Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Guest Post by Seema Rao: How Museums Can Resist Racism and Oppression

This guest post was written by Seema Rao, a 2017 MuseumCamper and brilliant GLAM visitor advocate. Seema wrote it (original post here) in response to her experience last week at MuseumCamp... followed by the painful news about racism-fueled rallies and mob violence in Charlottesville, VA. 

Like Seema, I've been looking for ways to increase active resistance of racism, hate, and bigotry--both as an individual and as the leader of a museum. Seema and I have started an open google doc to assemble ideas for specific things museums and museum professionals can do to resist oppression. Please check it out, add to it, and join us in taking action.

I had the extreme pleasure of being part of this year’s MuseumCamp hosted by Nina Simon at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. For those who are unaware of this program, it’s sort of a hybrid museum conference, personal growth program, and summer camp smushed into three days. Intense would be a useful descriptor. Useful, impactful, and thought-provoking also work.

Monday morning, after such wonderful experiences with people from around the world in the cossetted kooky culture of Santa Cruz, I had hoped to create a blog post from my MuseumCamp notes. Instead, my heart feels exhausted. I wanted to share some of the hope a community of change-makers felt. Instead, my brain is misfiring. I wanted to pass on useful advice to colleagues who couldn’t be in Santa Cruz. Instead, my soul needs rest.

Why? Well, because for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In this case, for all the changemakers aimed at an inclusive society, there are those who want exclusion. There are those who fear more people at the table will mean less space for them. There are those who only feel full when others are starving.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. You can choose your opposite reaction or not. If you don’t react to negativity, you are still acting. Your lack of action is still a reaction. So, when you see evil, when you see people actively fighting inclusion, and you decide it might be too political to act, you are being political in your inaction.

Today, everyone in America woke up in a country where people spouted hate publicly and proudly. Today in America, we saw the emblems of enemies past parading in the streets of one of the nation’s best college. Today in America, we remembered that our own worst enemies are our own neighbors.

What does this have to do with museums? Museums are the best of our nation, even literally, holding our national heritage for eternity. Museums are ideas. They are hope. When the best of our nation doesn’t do anything, they are choosing—and they are making the wrong choice. There is a simple binary: chosen action (1) or choosing inaction (0).

How can museums react? Here are a few ideas to get started... please add yours to our open google doc.

  • Staff can be allowed time to share their feelings together 
  • Staff can raise money for organizations that support inclusion 
  • Staff can reach out to colleagues in Charlottesville with unencumbered, unquestioning support 
  • Museums can host conversations for visitors 
  • Museums can share their stories of colonialism and inclusion as a model for growth 
  •  Museums can model inclusion in their programming 
  • Museums can work together in regions to create safe spaces for inclusion

So what is your museums doing? Let’s grow this list until every museum has something they can check off. After all, action is so much more fun.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Seven Emotional Stages of Opening a Major Project

1. Plan. Meet with stakeholders, staff, partners. Dream. Sketch. Pick dates as if you had any control over the concrete. Schedule. Sell. Prepare.

2. Fight. Get exhausted. Get pissed. Scrap about nothing for no reason except that everyone is on edge and scrambling to get it done on time. Or not on time. As fast as possible, without stomping on too many toes.

3. Flight. Get scared. Consider leaving the country. What if they don't like it? What if it doesn't work? Wouldn't it be better to skip town and not confront potential disaster?

4. Big Night. Not quite right. The doors are open, everyone's smiling, attaboys flying. You could enjoy it if you could find your calm, find your deodorant, stop finding fault with the little things that aren't done yet. But you can't. Sleep. Yet.

5. Punch. Hit the list. Tick it off. Watch the to-dos dwindle into trivialities. See the end in sight. Start to see the greatness growing.

6. Release. Take a break. Take a weekend. Let your guard down. Sit in the sun of what you've done. Feel the hole intensity vacated. Sit with it.

7. Bask. Trade the fake smile for a real one. Say thank you. Take the hugs and hold them in your heart.


p.s. Abbott Square's soft opening is underway, and it's fabulous. I couldn't be prouder. Come on down.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Announcing The Art of Relevance Audiobook! Get Yours for Free Today.

Last year, when I released The Art of Relevance, people asked if there was an audiobook version in the works. It honestly hadn't crossed my mind. Since then, I've learned how many people read books with their ears instead of their eyes. I knew if I wanted to make the book relevant and accessible, I should get on it.

