Monday, February 20, 2017

Building a Learning Culture: Food Included

A few weeks ago, I spent two days working with board and staff at the American Swedish Institute (ASI) in Minneapolis, MN.  Since that visit,  I've been deep in learning about my own new job, but I find myself thinking about those days and about how collaborative learning cultures are built. I first visited ASI this summer, when I keynoted the Association of Midwest Museums conference. I was unexpectedly impressed (truth be told) with a place I pictured as a sleepy place with folk dancing and woodworking.  But I found a museum that was humming with invention. At a reception there, an ASI board member spoke about how the museum had shifted its mission as the community around it changed: now the museum was not just about the Swedish experience, but about the immigrant experience (particularly the Somali and Hmong communities) for many, past and present; through the lens of Sweden and the other Nordic countries.  As a result, I was thrilled when Bruce Karstadt, President & CEO, asked me back to talk creative practice in the context of strategic and interpretive planning.

What made ASI a learning organization?

Some of a culture of learning comes in an organization's DNA. It's hard to identify exactly where it comes from and hard to see from the outside (that's ASI on a gray January day, above).  For the board meeting, I shared a reading list before coming. It wasn't focused on strategic planning as a task, but readings that touched on the values of ASI: stewardship, hospitality, learning, innovation and sustainability and the museum's key themes of culture, migration, the environment and the arts. We know that our creativity is enhanced when we take in a broad range of information.  On the list were articles, Ted talks and podcasts, ranging from Theaster Gates' Ted Talk How to Revive a Neighborhood with Imagination, Beauty and Art," the New York Times series on welcoming Syrian immigrants to Canada, Dr. Fari Nzinga's “Public Trust and Art Museums,” on The Incluseum Blog and a tech article on why Sweden is a great place for innovation. It was a broad list and I was surprised that everyone at the meeting had done the readings and were anxious to dive into conversation about the relevance to the museum.  Boards bring a wealth of experiences to their board service and finding time for them to think big picture is one of the most important things a leader can do.  Bruce Karstadt encouraged that conversation which I'm sure will bear fruit as the planning continues.  

Lesson 1:  Good ideas come from everywhere. Cast a wide net in your information sources and share.

The next day, the staff convened for a day and a half of thinking and planning. ASI is large enough that not all the staff know each other well, so the chance to learn more about each other was an important part of this process. Everyone, including senior staff, put aside time to participate in the process.

Lesson 2:  Make time to think together.  Every time there's a conversation about community engagement, people ask where they should start. My answer is always the same.  Get out there:  go to different, new places in your community.  Meet people, talk, listen, learn, repeat.  We divided up into groups and headed over to Midtown Global Market, walking distance away, with food, crafts and more from vendors serving food from their home countries, hipster foodies, and more.  The groups' assignment was simple:  observe everything you could about how a market experience could help shape a new interpretive experience in the museum's historic Turnblad Mansion.  And of course, we all needed to eat--so we each went armed with $10 to get a great lunch.

Lesson 3: Get out there and listen. What did we learn at the Market? One, the way different stall owners introduced new information to us about food. They were interpreters, in the museum sense of the word, but so friendly and always starting where we were, not where they thought we should be. We found one restaurant that gave you a discount if you did a Bollywood move or two--and even provided the instructions. We realized that the audience for the museum and the users of the market had very little intersection. How could that be changed?  The museum already has some collaborations underway with different communities--but this visit gave the team ideas about new collaborations and how to deepen other partnerships.

Lesson 4: Lead by doing. That's Bruce Karstadt, ASI President and CEO, at left, with other staff members in the photo above. Leaders who don't participate send the message that others don't need to either. Bruce, Peggy Korsmo-Kennan and other senior staff were enthusiastic participants for all the time I was there. It makes an enormous difference when your staff knows that your leadership believes in what's happening--and wants to hear from all of you.

Lesson 5: Have fun. After our market visits, the groups were tasked with coming up with new interpretive experiences in the house. Those were serious experiences, but we had a great time planning and sharing them.

Lesson 6:  Communicate, communicate, communicate.  The time spent together built new understandings of the staff dynamics. At the end of the visit, the entire team dedicated some time to talking about how to streamline communication (those long email chains?  everyone everywhere hates them) and how to design ways for creative ideas to thrive throughout the whole museum.  

The museum also had 2 elements already established that you might consider adopting at your organization:  first, the annual Elsie Pederson (I think I have her name right) Day, named after a dedicated, tidy volunteer. The day is devoted, once a year, to cleaning up and refreshing staff offices. It's that time to get rid of those old brochures, the flip chart notes, the whatever.  The second is a regularly scheduled staff fika, drawing on the Swedish tradition of a coffee break, with baked goods, to take time out of a busy day and connect.

One brief side note:  I was moved by their current exhibit, "Where the Children Sleep - Photographs by Magnus Wennman,"  memories of which returned to me when I watched the Oscar-nominated short documentary, 4.1 Miles, about a Greek coast guard captain  going out, every day, to save thousands of refugees at sea.  Look at the photos; watch the documentary.

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