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Written by Mike Spock
A recurring anxiety of mine was having to live with the uncertainties and consequences of over-ambitious attendance projections. Decisions about next year's budget, moving to Museum Wharf, renting The Art of the Muppets all depended on generating enough earned income to make the numbers work. The numbers in turn were grounded on attendance estimates. Our managers and board struggled with these estimates and made their decisions, but in the big move downtown the stakeholders also included our partners in the project, potential donors and sponsors, the banks and bond underwriters, the city, and federal planning and funding agencies. We all had to be convinced of the reasonableness of our plans. The assumptions had to make sense before each budget was adopted and the Wharf and Muppet projects got the green light. There was a lot riding on our numbers.
As always, the first numbers didn't work. They had to be massaged: costs were cut, new money found, the underlying assumptions reexamined. Attendance projections were at the top of the list. Sometimes an expert was brought in to test our numbers, but we were acutely aware that his or our numbers were only intelligent guesses, the ultimate responsibility was in our hands. Faced with decisions to move ahead anyway, or start over, or abandon our dreams, there was tremendous pressure to push our projections to the generous side.
On the other hand, if we yielded to pressure and guessed wrong the operating budget might slide into the red, people would have to go, and cherished programs abandoned. In special cases like the Muppets, the renter's share of exhibition revenues came off the top with a real possibility of a net loss adding to our worries. And of course, operating lines of credit were conditional on maintaining a balanced budget and those loans might be called in. Falling behind on Museum Wharf bond payments could lead to default and compromise both collaborating museums, perhaps fatally. So the stakes were high if we overreached. The optimistic attendance projections and all that followed would be there to haunt our dreams.
We were addicted to the daily, weekly, monthly, and cumulative admission figures. The smallest deviation was alarming. What if the trend continued? Could we recover? I would wake up with the anxiety, unable to get back to sleep. Then gradually, cumulatively, a simple and profound realization appeared to us. If we began to choose the safer low range of our estimates the uncertainty—the anxiety—would become manageable. So we got tough on ourselves and erred on the side of caution and conservatism. We absorbed painful compromises in the planning rather than digging out later. The whole psychology changed. Now we were in control. There were few alarming surprises; embarrassing admissions to the board and bank were rare. If the numbers were better than our projections we felt wonderful and looked good.
We grew to trust this approach and ourselves and began to sleep through the night.
This article was reprinted from Hand to Hand, the quarterly journal of the Association of Children's Museums (Winter 2003, Volume 17, Number 4).d