So I am thrilled to announce that The Art of Relevance audiobook is now available for YOU to listen to on AudibleAmazon, and iTunes. I narrated it, with the help of engineer Jason Hatfield and the folks at Indigital Studios in Santa Cruz, CA. The great Jon Moscone lent his voice to his preface, too.

If you have never listened to an audiobook and want to try it out, you can sign up for a free trial membership with Audible and get a copy of The Art of Relevance for free. Go to the page for the book and hit the "Free with 30 Day Trial Membership" orange button to the right. You can also listen to a five-minute sample from the introduction to get a sense of what it sounds like.

And if you prefer your media in audio-visual form, here are two videos from recent talks about the book:
  • 12-minute talk about The Art of Relevance for a broad audience at TedXPaloAlto 
  • 30-minute talk plus Q&A, with a slant towards science centers at ECSITE in Portugal
Finally, I'll be sharing stories of relevance live and in-person this fall at the following events:



Tuesday, July 18, 2017

How Do You Inspire Visitors to Take Action After They Leave?

This month, we opened a new exhibition at the MAH, Lost Childhoods: Voices of Santa Cruz County Foster Youth and Foster Youth Museum (brief video clip from opening night here).

This exhibition is a big accomplishment for us because it incorporates multiple ways we push boundaries at the MAH:
  • we co-designed it with 100+ community partners (C3), including artists, foster youth, and youth advocates, with youth voices driving the project from big idea to install to programming.
  • we commissioned original artwork that was co-produced with youth.
  • it uses art, history, artifacts, and storytelling to illuminate a big human story and an urgent social issue.
  • it encourages visitors to participate both in the exhibition and beyond it by taking action to expand opportunities for foster youth and youth transitioning out of foster care.
There's lots to explore about this project, but today I want to dive into this last element: inspiring visitors to take action. 

When we developed the big ideas for this exhibition, MAH staff and C3 partners agreed: we wanted visitors to "feel empowered to take action and know how to do so."

This big idea excited us all. But at the very next C3 meeting with our partners, we ran into two big questions of content and design:
  1. The issues facing foster youth are huge and complex. How could visitors take actions that are both meaningful and achievable?
  2. How could we develop a clear, explicit, and appealing way for visitors to take action?
We addressed the first question with guidance from one of the former foster youth who helped develop the exhibition. She pointed out that while big things like becoming a foster parent are super-important, there are also a lot of little things people can do to help foster youth succeed. We decided to hone in on the little things - from baking a birthday cake to donating clean socks to volunteering - in our TAKE ACTION center. 

The TAKE ACTION center has two components - a woven artwork (left)
and a set of business cards visitors can take home with them.

We crowd-sourced "little things" from our C3 partners. Then, we worked with one of the commissioned exhibition artists, Melody Overstreet, to create an artwork that weaves all these little things into one tapestry. Youth handwrote the little things on the woven strips, in English and Spanish. The artwork metaphorically suggests that we need to do all these little things to build a supportive social fabric for foster youth.

Closeup of the woven artwork by Melody Overstreet and C3 partners.
While the artwork is beautiful and inspiring, it's not a clear, explicit call to action. In C3 meetings, we experimented with different activities related to the weaving. We tried making bracelets to remember an action you want to take, or weaving your action into the artwork. But we decided that these were too conceptual. We wanted to live up to that big idea that visitors would feel empowered to take action and how how to do so. 

So we took the actions in the weaving and translated them into business cards. The front of each card shares the action, and the back shares the contact info for the person/organization to make it happen. We discussed creating a single "take action" postcard instead and pushing all the action/contact info to a website, but that felt like it added too many steps for visitors from inspiration to action. We wanted visitors to have all the information they need to do a given action on the card itself. The cards are clear, brief, bilingual, and granular. You can take it and use it right away.

A few of the TAKE ACTION cards.
Front/back closeup of one card.
We opened the exhibition with 40 different action cards. We had debated whether to pare the number down so as not to overwhelm visitors, but ultimately, we felt that more was more. We've even held a few extra slots open to add new cards in the future in case our partners' needs change over the 6-month run of the exhibition.

