Friday, 21 August 2015
AMA Conference 2015 Keynote Interview Part TWO: Mark Holmgren, CEO, Bissell Centre
Mark Holmgren, CEO of the Bissell Centre, will deliver the Saturday AMA Conference 2015 Keynote Address on Upside Down Thinking. This method of thinking utilizes unconventional propositions to force us to redefine how we think and how we see our organizations. In anticipation of his upcoming keynote presentation, David Ridley, Executive Director for the Edmonton Heritage Council, met with Mark to discuss his work with Upside Down Thinking. Click here to read Part One of this interview.
DR: Some of these premises that have emerged from your thinking are provocative and intended to prod thinking. But there’s also a potentially demoralizing truth for those committed to the work. The museum sector, when we’re being honest about it, has its own counter-intuitive realizations that point to less than desirable results. How does one go about Upside Down Thinking without hitting a personal or organizational dead end?
MH: We have a lot of people in a lot of organizations that are already demoralized. It varies depending on what field you’re in, but all of the pressures of non-profit sector are no different: resources, talk about transformation, and the need to reinvent ourselves. A good number of people are already wondering - what is so wrong with what we are doing? For me, I am looking for tools to help people wrestle with that. A series of wicked questions would help other people develop dialogue strategies. Dialogue has a structure to it - it’s not just communicating. So I’m really into how to develop tools to help people have those difficult conversations.
In a sense, they are change tools, and the challenge when we talk about transformation, for me, is that it is on the far continuum of change. Small changes, incremental change, we’re pretty good at that. We can rearrange the room and come up with a slightly better system or do something a little quicker, but it doesn’t really impact us in a significant way. It’s just a little bit better. It’s still not transformational. The struggle we have is that organizations are owned by people and perpetuated by people. It’s hard to change because your identity is all tied up with this stuff.
You can’t pose this as a way to make people feel bad; that’s why the setup is so important. This is a go-forward kind of exercise, finding the core of what we need to consider changing, and getting at it in a way that we usually don’t. By proposing what we never propose. Once you identify them, you don’t just say “that’s a lot of junk”, you say “we have something to work on”.
DR: One thing most organizations don’t do is create that reserve for innovation. If we’re really forcing those heretical thoughts and approaches, we should drill down into deeply held assumptions about what we do and why we do it -- come up with some alternate hypotheses about what we’re doing, testing it, why is this true. What are the experiments we do with radical intent, to test things out or to try something new? That’s something that, for many museums, or any organization, demands on resources don’t allow. It’s about the human spirit of an organization and allowing people to breathe and try new things on.
The radical part is interesting. Sometimes the way to tackle becoming more innovative is to start looking at how we do things now - it’s too easy to say we don’t have time or money. I was sitting with my Chief Programs Officer, and I said to him, “our organizational structure does not allow innovation”. And that’s all I said. I didn’t say it was bad or silly. I just said I don’t see innovation coming out of this structure. We talked about it and changed our structure, and now I’ve got managers who are working laterally in ways that they never did before. It doesn’t use up more resources and they’re getting more done by leveraging each other’s programs and each other’s ideas for everything from daily services to administrative stuff. Sometimes I have the opposite problem where I manage just how much innovation we’re trying to do, which is a much better place to be.
There are lots of way to get a radical conversation going, but one of the ways I’ve done it in the past is to ask: the purpose of museums is what, and what are your main functions? What if you couldn’t do any of your main functions but you still had to meet your mission and mandate? How would you do it? It wouldn’t be easy but I don’t think it would be impossible. Is there only one way to do things?
DR: You write about the “gospel of collaboration”, noting that “collaboration” has become an entirely plastic word: we use it to describe everything we do (like wide use of late of the word “curating”). What do you see as the greasy underbelly of collaboration for organizations? What should we be realistic about in pursuing collaboration?
MH: So, it’s not about being anti-collaboration. My organization has many partnerships, both formal and understood. I believe in that stuff, but what happens with so many things - outcomes, collaboration, now collective impact - the pendulum swings too far. There are too many people on a bandwagon without knowing why they’re riding it or where it’s going. I was having a conversation with someone and she referred to my organization as a partner and I said we’re not your partner. We don’t have a partnership agreement, we have a funding agreement. You’re a great funder and I support a lot of the things that you do, but we can’t start calling everything a partnership. It becomes a meaningless word. Sometimes things are just cooperative, or coordinated without being full scale collaboration.
There are some that think collaboration will save us money. Research or valuation cannot show they are more efficient, but they can be more impactful. It’s the same with collective impact. Now they want to fund collective impact, but what about the niche things or other small things that should be funded that aren’t necessarily large scale collaborative change?
DR: The plasticity of the word makes it lose its precision. It’s the equivalent of having 22 different words for snow: it’s important in that environment. It’s important in our complex environment as well, we’re starting to lose meaning.
MH: When people say they are collaborating, sometimes they are competing, and it’s important to realize that. It’s not like for-profit where we’re trying to put the other side out of business. I do try to position myself as a top quality organization. We try to think about what sets our brand apart, and so should other organizations. Those are more competitive activities that people should be okay with. I go to any collaborative table with my personal agenda, and so does everyone. That’s how we come up with collective agendas: people sharing their own personal agendas and finding the match. Sometimes collaboration becomes such a strong ideology that we don’t talk about how we’re in a competitive environment.
DR: You have been recognized as a National Thought Leader by the Tamarack Institute, whose goal is to achieve collective impact on complex community issues. How does Upside Down Thinking fit into Tamarack’s work with large scale change?
I wrote a piece called Collective Impact, Watch Out for the Pendulum Swing. I think the genius is in weaving together practices that they noticed across numerous landscapes and identified them. The principles are awesome, but I would say – if I was challenging collective impact (to make it better!) – how can shared management destroy collective impact? Trying to get people to look deeply into the main principles of it and find out why it might not work and then fix that. Tools like this, as well as others that Tamarack pitches, help people actually get to the meat of what their collective impact initiative should look like. Does every collective impact have to have a distinct backbone organization? Is it right for an organization to select themselves as a backbone organization? I’m just trying to find ways to raise those questions, and sometimes you have to raise them in a way that gets peoples’ attention. That’s how it relates to what Tamarack is trying to do, to give them tools to help them have positive skepticism. It’s too easy to get into the flow and be positive about everything, but sometimes we have to get into why it won’t work.Even working with groups around thinking and what kinds of thinkers you have in your organization– you need creative and critical, and know how to blend the two together. Kids don’t get that in school. Some of it is just creating a culture that helps people have those tools. Anyone can be a creative thinker. It’s not just Upside Down Thinking, it’s creating a culture of change and dialogue where people can be liberated to explore things they have never explored before.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.