Story 07: Managing the Organization

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Written by Elaine Heumann Gurian

In order to get our collective work done, we went to meetings and meetings upon meetings. Yet, meetings were almost never vague nor did they end without a plan of action. There was an agenda (which anyone could add to), discussion, allocation of responsibility, and agreed on next steps. The discussion was often timed. The meetings began and ended almost on time, and the next steps gave individuals directions for their work.

We all knew how to run meetings. They all followed a pattern that we learned from Mike. He used flip charts and easels, which we then all adopted. Meetings were memorialized by writing the proceedings on big flip charts, pages of which were then posted around the room. Any attendee could add things to the flip charts if they thought something important was left out or inaccurately recorded. The recorder had no special privilege and was not a con-trolling presence. Recording was just a way to allow us all to see what was happening. When the meeting notes were typed up afterward, we would discover they didn't make a lot of sense, so we learned that what we wanted to remember was only the decisions and their respective next steps.

We all knew the open rules of brainstorming and would gaily proceed to offer ideas without fear of criticism. However, contrary to many museums where I would subsequently work, our brainstorming was a finite activity followed by priority setting, agreement on solutions, and then getting the work done.

Everyone knew that after group input, someone very specific had to decide the outcome fairly and then become responsible for its implementation. At every meeting, there was an agreed leader who set the agenda, invited input, kept time, moved the process along, and summarized at the end. The meeting leader was generally the person who had the most at stake at that particular meeting and was not chosen by their position in the museum. Thus, even though I was the director of the Visitor Center, I was frequently just a meeting member with no special privilege.

Meetings would end with summaries in which the leader would accept responsibility, announce decisions, if any, and assign next steps with completion dates. Sometimes implementation would take minutes, and sometimes months, depending on how many people the outcome could affect and the seriousness of the issue. Once a decision was reached, the decision maker was expected to share it with all who had been interested. The thinking behind the decision was to be explained and the reason for discarding other options was to be made known. The process happened naturally and was hardly as formal as this writing makes it sound.

Leaders invited whomever they wished to the meetings so participants often crossed divisions or job descriptions. People were often invited for their good sense rather than their expertise. Yet there were also standing meetings that allowed all members of the same tier to meet with their supervisor on a regular basis.

On matters of institutional importance, open gathering of input was expected. Everyone was encouraged to offer an opinion on any matter that interested them. Meeting rooms were often crowded with people. Sometimes there was a feeling of déjá vu because we felt we had already covered that ground. We were often too painstaking. When big-ticket items came up—budget planning, construction and space allocations, for example—senior managers would often share their excruciatingly slow process with staff. On the one hand, staff was pleased to be included but on the other, staff often felt we were ditherers. But it was also understood that intentional withholding of information for power or control was not tolerated by anyone.

There was a complementary set of regularly scheduled meetings that allowed for sharing of individual problems and feedback. People met routinely by job description. Content managers (developers), for example, met weekly. The Visitor Services staff met daily for thirty minutes prior to opening the museum. Visitor Center staff met weekly with me, and the entire staff met monthly with Mike.

Given that staff involved with individual projects were also holding scheduled meetings in addition to a whole other separate set of issue-based meetings, it certainly was a meeting culture. The good part was that information was flowing in all directions. Most meetings were mercifully short, packed with information, good jokes, and often food. They were uniformly well run. Issues raised that required more study were isolated and rescheduled. With the exception of the senior managers' meeting that took half a day each week, most sessions were fast moving.

It was believed by all that decisions once made would not be reopened except in the rarest of instances. Grousing after the fact, which happened in good measure, was not expected to produce change, nor was wandering slyly into the decision maker's office at all helpful. Going around the decision maker to a higher level supervisor would get the complainer sent back to the decision maker for further discussion. There were no successful side routes or end runs.

Issues were reopened only if new, important, and contradictory facts were discovered or if the collective group felt the decision in question was grossly unfair and they were prepared to take collective action. This kind of serious rethinking happened about once a year. Managers did not think of themselves as infallible. It was believed by the most senior managers that if "so many people were upset, they must be right." The directors in question would publicly announce that they had obviously made a stupid decision and would reconsider it.

This process was extremely different from most other museums for which I subsequently consulted. Their decisions were endlessly reopened or secretly re-negotiated. Meetings were often pointless and vague. I encountered a widespread belief that consensus building meant unanimity, which of course was never reached. In these unnamed places, it was assumed that the inconclusive agenda-less meetings were to be considered the work at hand.

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