How will we measure if people take the actions on the cards? We're tracking this in two ways:
  1. We are counting how many cards of each type get taken. Already in the first few days of the exhibition, we've had to replenish some cards multiple times. 
  2. We are asking C3 partners to report to us on the extent to which people take action. We started a simple google doc to catalogue these reports. We've already heard from partners who have had new volunteers sign up based on the cards.
I'm really curious to see how the TAKE ACTION center evolves over the run of the exhibition. I'm cautiously optimistic that we may have found a system that works for Lost Childhoods - and may work for other projects as well.

What's your take on this approach? How have you inspired visitors to take action in your projects? How have you measured it?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Want to Work at the MAH? Now's Your Chance.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History keeps growing and experimenting in our quest to build a stronger, more connected community. We're expanding beyond our walls this summer with the opening of Abbott Square. We are dreaming big, reaching out, and going deep... and we're looking for two great folks to join the team.

We are now hiring two full-time positions:
Both these people have important roles to play in the future of the MAH.

The Exhibitions Catalyst will lead the way in bringing together artists and diverse partners in the development of powerful exhibitions. We've built a community-based, collaborative exhibitions strategy, and we're looking for the right person to bring it to life through great writing, project management, partner engagement, activity design, and event production.

The Marketing and Communications Catalyst will shape and execute our marketing, press, and communications strategy. With Abbott Square opening, the whole idea of what the MAH "is" is evolving. The MAH now oversees a museum, a community plaza, a garden, a market, and all the activities that go with these diverse offerings. We are rethinking our program model, and we need to rethink our marketing strategy as well. The person in this job will lead the way.

We believe that the strongest teams come from diverse backgrounds. You won't find requirements in these job descriptions to have a master's degree or a million years of experience. You WILL find applications that ask you to demonstrate your talents and perspective. We hire high-performing people who are ready to work hard, collaborate, experiment, and get shit done in a fast-moving, fun, community-minded environment.

If you think that you are the right person for one of these jobs--or if you know the right person--I hope you will check out the job descriptions and consider applying. These jobs are open until filled, and we are ready to hire immediately. Thanks in advance for spreading the word.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Are Cultural Organizations Built to Fail to Scale?

My new audial obsession is the podcast How I Built This, in which Guy Raz interviews entrepreneurs who built notable companies. The podcast offers incredible stories behind the making of businesses like Chuck E Cheese, Southwest Airlines, and Zuumba. I've also been reading more about social impact nonprofits that went big, like Goodwill, CASA, and YMCA.

One of the biggest questions on my mind as I listen is: why isn’t my industry scaling up the way these organizations do? I can think of many extraordinary innovators in the nonprofit cultural sector--people and organizations creating brilliant programs, site-based experiences, and products. Many of these projects seem replicable. But I can think of only a few who have scaled up and out in a meaningful way.

Why aren’t our collective best ideas growing and spreading all over the world? Why aren’t more cultural organizations franchising, scaling, and replicating like comparable businesses?

Here are a few of my hypotheses (and I’d love to hear yours in the comments). I am not suggesting that any of these factors are bad or immutable. I'm suggesting they may be reasons we aren't scaling.

Precarious business model. Even if an institution or a project is fabulous, it may not have a solid, replicable business model behind it. If the work is financially dicey on the scale of one building, it can be disastrous to scale up.

Too much emphasis on innovation. The more we tinker with and change our products, the less time we spend scaling those products. Arts institutions have beat the innovation drum for decades now. Change may be necessary... or it may distract us from opportunities to grow.

Too complex and diversified a business. Cultural organizations tend to have many programs, projects, audiences, and goals. Businesses that scale are simpler and more focused. If it would take a thousand-page manual to replicate your programs (which are always changing!), it's too hard to reproduce.

Friendly industry that encourages sharing and copying. There are no NDAs in the nonprofit culture sector. Professionals share program models, exhibitions, and design techniques across organizations, often for free. This intermixing means there's less distinctive value to scaling any one entity's offerings.

Too much emphasis on unique experience and local idiosyncrasy. Many cultural organizations put the singular, authentic experience first. Many of us are proud of how our cultural organizations reflect and respond to our local communities. This can lead to assumptions--not always true--that what works here can't be copied and won’t work somewhere else.

Skills mismatch. The skills needed to create an incredible program are different from those needed to spread that program around the world. Our industry cultivates and rewards creative dilettantes who make beautiful things. We often look with suspicion on MBAs and people who want to commodify our work.

