Hack the Bureaucracy ( #MuseumNext 2018)

Note: These are my notes from my MuseumNext London 2018. I presented with Paul Bowers, so many of these come out of our shared conversations. I only included my parts of the talk in this write-up. 

Museum workers are doing amazing work. Millions of objects are in care for posterity. Billions of visitors experience galleries annually. Billions of dollars are added to the global economy thanks to museums. Along with these quantitative outcomes, museum workers are making an enormous change in the field and in the lives of visitors.

The onus of all this work can be exhausting to employees not to say the least because museums workers often need to do all this good work all the while feeling like there are doing battle in their offices. Yet, this feeling of fighting the systems at work is something no worker needs. Finding ways to work well within work systems can help all workers free up mental space to do the real mission-driven work they want to do.

Has Museum Work Changed? 

The museum-goer of the 19th century might be stunned if they were transmitted to the present-day museum. As leisure has changed, museums have also changed. Installation practice has certainly changed. Technology has transformed all aspects of the museum experience. But, in its essence, museum work is about connecting people to ideas and objects. So, while the products of museum labor have changed over time, the central tenets of museum work remains fairly consistent, partly because the running of the museums has not changed all that much. Museum remains bureaucratic, hierarchical systems that place a high value on expertise.

How do you hack the bureaucracy?

Paul and I think of this as a sort of emotional Tai Chi. We think of work relationships and actions as a sort of pushing hands, where you and your colleagues are working with (not against each other). Work is easier when energy is shared and harness, rather than wasted on working against each other. Now, this is easy to say but can feel like a tall order. Here are some tips to help you be able to work with people rather than against the bureaucratic orders.

Being Honest about Yourself

Think about words like bureaucracy, change, process, and strategy. What is your first idea when you hear those words? There is no wrong answer. Checking your own ideas is essential, though. You cannot act effectively if you don’t know where you stand now.

You might have a negative feeling about the idea of bureaucracy, but it is not inherently bad. In fact, those aspects of bureaucracy that are might feel bad(the slowness of approvals or the lack of power) can also be seen as the positive aspects. No system is bad or good. It is the way people work within the system that colors the way that people think of that system. Bureaucracy is a tool and it’s about communicating with different people.

The other caveat about knowing yourself is to remain thoughtful about how people react to you. Many people might feel like change agents and this is stressful. But the other roles are also stressful. Think of it this way. Some of us are big voices. Some of us live at 100 mph. Others live in quiet ways. Some people live at a stroll. All those people have to work together. The variety of humanity is at the crux of our infinite innovation but also the source of much of our emotional exhaustion. Knowing how people relate to you is decrease the emotional exhaustion you feel (and cause) in interacting with others.

2. Don’t hate on the system. Retrofit the System.

Let’s think of silos. Silos are just tall buildings that hold grain. They are a wonderful tool for holding and saving corn. They work so well that most American farms have one.

In the workplace, silos are have become a metaphor for calcified, stagnant, and/or pooled workforces. But, the silo is not inherently bad. (Think of how it keeps all that corn safe.) In work, silos can group like functional areas, giving a group of people an affinity support group. What is worse, however, is when allowing silos to become sealed. If those people in the department are excluded from cross-fertilization with other teams, then work becomes stagnated. How do you keep from letting worker rot in silos? Foster ways for people to work between silos; think of these as personal ladders. Cross-functional work teams, for example, build work bond between teams. For more on this topic, I have a long blog post. 

3. Do You, because You Do You Best.

This Chinese image sets the fish and the rock against each other. You can think about what makes either of these adversaries more likely to win the battle. Rocks are strong, stable, and hard. Fish are agile, mobile, and part of a collective (not to mention sentient). But, overall both are worthy adversaries.

Fish are just fish. They likely don’t have existential about the nature of swimming or being in schools. They swim, eat, and swim some more. Humans have some many ways to complicate our existence. We often lose sight of our strengths and pretend to be someone else. But, think of if you really focused on working from your strengths, like being the swimmingest fish, how much better you would feel at work.

This rock and fish image is a good visual mnemonic for a meeting. Everyone has a strength. When you are in a meeting, you might feel like you are the fish, but remember you are just as worth a foe as the rocks in that room. Try to find ways to work from your strength, but also know that everyone has their own strength. Slow moving people can easily be thought of as considered thinkers.

4. Reach, Reach and Repeat

Flexibility is one of the most important skills of the contemporary worker, and yet it is one that we rarely train employees to learn. You might be curious that I discuss flexibility as a skill. Sometimes people discuss mental flexibility as an innate quality rather than a learned one. When you reframe your notions about flexibility, you are practicing flexibility.

Just like stretching, learning to be more flexible is about regular practice. Put yourself into positions where you feel uncomfortable. Do things in ways that you usually don’t. Try out communicating in a way that is different than you usually enjoy. Be thoughtful about the ways that you interact, and notice how those new methods feel. Basically, explore other ways to interact with your colleagues and other methods of doing your job. When you make mindful choices to explore other ways of things, you expand your status quo and you become more resilient.

5. More Time on You and Less on Them

Humans have survived for millennia thanks to their ability to read each other quickly. On unsafe roads in the Dark Ages, for example, one’s life depended on being able to read fellow travelers — fast. But, this skill can also be problematic. Very often in interpersonal relationships, we mistake people’s reactions due to misreading their body language.

For example, all the figures in the image above are standing in different gestures. If I asked you to pick out the person who is unhappy, you might point to the guard in the corner. Now, let’s say that this image was made ten minutes before his lunch hour. Is he unhappy or hungry? How will you know? The only way to know what someone is thinking is to talk to them. Without hearing what they are thinking, you are simply projecting.

Instead, take time to really understand your feelings and your reactions. We often have certain situations that make us bonkers. For example, I can’t handle when someone replies about the quality of the product with a statement about the amount of time required to do it. For me, time spent doesn’t equal quality of the product. For a long time, I projected my frustrations onto those people. But, then I realized that my issues about their workplace were actually my problem. I was not doing a good job of communicating that I valued those people’s work. I was projecting my beliefs of efficiency and labor onto them. I realized that they wanted their time-spent to be valued. So, instead of projecting my frustration, I should have been more focused on thinking about my ideas of work value and efficiency.

6. Be a Team Player and Understand Your Team

Most museum teams are a group of people from different departments working together towards a goal. Usually, we only have one person per functional area. So, your peers work together but each person does different work. As such, you might not actually know what that other person does. You need to have to trust everyone to work together and do their role. But, you also need to support all of the members of the team, not solely the lead or the loudest person. If that project is mounted, every person who worked on it was the reason it happened. Every person deserved credit. And, most importantly everyone was essential to that project’s success. Work is a team sport. When we allow credit and success to seem like an individual activity, we devalue everyone’s labor and diminish our future work.

To read more about finding your role on your team, enjoy this blog post, “Teams, Roles, and Being You.

 

These notes are part of my talk for the 2018 MuseumNext London. Learn more about this conference here.

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