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Examples of Systems
Written by Elaine Heumann Gurian
We all believed in the value of systems. Mike was our leader in this and had studied system management theories from elsewhere.
Solutions were expected to be approximate. Invented systems need not be perfect to be deployed. We believed that "trial and error" would improve things. And mistakes honestly made in the search for solutions were never penalized no matter how disastrous. On the other hand, the same mistake repeated was cause for a little supervisory review.
Mike Spock taught us how to "try out" exhibition ideas, and trying out at every level was encouraged. We used tape, brown paper and markers in many public spaces to see if something would work. It fit our aesthetic, and the public believed that they were being invited to help us solve problems. They liked being included in our thinking. (Later in my life, I would find many museums were shy to express their processes, thinking it made them appear unsure and unprofessional.)
We invented systems to keep track of time on a project-by-project basis. We negotiated time-sharing between divisions. We had line-by-line, month-by-month economic projections for every department. We held monthly budget reviews that were judged against projections. We shared unexpected "profits" (when projections remained on the positive side for six months) equally between the division producing the largess and the general coffers. We re-budgeted twice a year. The overall institution's budget was balanced every year I was there except one.
On the heart-wrenching side we cut staff at mid-year if we were experiencing an economic downturn. One year all staff voted each to give up a week's salary in order to protect their fellow workers.
Project Management Systems
Staff created workbooks, charts, graphs, and paper formats for many things. They were often given amusing titles but they were serious and useful. The '70s was the beginning of the computer age. We had very young male computer experts on the staff who kept us up to date. We all had computers and used them and their rudimentary software for creating new digital printouts, formats, charts, and graphs.
We created detailed progress charts so that we knew if projects were on time, and we tied them to spending analysis so that we did not expend too much too early leaving too little for the end. Every staff member had negotiated job descriptions with expected outcomes. Each was set at the beginning of the fiscal year and readjusted in the mid-term review. Everyone could read a budget, a progress chart, a time sheet, etc. Every supervisor had responsibility for the allocations within their department. All had access to both time and scheduling of their own people.
In order to accommodate the project-based funding that formed the backbone of our creative work, we taught everyone how to live within "matrix management" systems. Every person had a "home-base" manager whose job was to advocate for his/her staff member, recommend him/her for promotion, supervise the person, and do all the boring administrative tasks. In addition, since projects were talent- and interest-based, teams consisted of members from every division. And every project manager reported to the director, whose overarching responsibility (exhibit, administration, schools, and community) fit most closely to the project's content. Thus, most staff associated with exhibit creation reported to me. Yet every exhibit team had members from other divisions. Which division supervised which projects was a matter of heated negotiation.
We believed deeply in the organic development of projects. We thought they could and should revolve around their content and purpose. Many topics, such as early childhood or physical science, had multiple associated products (books, kits, exhibitions, teacher workshops, etc.). It was assumed that product development could start with any product and evolve naturally to the others in random order. While the developer was content-based and would remain involved in the development of each product, the rest of the team would change and be organized based on skills needed and the availability of project funds. This in turn followed from successful grant writing, which in turn was based on institutional priorities.
With so many projects going at any one time, in addition to running the operations of a physical place (i.e., the resource center, the exhibit center, the library, etc.), there was much to track. A complicated system arose where everyone learned a form of time management and made contracts with each manager involved. The managers in turn created time sheets that contracted for percentages of time for each project person in as fine-grained an instrument as half day a week for every month over the twelve-month calendar.
This meant that every person working on a project had to plan their own year, including ongoing responsibilities, holidays, etc., within that framework, and all budgets allocated staff time based on individual contracts. The process required extensive planning and negotiation each year but made it possible for us to be audited effectively by any granting agency with levels of input and expense allocated accurately. We became extremely efficient at this.
Staff who were chronically overworked also became better advocates for themselves when they understood that they were putting way too much time or attention to one project in ways that differed from their agreed time sheets. That condition, when brought to the senior managers' attention, would trigger a process that reapportioned their time to something that approximated 150 percent of a year's allocated work (1,820 hours). With supervisor's direction, staff reluctantly stopped doing certain projects (often their favorite), hired extra help for the overworked staff, or delayed ongoing projects. Since everyone was chronically overworked and money was always in short supply, to say that we did this well would be inaccurate. In each case we believed the complaining staff, we all knew something needed to be stopped or additional help found, but we often delayed taking action when we shouldn't have.