Mission mismatch. What's the upside for cultural organizations to scale? Most don't see any benefit to spreading that program around the world. It might be nice if it happened, but it's not the goal. The goal is local engagement, authenticity, scholarship, prestige, or keeping the lights on and the art pumping. I suspect most of us would be loathe to cut programs or make hard tradeoffs in favor of scale. The argument for it isn't worth the pain.


What's missing on this list? What counter-examples have you seen?

Please share your questions or comments! If you are reading this via email, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Why We Moved the Abbott Square Opening - A Mistake, a Tough Call, & a Pivot: Introducing Abbott Square, Bonus Post

Excited to open... but not quite yet.
This is the eleventh in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

Twelve days ago, we started the two-week countdown to opening Abbott Square. We sent out hundreds of flyers with the eight-night Opening Week schedule. We lined up press. We shifted staff schedules. We had 2,000 t-shirts to give away, 850 balls to drop, and over a hundred artists, accordionists, salsa dancers, taiko drummers, and bubble ladies ready to go.

Ten days ago, we called it all off.

Why? The reason is simple: we weren’t ready. Abbott Square is a plaza, a garden, and a marketplace with 6 restaurants and 2 bars. Marketplace construction isn’t complete. All those chefs haven’t had a chance to stock their food or train their staff. We know food and drink are essential parts of Abbott Square. They are worth the wait. And so, at the last moment, we pulled the rip cord and postponed the events.

The more interesting question is this: why did it take so long to make this decision?

I knew for months that construction was delayed. I knew for weeks that we weren’t going to be able to do all the restaurant prep we had planned for. Why didn’t I make the decision to postpone sooner?

I think the answer comes down to three things.

1. I was too optimistic.
Leading an entrepreneurial project requires a lot of optimism. For years, I’ve been a cheerleader, fundraiser, and spokesperson for this project. When people were skeptical of the vision three years ago, it was my job to win them over. When we needed funds two years ago, it was my job to inspire people to give. When staff were unsure how it would change their jobs a year ago, it was my job to get colleagues onboard. And now in construction, I’ve been telling the community how great the project will be when it opens.

And let’s be clear: it WILL be great. But my realist brain never got the full attention of my cheerleader brain. Partly, I was inexperienced; when construction managers gave me a date, I figured they knew more than I did. But considering how often those dates slid, I should have seen the writing on the wall sooner. I should have taken a break from cheerleading to identify the likely outcome of the trend of construction delays.

2. We had a hard opening date instead of a go/no go threshold.
Back in March, I asked our market partner when he thought construction would be done. He said April 15. And then they’d want two weeks of soft opening - May 1. We added a month to be safe and agreed to have a big grand opening June 2-9. Once we locked this in, I focused on those dates, driving towards them, cranking to get done in time. I felt that a reasonable goal would focus us to get to a successful opening. As that goal became unreasonable, instead of adjusting, I dug in harder. I pushed to open on time, and got more and more stressed as it seemed like we might not hit our dates. By the time of that key decision, I’d barely slept in days.

How could we have avoided this? Instead of pushing to hit a date, I wish I had defined thresholds for a quality grand opening, like “we must have a Certificate of Occupancy at least three weeks prior” or “chefs must have at least 2 weeks to train/soft open.” If I had taken that tack, we would have postponed sooner.

3. It felt easier to commit to dates than to embrace ambiguity.
I felt pressure, both in myself and within our staff team, to provide a date. We are pros at event planning at the MAH, but all event plans start the same way: with a date. It felt like we needed to lock in a date so we could book collaborators, schedule staff, market the activities, and plan everything. So we did. We picked dates we thought were extremely safe… until they weren’t. When construction delays started to get too close to June 2, we started reframing the events—calling them “previews” instead of “opening.” Ultimately, even this reframing wasn’t going to fly, and we had to postpone.

Weirdly, once we decided to postpone, it seemed much less overwhelming than I expected to move everything. Now it feels like we have an amazing event-in-a-box ready to go whenever we are able to lock in new dates. That fixation on dates may have been unhelpful from the start.


I am so grateful to our staff, board, and community for supporting this change. I made the mistake, and they made the solution work. Our staff did an amazing job communicating the change with press, members, and partners—even shifting a huge cover story that went to print just hours after we made the change. Our team clearly, quickly told everyone about the change, and we emphasized that we were postponing so we could offer members the best experience possible. People were understanding about the delay and excited about the opening to come. And I went back to sleeping at night... while spending my days working hard to make the project live up to our community's biggest dreams.

