Imagine a team so energized by a goal that they willingly work outside their job descriptions, put in long days and weekends, openly share ideas and constructive criticism, and achieve incredible results with limited time and few resources. This isn’t just a daydream. It actually happened right here in Colorado Springs — at the Pioneers Museum.
The Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum faced an enormous challenge in 2010. Due to city budget cuts, the museum had lost significant funding and had to lay off half of its employees. Rather than choosing to cut back on their education and exhibits, the staff stepped up and took on a seemingly impossible task — launching a brand new exhibit in under three months. The exhibit, entitled “So Far From Home,” focuses on the experiences of prisoners of war from World War II and emphasizes the stories of Colorado Springs’ own veterans.
Researching, designing, and building a major exhibit like this would normally require two years, but the small staff of the museum accomplished it all in 90 days despite having limited funding and small team. The Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum example can provide lessons for leaders in all industries who are faced with cutbacks and pressure to stay relevant and profitable in this economy. Interviews with the exhibit’s creators surfaced several factors that led to their success.
Communicate the challenge and convey a sense of urgency.
According to Harvard professor and change expert John Kotter, leaders need to instill a sense of urgency. Kotter describes urgency as a sense of pressing importance and writes, “A real sense of urgency is a highly positive and highly focused force.”
In the case of the museum, the sense of urgency was palpable to all staff. Every person involved was passionate about the survival of the museum. They all recognized that they had to do something to increase not only visitation, but pride in the region’s own history, and public recognition of the importance of the museum. They also knew that the summer tourist season would be a key window of opportunity they could not afford to miss.
Engage your people in creating a shared vision.
Often leaders respond to an urgent challenge by dictating what is to be done. Unfortunately this tactic tends to result in short term-compliance, not true commitment.
Instead of waiting for someone else to come up with a solution, the museum’s staff came up with the specific idea for launching the POW exhibit in time for the summer season. While the task was daunting, the fact that everyone involved had the chance to weigh in, discuss concerns and realities, and truly co-create the vision led to high levels of engagement and commitment. Unleash energy by allowing people to play to their strengths and apply their own creativity.
Every person on the staff attributed much of the project’s success to the fact that they were each able to use their individual creative strengths in ways that went above, beyond, and outside of the normal job descriptions. The museum archivist, Leah Witherow, acted as chief historian and curator. Kelly Murphy, the research coordinator, acted as designer. And Adam Schnoez, the maintenance operator, stepped into the role of construction lead. In interviews, team members beamed as they described the freedom they had to leverage their creativity and how this led to a positive spiral of increased energy and commitment.
The main lesson from this example for any leader who wishes to mobilize his or her people is that the most energy is unleashed when the staff — not the leader — develops the vision and determines how best to achieve it. The leader’s role becomes one of facilitating and empowering rather than commanding and controlling. In addition, a foundation of trust is essential. Witherow and Murphy both stressed how important it was that the people working on the exhibit shared deep trust which enabled the team to have a give-and-take of constructive criticism and constant open communication.
Since the exhibit opened on July 17, the public’s response has been overwhelming. Visitors are reporting a renewed interest in history of the region — fulfilling the very vision the museum team developed just over three months ago.
Mack is a Woodland Park-based consultant, speaker and author specializing in leading and communicating change. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.