Thursday, 6 August 2015

AMA Conference 2015 Saturday Keynote Interview Part One: Mark Holmgren, CEO, Bissell Centre

This year's Alberta Museums Association Conference, Nurturing Organizational Resiliency, focusses on exploring the ways museums nurture organizational health and community engagement on their path towards resiliency.  As museums move towards a sustainable future, it is more important than ever to have a strong sense of social purpose, and utilize intelligent visioning and strategic foresight when engaging with communities.

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.

David Ridley: How did you arrive at the idea of “Upside Down Thinking” in relation to your work and personal experience?

Mark Holmgren: I never really coined the term Upside Down Thinking until a couple of years ago, but I've always felt like I think a little differently than other people. Not better, just different. About three years ago, I became involved with Tamarack [Institute for Community Engagement] and really started to talk about wicked questions. I really like wicked questions, but they’re not really the same thing as how I saw a more radical way of getting at difficult questions.

For example, a wicked question could be: how can we continually move towards achieving our outcomes while at the same time questioning if they’re the right ones? What it doesn’t do is question the very nature of outcomes – it assumes that outcomes are a given, and I wanted to go deeper than that. Sometimes what we really need to do is propose something that’s outlandish - like “outcomes destroy innovation” - and then seek out why that might be true. It is not to be a jerk or to create demoralizing dialogue, but to create a frame and rules about how it’s okay to talk about it. Why not look at what’s on the downside of that: how do outcomes get in the way of being creative and innovative? It is not meant to destroy being results focussed, but if you’re so results focussed you stay in the status quo, it starts to affect how you view things like innovation. It’s going to be iterative as you go forward. If everything is put into a logic model, we’re doing ourselves an injustice.
I realized that years ago when I was Executive Director of Operation Friendship. When I got there, they had somehow convinced the government to build a multi-purpose centre with a rooming house for hard to house seniors. As we built it, we got to the point where my team and I were trying to decide who lives in this rooming house. So we started talking about admissions criteria, and started doing what anyone else would do and thinking ‘those aren’t hard to house people’. It hit me – let’s have eviction criteria be admission criteria. They must demonstrate they’re hard to house in order to live here. People shook their heads, including me, but that’s exactly what our intent was.
When I talk about wicked questions, they are a provocative inquiry. You have two polarities and try to deal with both of them concurrently. Upside Down Thinking in the frame that I use it is heretical proposal, and what you do with your colleagues is you try to prove it true, not prevent it. It’s an exercise at looking into change, looking into issues, what’s stopping us, what’s hurting us, what’s not working, how we can get better. All of those kinds of questions are in that process.

DR: It sounds like it presses staff to raise their comfort level with paradox, and how to hold a couple of things together that seem diametrically opposed.

MH: Who is the guy who talks about opposable mind? [Roger Martin]. He talks about being able to hold two opposing things in your mind concurrently, and being able to deal with them – not necessarily pit them against each other. When I present on Upside Down Thinking, I spend a lot of time talking about thinking – critical thinking, creative thinking, integrative thinking – and you can do Upside Down Thinking with all of that. It’s not a separate, distinct cognitive tool. I don’t mean that there is only one way to do it – I do talk about conditions where it might be helpful, or how an organization might ready itself for it, but I don’t want to prescribe it beyond saying “ask yourself a heretical proposal and free yourself to consider it.”

DR: So that is one of the important conditions. What are things that need to be in place? Ground rules? Conditions? Atmosphere? Climate? Ecology?

MH: My background is organizational leadership and change, and a lot of that is adaptable. If the culture in your organization is such that you have a hard time talking about anything, I’d suggest that should be the first thing you tackle. The answer for people unable to speak or have really good conversations is some tools or protocols and rules on how to dialogue and have generative conversations. There is a certain readiness; there is a cultural assessment you have to do. If there are enough people that are willing to try this Upside Down Thinking thing, then probably you might be ready. You wouldn’t entertain it without some sense that you could pull it off.

I think people should talk about what it is first and try to identify their own work and where they’ve seen it, personalize it before we just jump into creating heretical proposals. Some of it is about taking the time – it’s not a day long retreat, it’s more of a process. I do think someone should facilitate it, at least at first. Organizations should do it together, and there are a lot of people who would animate that. You need someone who will not only help you through the disruptions that will happen, but also be a bit disruptive by making sure you’re asking heretical questions.

DR: This draws a parallel with what’s happening in the cultural sector. We seem to be in a period in which everyone is trying to identify their core values. There are a lot of challenges to that. Is Upside Down Thinking the answer? Or are these things strategy? In your own work with other organizations, how can you start on that process?

MH: I’ve not yet done it with the entire organization – I’m selective about who is in the room with me. There has to be a certain level of trust. [It’s] about having the right people in the room. Who can play in that space? I’ve had real life people call me a poverty pimp. They don’t even know me. That’s how they view the work that we do. It’s not a pleasant feeling. My staff hate it. So I said, “Let’s prove that’s true. Let’s prove that we do perpetuates poverty, and talk about the ways we do that.” I can’t say that to my frontline staff out of the blue, but I can say that to my Lead Team. So one of the small examples for me was to consider: what do we do that perpetuates poverty? We came up with some of the roadblocks we put up to people getting help. We didn’t go out to identify those, or blame people, but now we knew how to fix it.

David Ridley

Executive Director
Edmonton Heritage Council

Check back in the following weeks to read the rest of Mark's interview, as well as the interview with Friday's Keynote Presenter, Sharon Heal, Director of the Museums Association of the United Kingdom.

For more information about AMA Conference 2015: Nurturing Organizational Resiliency, please visit

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

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