Have we reset new opening dates? Heck no! Here’s our new strategy:
  • We’ll host an Abbott Square Preview Night on June 2 as part of First Friday activities.
  • When the Market gets its Certificate of Occupancy, we will work with the Market management to determine how many weeks of training and soft opening they need to open successfully. We'll start soft opening our new programming in the plaza during this period too.
  • We’ll set new grand opening dates based on soft opening needs and fire up our events plan with a few tweaks. 
And next time we open something comparably complex, we’ll set this kind of plan from the start.


Please share your questions or comments! If you are reading this via email, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Ask Me Anything about our Expansion... and Enjoy All the Posts in the Abbott Square Series

We’re just weeks away from opening Abbott Square to the public here in Santa Cruz, CA. Over the past ten weeks, I’ve written about some of the most potent, confounding, and pivotal moments in making this $5,000,000 community plaza project real.

Here are all the posts in the series. For every story I wrote down, there are ten others rattling around in my head. I’d love to hear your questions and comments. What do you want to know about the project or the process? No question too small. Let's learn more together.

Add your questions to the comments here. Enjoy these posts. And if you are in the area, join us for the Abbott Square Preview June 2 in downtown Santa Cruz. You can also check out the great cover story in the Good Times.

INTRODUCING ABBOTT SQUARE

  1. Introducing Abbott Square - welcome to the blog series
  2. Why We're Expanding in Public Space - and Why You Should Consider it Too - if our community lives beyond our walls, shouldn't our work go outside too? 
  3. Community Participation Builds a Community Plaza - how we involved community stakeholders and citizens from day 1
  4. The Most Important Question to Ask in a Capital Campaign - what is your project worth?
  5. What a Board is For - how trustees help you go beyond your limits
  6. Two Prioritization Techniques We Used to Negotiate a Great Lease - how can you decide collectively what you value most?
  7. How Getting Sued Ruined My Vacation and Taught Me about Stress - a cautionary tale
  8. From Mine to Ours - Sharing Ownership of Our Expansion - when and how do you bring your staff into a new project?
  9. Think Like a Real Estate Developer - a new way of looking at opportunities on the horizon
  10. What's More Inclusive: Food or Art? - questioning long-held beliefs about gentrification and inclusion

Please share your questions or comments! You can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What's More Inclusive: Food or Art? Introducing Abbott Square, Part 10

This is the tenth in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

When we started working on the food side of the Abbott Square project, it raised some basic questions about community inclusion. How could we build a market that was as diverse as our museum? Would adding a major commercial component to the project make it more or less welcoming?

Our staff and community saw these questions differently from the start. Staff members wanted to protect the MAH’s focus on reflecting the diversity of our community. We’ve worked hard for years to make the MAH a place that includes and welcomes people of all backgrounds. Success for us looks like MAH participants reflecting the age, ethnic, and economic diversity of our county. We’re very close to hitting all these targets. We didn’t want Abbott Square to be a step back on the path to community representation.

At the same time, we heard from community members how essential food was to make Abbott Square a compelling place to visit. People were hungry for more lunch, dinner, and happy hour options downtown. And the kind of food they wanted—fresh, local, diverse cuisine—didn’t lend itself to the cheapest options possible.

When we started working with the master tenant/developer on the market, he promised the market would feature “real food for real people.” Diverse chefs would present cuisines from around the world. There would be no white tablecloths—nor any table service at all. But some of us were still wary. Were we creating a gentrifying space instead of an inclusive one?

So our whole staff went to visit another public market the developer had started: San Pedro Square Market in San Jose. The food was mid-range in price. The cuisine represented many countries and flavors. The space was loud, friendly, and packed. And the staff and clientele were more ethnically diverse than any museum in the region--including ours.

Visiting San Pedro Square Market was a humbling wakeup call for me. Here we were, feeling righteous about our inclusive work, and there they were feeding a more diverse crowd than participated at the MAH.

No matter how focused we are on inclusive work at the MAH, we’re still doing it in the frame of a museum. To many people, an art museum is a more potent symbol of exclusivity and elitism than a hipster coffeeshop or a poke bar. In some communities’ eyes, art is a bigger gentrification concern than food.

Visiting San Pedro Square Market reminded me of all the community members who got excited about Abbott Square and the MAH because of the food. There are many, many people in this world who do not feel welcome, invited, or interested in museums. All those people eat. Many of them (more and more every year) eat out. More people, and more diverse people, go to restaurants than go to museums. Many people might feel a greater sense of invitation from a West African rice bowl or custom popsicle in Abbott Square Market than from MAH exhibitions.

