Today’s guest post is from Angie Kim, Principal Project Specialist at the Getty Foundation. Angie joined about 40 other participants from various sectors in the daylong working session “Forecasting the Future of California Museums” at the 2010 Annual AAM Conference, co-hosted by AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums and the California Association of Museums. She shares how this session influenced her thinking about traditional strategic planning. The views expressed herein are entirely her own.
I am often frustrated by the inward nature of strategic planning, which asks institutional stakeholders to articulate their own values and goals and envision where they want to be in 5-10 years. SWOT exercises (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) explore how external forces could impact an organization’s strategic plan, but treat these forces as something to react to rather than as openings to redefine an organization’s entire mission or raise the existential question of the reason for existing. Forecasting offers an alternative method of planning for the future, one that the museum field would do well to add to its arsenal.
Our facilitator for the AAM/CAM working session, Garry Golden from the firm Oliver Kaizen, gave a crash course in futures forecasting, which projects plausible future scenarios based on known trends and potential disruptive events. Instead of starting with a SWOT analysis of the museum field, Golden focused on changes we see happening in the world (trends) and how those changes may impact our field (possibilities). Staying at the 30,000-foot level impressed upon us the inevitability of the changes that we could all agree are on our horizon (no one said that the next 25 years will look the same as today), and helped us accept that our institutions’ futures would not and could not be ‘business as usual’. I was immediately excited about the potential for forecasting to broaden the nonprofit strategic planning process.
Consider how different the forecasting approach is from our usual strategic planning process wherein plans do not alter significantly from one five-year period to another. Strategic planning as it stands now works best in stable times, aligning staff to common goals while the mission remains largely unchanged. But in an era when the entire nonprofit system is changing, traditional planning is showing its limitations. Considering that the next fifty years will be one of dramatic changes to the established nonprofit system, doesn’t it make sense to improve nonprofits’ primary governance and managerial tool—the strategic plan—to tackle the dramatic changes necessary? It’s time we foster a healthy disregard for and acknowledge the limitations of traditional planning.
Participants in LA did not all agree what the future will look like, but we were unanimous in believing it will look dramatically different from today. We discussed the tremendous impact of new technology, including medical breakthroughs; demographic shifts; increasing energy prices; the potential collapse of the American education system; and continuing reductions in governmental support. I was struck by how many people talked about these changes as exciting opportunities for our work to be even more relevant. Thinking ‘big picture’ encouraged us to explore big ideas about how museums could be different in the future. While many of these ideas were not new, what was new was the freedom and excitement with which they were uttered and accepted. Our exercise in forecasting turned around our thinking. We saw these changes as opportunities instead of compromises, which means the difference between being dragged into change or leading the way. Unlike strategic planning where you can keep doing what you’ve been doing but do it better, forecasting helped us take in a broader view of our world the dramatic changes taking place outside of our institutions, and offer commensurately bold solutions.
All of this is to say that forecasting, this field’s particular set of questions and methodologies, holds much promise in improving the traditional strategic planning process. Exercises for looking outward AND inward should BOTH be used in planning, but shift the sequence: Begin by examining what is happening in the outside world that will have implications for your field, your institution, and your work, and then consider your organization’s mission, goals, and approach. Hopefully, we will get away from investing so much of our precious resources on planning processes that end up being out of touch, and worse, unable to make the impact we want our institutions to have in the world. After all, our 501(c)3 status is a covenant with our fellow taxpayers, which includes people of all cultural, economic, geographic, and ethnic identities, that we will be a relevant and positive force in their lives. This is difficult to accomplish if we fail to consider and respond proactively to how the world is changing so dramatically around us.