during the Colloquium into an article for the Informal Learning Review (you can access this as a PDF here). As I scheduled our conversation, you noted that ideas around risk are perhaps even more pertinent today. What makes you say that?
JK: I think there is a growing openness to dissolve the boundaries that have separated museums from other cultural and civic institutions. Historically, museums positioned themselves as guardians and custodians of culture: keeping, collecting, and holding onto that culture. Given that central purpose, there has been a tendency to be conservative, in the best sense of the word. Today, museums are becoming more open to what they are about and who should do the work. This evolution shifts who is allowed be a part of the conversation. The participatory museum and the maker movement, to offer two current examples, are avenues that expand participation in the shaping of museums. Additionally, social media and information technology have extended a huge level of participation to the public at large.
There is a climate now where the forces of creative destruction and disruptive change are more welcomed within museums. Although the barriers to our risk-taking are lower, we need to realize that, in a counterintuitive sense, it is now even more important to know the tools we can use to take risks while enabling our chances for success. Embracing risk becomes a conscious way of making change. This is a good time to take risks.
SBS: At the JFKU event you presented your Seven Rules of Risk; let’s return to them and talk about how you see them being applied to museums today, or not. Do these still hold?
JK: The Rules are a distillation of how to take risks. The idea is to take a proactive stance. Rather than mitigating risk by avoiding it, embrace risk. So, in a practical manner, I wanted to present a set of tools or approaches that people could apply to their work on a daily basis.
Jonathan Katz’s Seven Rules of Risk
1. Pick Your Battles – Know Your Priorities
Experience tells us that you are not going to get everything you want. Think carefully about what is most important to you, and about your highest priorities for a particular project. That way there will be some things you are prepared to give up or dramatically compromise, and other things where you will draw the line and take a firm position.
2. Be Prepared
Listening is critical. Know what the other project participants’ priorities are and their sensitivities. The strength of your position is your ability to understand the strength of other people’s positions.
Know your material as well as what you don’t understand. If you know your material, you can speak convincingly and with passion. Be honest and open when you don’t have answers.
A very effective tool for understanding, listening, and recognizing what you don’t know is to engage in Scenario Planning (SP). SP allows you to imagine a range of possible outcomes – the best and worst possible cases, as it were – and play them out in your mind through role-playing with others, or using other more organized approaches. It is most effective as a collaborative process with diverse participants. SP is effective because when you are in the midst of a project and something unexpected happens, you often recognize it – and potential solutions – because you most likely thought of it in one of the scenarios. You will have thought through the necessary work-around for potential problems and will have a pathway toward a solution. One source that I like on SP (while an oldie) is Peter Schwartz’s, The Art of the Long View.
Point to outside examples for support. Sometimes when you are proposing new approaches and ideas for your project, it can be effective to invoke to an outside authority or person as a type of endorsement. This support, which can be as simple as saying “so and so, a big museum guru, does it this way,” can validate your approach by pointing to successful examples similar to what you are proposing.
4. Make Decisions
Uncertainty increases the perception of risk. Making clear and timely decisions not only reduces the risk, but also helps the project. Propose a clear pathway for a project.
Decision-making is important because it gives purpose and direction to a project. Firmly adhering to a project process with milestones, schedules, etc. can, counter-intuitively, allow a “risky” idea to gain momentum and become real. Further, clear decision-making is a demonstration of commitment to the project, and aids project transparency because the team will know where it (and you) stand.
5. Defend Your Position and Your People
There are always hierarchies in any organization: when there are multiple layers (supervisors, department heads, etc.) it is really important that you embrace what you are proposing and are prepared to withstand criticism and questioning. Be prepared to defend your position, and by corollary, your staff.
I came to this concept from listening to emerging professionals tell me, “We come up with a new idea and work on it, and then we find ourselves left out on a limb when those above us (who encouraged our work) don’t defend us.” Supporting staff is very important because careers can be jeopardized when something, often after it’s underway, is perceived as too risky and subsequent finger pointing takes place, typically in a downward direction.
6. Buy-In: The First Step Towards Integration
In any institution there are always groups or responsibilities that don’t have direct participation in your project, but their understanding and endorsement of your project can make a big difference with your success.
For example, if operations or maintenance staff may be impacted, talk with them to get their input and share your ideas. When you get project input from people early in the process, they begin to refer to it not as their (as in someone else’s) idea, but rather they describe it as our project. That is what buy-in is really about: by actions of respect and inclusion, giving everyone ownership in the project. Buy-in is silent but powerful.
7. It’s Not Personal
I keep reminding myself and everyone in any project, that it is about the work, not about you. The best reason to not take things personally is that then you can open the dialogue to foster a robust critique. Creative endeavors and innovation by their very nature have a quality of uncertainty: the more you can question, pick apart and rebuild an idea, the less ominous the sense of risk.
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This refresh on Jonathan’s Seven Rules of Risk has helped me think about my resolutions for 2014. The first rule has me checking my priorities so that the other rules can be used as I implement my various projects throughout the year. These rules are designed to help guide projects within organizations as they help identify how to manage people who are impacted by risk-taking efforts.
But given how I am trying to use them for my personal resolutions, I find myself wondering how can I apply Jonathan’s final rule: It’s Not Personal. The more I think about it, the more I realize that this one is especially pertinent. I am purposefully challenging myself this year to do something out of my usual bounds, becoming involved in a project that I know, even before I get started, will take me out of my comfort zone. If it does happen to fail, while that failure will still be personal, this rule will remind me to keep negative feelings in perspective. I’ll use the rule to tell myself to be pleased by simply having moved into the risk zone and survived it. So maybe there is an eighth rule to add: Practice taking risks!
How much risk do you want to take on in this coming year? Do you have your own rules for taking on new challenges?
Susan Spero is a Professor of Museum Studies at John F. Kennedy University. On May 10, 2014 the Program will be sponsoring another Helzel Colloquium at the Berkeley Campus, Chaos at the Museum, Designing for Audience Participation. The event is in conjunction the University of the Arts London and UC Davis and their Design Centric Forum to be held in the UK, April 25-27, 2014.