I don’t want to discount the potential for Abbott Square Market to be a force for gentrification. It could be. We have to be attentive to its impact on the MAH community and our downtown. But I'm not willing to give the MAH or any art institution a pass in this attentiveness. I don't assume that nonprofits are automatically more inclusive than businesses.

We have to keep working on many levels to include diverse participants—and we will keep doing so, indoors and out. In Abbott Square Market, we’re working with diverse chefs, with diverse staffs, to welcome diverse customers who like to eat out. In the plaza and the museum, we're working with diverse partners, on diverse programs, to welcome diverse visitors who like to connect through creativity and culture. We’re offering many experiences, at many price points, with many partners. It’s all part of opening up the MAH to more of our community.


If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Think Like a (Real Estate) Developer: Introducing Abbott Square, Part 9

This is the ninth in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

Studying engineering taught me to think like a designer: state the problem, brainstorm, test, iterate.
Working with creative people taught me to think like an artist: observe, explore, dive in, look out.
Partnering in community taught me to think like an organizer: listen, connect, build shared purpose.
Building the Abbott Square project taught me a whole new mindset: that of the real estate developer.

Real estate developers have two distinctive qualities I’m learning to adopt: they think from the outside in, and they balance flexible optimism with clear criteria for success.

OUTSIDE IN

Before the Abbott Square project, I approached planning from an internally-driven perspective. We develop the ideas. We explore the possible programs. We develop the projects. The “we” isn’t always staff; in most cases, our staff work with community partners in a participatory, co-creative model. But we mostly start projects from the dreams and challenges of the partners in the room.

Real estate developers don’t think this way. They approach planning from the outside in, starting with the external conditions of the land around them. Each site provides its own set of opportunities and constraints. The question is not, “what do I want to do?” but “what can I do with this?”

This mindset expands my world. Even as we talk about “abundance thinking” in nonprofits, we tend to restrict ourselves to a limited landscape of opportunities. We don’t look too far beyond our existing programs, sites, and partners. We don’t scan every new encounter for its potential. Because we want control, we start by controlling ourselves, pre-selecting a narrow window of possibilities based on the frames we’ve already installed.

Real estate developers taught me to stop focusing on my own locus of control. Now I look outside the window and wonder what opportunities different sites and partners could unlock. It’s like Pokemon Go for professional opportunities; that site has some gold sparkles, that park is hopping with party animals, that collaboration request has a rainbow guarded by trolls.

FLEXIBLE OPTIMISM + HARD CRITERIA

Real estate developers blend optimism and flexibility with clear-eyed assessment of what external conditions make a project go. Developers will move mountains to make a project they believe in work—but they’ll also drop a project in an instant if the external conditions make it untenable. If a project doesn’t pencil out or meet the criteria they feel spell success, developers walk away. There will always be another site, another project, another opportunity for a better fit.

This approach requires being explicit and honest about criteria for success or failure. Every developer I’ve talked with can list specific things that will make them pursue or drop a project—at any stage. One guy will only work in specific municipalities. Another has to own the building. It doesn’t matter how attractive the project is if they can’t have what they feel they need to make it succeed.

In my nonprofit world, I’m neither required nor challenged to develop such clear criteria. My general nonprofit MO is to pursue a project and to keep adjusting and learning our way to the finish line. There are some projects that go on too long before they get axed. We identify flaws emergently rather than starting with clear “go/no go” criteria.”

Thinking like a developer has made me more comfortable pursuing many early-stage possibilities in parallel instead of marching forward in sequence. I assume most early-stage opportunities won’t end up lining up, but I won’t know which ones are viable until we get further down the road. I want the “deal flow” of opportunities—and I’m working to hone my own mental checklist of necessary criteria.

***

An engineer says: “I’ll try this and learn something, then I’ll try that and learn something, and eventually I’ll get it right.”

An artist says: “I’ll explore the world, pull ideas from it, and craft a response.”

A nonprofit manager says: “Based on what we’ve learned and the partnerships we’ve built, we’ll move forward like this, together.”

A developer says: “I’ll open many conversations, and when I find the one that meets all my criteria, I’ll go full steam ahead on that one and drop the others that don’t.”

All of these are valid ways to approach the world. Which will you use for your next project?


If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.