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Building a high performance culture with museum goals

The way in which the cultural sector manages through goals was under scrutiny in data forums at American Alliance of Museums in St Louis this past month. Given effective goal setting is a crucial part of data driven leadership, we captured a few notes from the tips shared at the conference.

In the museum, goals help define, drive and determine performance, whether that be based on commercial or social objectives, or across a hybrid balance. Here, we cover a strategic approach to forecasting, goal setting and planning; working through the scope and regularity of goals in the museum; top tips for managing goals and how to encourage continuous improvement.

For many museums, strategic planning starts with establishing an attendance forecast – an accurate a picture as possible of what is likely to happen in the period ahead. Tempered against this reality, a goal layer provides the organization with a target for what it would ideally like to have happen – for which the museum can then plan budgeting requirements, program content, construction or transformation and more to ensure achievement. Forecast methods should be based on at least a year’s history if available (ideally more), alongside planned exhibitions, admission pricing and marketing spend; allowing for patterns and factors such as seasonality, holidays, school terms, regional events, tourism and economic factors.  For special exhibitions which commonly see a greater variance in forecast accuracy and can impact the attendance forecast significantly, extra care should be taken around allowing for comparable advertising, admission price and content appeal. Goals can then be calculated on a projected, percent or benchmarked growth method, often with a secondary stretch goal usually arising from a special directive or funding requirement. Importantly, this process of validating forecasting and goals needs to be consultative with the museum team, whether via top down or bottom up calculations, in order to balance the museum executive’s need for aspirational drive against the museum team’s need for confidence in feasibility. If the wider organization doesn’t hold belief in set goals, they will likely ignore them, or worst still, be demotivated. Goals should stand up to the long recommended ‘SMART’ litmus test: being Specific, Measurable and Meaningful, Attainable or Agreed upon, Realistic or Reasonable and Time limited.

Beyond attendance alone, there are many aspects of the museum engine and the execution of the strategic plan to achieve top line attendance, that can also be positioned as goals. An effective way of working through these is to consider the funnel of the museum’s business model:

  1. At the top level, achieving reach volumes and directions in the community through marketing and digital efforts
  2. For visitation itself, a rally of the entire organization behind attendance achievement, from events and exhibitions through to visitor services and operations
  3. Satisfaction or a net promoter equivalent, led by front line staff
  4. Revenue conversion, which can be specific to a business unit (such as café upsells)
  5. Membership retention and renewal, through customer management and loyalty incentives
  6. Endowment, grant and efficiency targets, by business development and operational functions
  7. Diversity, programming, accessibility and other social objectives, by special initiative leaders

Though this process often orientates around an annual plan, these larger goals should be broken down into shorter term targets, with allowances for seasonality. This could include the use of quarterly goals to aid with planning and monthly goals to help set campaigns or even weekly goals to aid with resource planning. Operationally, the museum may benefit from daily or even hourly granularity, particularly useful for front of house teams making decisions such as when to manage shift breaks, or how much food preparation to take in the cafe.

Once goals are set, visibility is vital. Tracking performance against goals on dashboards available to all staff provides all important accessibility. Timely reporting against goals should focus on speed to allow staff to catch issues quickly and see responsive results from their efforts. Analytical insight will deal with the complexities of tracking the pulse of in flight performance with multiple goals in play.

From there, managing with goals is about:

  • Communicating goals and communicating results, constantly
  • Creating accountability through the museum’s organizational design
  • Adjusting exceptions for unseen events, such as an unexpected closure
  • Catching negative trends early, through automated and accessible data
  • Celebrating wins at an individual and group level, using short and long term incentive rewards

Alongside iterative cycles of planning around hypothesis, proving out ideas, studying results and determining whether to pivot or persevere, museum goals help achieve a culture of continuous improvement, set into the strategic and operational rhythm of the organization.

In a political environment requiring a higher degree of commercial sustainability, goals help the institution achieve year on year growth in revenue and profitability alongside social objectives. Tempered with forecasts and supported by a strategic plan, well reasoned goals throughout the business model and balanced across the year can support many functions in the museum. When communicated well and used to encourage accountability that traps pitfalls and celebrates wins, goals create a high performing culture in the museum.