Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Pipe Cleaners, Post-Its, and Project Management

by BJ Larson, NEMA Deputy Director

Professional development, what a concept. We all know it is important, we all have a list of things we want to learn, but we often don’t get around to taking advantage of the opportunities that are out there to learn them. This is especially true when you are in the not-for-profit world. We feel as though we don’t have time to do our regular jobs, much less take on something new. Well, last week I had the rare chance of attending a three-day American Association for State and Local History workshop on Project Management for History Professionals at the Windsor Historical Society in Windsor, Connecticut, and what a treat it was. The setting was absolutely bucolic, picture-perfect New England.

Day One: First day of class—what will it be like? Who will be there? Who will I sit with? Walk into the room, and I see candy and pipe cleaners on every table. A good sign, and it turns out they were there just to help us when we were fidgety. The attendees were a wonderful mix of staff from familiar museums—the Abbe Museum, Mystic Seaport, Connecticut Historical Society, Massachusetts Historical Society—as well as personnel from institutions as far away as Houston. Our instructor, Lou (Mary Louise Russell to you) put everyone at ease with her warm style. The first exercise had us identifying the hallmarks of a poorly-run project—lack of clarity, poor communication, frustration and even anger. Contrast those with what you feel when you are involved in a well-run project—satisfaction, accomplishment and pride. It might sound a bit touchy-feely, but it set the stage for the importance of learning good project management skills. We were encouraged to use a real project from our work-life as we learned about project objectives, stake-holders and scope.

Day Two: I am in full student mode, cracking wise, raising my hand emphatically, smiling my biggest smile at the teacher. Turns out, this is part of my personality “type.” We learned a great deal about this through an exercise that I can’t really describe here (for that you need to attend the workshop). Later in the day, we were assigned to separate countries and had to negotiate with other countries for money and power. It was a lot of fun, but negotiating also pushed us out of our comfort zones. When all was said and done, we did some serious debriefing that taught us in memorable ways how personality type can help define our management and communication styles. It also illustrated some powerful ways in which we can better communicate with people that are different than us.

Day Three: The group truly feels like family at this point. Our projects are hung around the room on flip chart paper with multiple post-its and scribbles for all to see. We have bared our strengths and weaknesses and gone through a shared learning experience. Most importantly, we have acquired the tools to go forth and conquer our projects, saving the world in the process. The biggest lesson? Project management isn’t about Gantt charts or critical paths; it is really all about communication.

Many thanks to AASLH and Lou for a great opportunity, and to all who participated. It was a pleasure to learn from, and spend time with, a wonderful group of history and museum professionals.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On the Road with Nina Simon

By Leslie Howard

It’s not every day that Nina Simon comes to your area to do a workshop. Sure, you can see her present at the American Association of Museums Conference, if you’re lucky enough to be able to go, and you can read her blog and follow her on Twitter, but a workshop! Near you! Amazing. Last month, I had the privilege of attending the Nina Simon workshop presented by the Connecticut Humanities Council and hosted by the Connecticut Historical Society. Hoping to reach out to people in the Hartford area, my Young and Emerging Professionals (YEP) Co-chair, Kate Laurel Burgess-MacIntosh, and I decided to host a get together afterward the workshop.

Then Kate had the idea that turned our networking event from fun to awesome. We invited Nina Simon. And she said yes. She even RSVPed on the YEP Facebook page, so you KNOW it was official. But there was a catch. She had to be in Mystic, Connecticut later that night, as she was conducting a workshop for the folks at Mystic Seaport the next day. And that’s how Kate and I got to drive Nina Simon from Hartford to Mystic.

We were, of course, more than happy to drive her. How often do you get a chance like that? My friends and family outside the museum world didn’t quite get my excitement. But I knew it was something special.

The workshop was inspiring and enlightening, of course, but the real inspiration came from the car ride. During the drive, we heard more about her past, how she came to choose Worcester Polytechnic Institute as her college and her first museum jobs here in New England at the Museum of Science and The Discovery Museums. Kate and I heard more about Nina’s start and how she came to be Nina Simon. Simply, she had an idea and that idea turned into a blog in November 2006. She started a consulting firm, Museum 2.0, which took her across the country and around the world consulting with museums and presenting at conferences. She also published a book, The Participatory Museum. Ultimately, she has returned home again as the Director of the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, California, but she is continuing the conversation and flow of ideas through her Museum 2.0 blog.

I am inspired by this because it is easy to become caught up in the day to day and forget the greater purpose of our museums. As Co-Chair of the YEP PAG, I listen to and advise emerging professionals about how to get started in the field and next steps they can take to advance their career. I hear the discouragement. But I also hear all kinds of incredible ideas about museums and their future and wonder if one of our YEPs will be the next Nina Simon, travelling the world and inspiring thousands of museum professionals. Everyone has to start somewhere. So, museum professionals, keep coming up with those ideas, no matter now outrageous or mundane. You never know where it might take you or who you might inspire! I’ll always be grateful to Kate for inviting Nina to our event, and to Nina, for accepting our invitation. In a gray Ford Focus on Connecticut Route 85, I was inspired.

The greatest achievements of men were, at first, nothing but dreams of the minds of men who knew that dreams are the seedlings of all achievements. A burning desire, to be and to do, is the starting point, from which the dreamer must take off. – Napoleon Hill