Knowing When to Change

Great by Choice

Great by Choice

It is the time of year when we are aligning budgets and strategic plans across our organization in anticipation of the new fiscal year.  Some look at these times in an organization’s year and instinctively call for changes in practice, following the dictate that change is hard, and yet necessary.

In their work Great by Choice, authors Jim Collins (of Good to Great fame) and Morten T. Hansen tackle this question by looking at differences in how very successful (what they call 10X) companies and a list of comparison organizations change their basic operating practices over time.  They found that the 10X companies had clear practices that allowed them – even in times of great disruption – to continue to “do the same thing that you are already doing well, and over and over again.”  The authors explain further by saying,

“Conventional wisdom says that change is hard.  But if change is so difficult, why do we see more evidence of radical change in the less successful comparison cases?  Because change is not the most difficult part.  Far more difficult than implementing change is figuring out what works, understanding why it works, grasping when to change, and knowing when not to.”

I’ve just spent a weekend with several colleagues at our National Trust Council weekend – a time when we gather with some of our most generous financial and programmatic supporters and talk about the work we undertake.  In the course of the weekend, one long-time member – who has watched our work carefully since the early 2000s – told me that our laser-like focus in the last seven years on tackling important issues at national treasures, reimagining the role of historic sites, and deepening our research around the role played by older places in revitalizing cities – is both evident and refreshing.  Too often she saw organizations shift priorities and programs from year-to-year, in search of the next new thing.  She was saying, in essence, that we are figuring out what works, understanding that dynamic, and being very thoughtful about whether or not to change.

This is good advice both for organizations and individuals.  How many of our friends and family members do we know who follow the nearest fad.  Instead of going down that path, let’s strive to do the hard work:  figure out what works, understand why it works, grasp when to change, and know when not to.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

No Better Place to Become a Citizen

Naturalization Ceremony

Judge Fine presides over the naturalization ceremony at the Painted Desert Inn

Sometimes you find yourself in the right place at the right time.

Last Wednesday I was in Arizona for work at the Petrified Forest National Park.  But first, a colleague and I attended a naturalization ceremony that the park hosted at the National Historic Landmark Painted Desert Inn for nine new citizens and their families and friends.

It was Americana at its best.  No, it was more than that.  It was deeply moving as nine people made a life-changing decision to establish a new home in a new land.

A local girl scout troop – with a diversity that “looked like America” – acted as the color guard.  The Honorable Deborah M. Fine, other federal officials, and Park Superintendent Brad Traver, made remarks that got to the heart of the privilege and responsibilities of citizenship.  Several speakers noted that there was no better place to become a U.S. citizen than a national park – America’s “best idea.”  A recording of America the Beautiful took your eyes to the desert and the spacious skies, bringing chills to the bone.

Painted Desert

The beautiful Painted Desert

Painted Desert from the Inn

The view of the Painted Desert from the Inn

My colleague Brian turned to me and said, “Is there a better place to sing America the Beautiful?”  Nope.  I wish we would stop singing God Bless America at all these sporting events and sing America the Beautiful instead.  It is so much more inspiring.

In this day and age when we often demonize immigrants, it was refreshing to be part of a celebration of immigration.  Nine new citizens from eight countries, coming together as one.

More to come…

DJB

The Blessing of Silence, Part II

Tower House Grenada

Tower House garden in Grenada

A few weeks ago I wrote about the blessing of silence, meaning “quietude” as opposed to the “silencing of voices.” Rebecca Solnit, in her most recent collection of essays entitled The Mother of All Questions, notes that silence is crucially different from quietude.  The latter speaks to the absence of noise – which is sought – while the former speaks to the absence of voice, which is too often imposed.

Little did I know that the Friday before my last post on this topic, the Harvard Business Review had published an article entitled, “The Busier You Are, the More You Need Quiet Time.”  My colleague Barb Gibson sent along the HBR article which began with a quote from writer Ta-Nehisi Coates who argued that serious thinkers and writers should get off Twitter, in a call to “get beyond the noise.”  It isn’t just writers who suggest that periods of silence are valuable.  Medical researchers have found that “taking time for silence restores the nervous system, helps sustain energy, and conditions our mind to be more adaptive and responsive to the complex environments in which so many of us live, work, and lead.”  Real sustained silence, the kind that “facilitates clear and creative thinking, quiets inner chatter as well as the outer.”

The HBR article provided some practical steps to facilitate silence, including using five minutes at the end of meetings for a period of silence, taking the occasional afternoon off for a silent walk in nature, and going on a media fast for several hours or a full day.

Cultivating silence can increase our chances of “encountering novel ideas” and discerning “weak signals” from the constant verbal agenda that goes on in our head.  It isn’t easy, but cultivating silence in our lives can be done with some creativity and commitment.

Many celebrate this season as one of renewal, rebirth, and redemption.  Quietude can be a great way to focus on those themes in meaningful ways.

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB

Clarity of Vision

We all benefit when we are clear about what matters.

I  have always admired the clarity of vision that comes through the work and writings of Morris Vogel, the retiring president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.  Morris is one of my colleagues at the National Trust, and I value our professional relationship.  On a personal level, Morris is someone I look to for both advice and inspiration.

In these days when the nation is – once again – struggling with its checkered history on immigration, the Tenement Museum has stepped time and again into these conversations in ways powerful, relevant and timely.  I found the following statement, which Morris recently shared with his board and staff, a great reminder of how clarity of vision and mission is so important in finding one’s voice.

“Tenement Museum leadership in the museum field means that our colleagues at other institutions regularly ask how we handle difficult issues, and we’ve recently fielded requests for information about how we determined our pro-active response to the government’s refugee ban. The answer is that the Board of Trustees had already adopted a mission statement, strategic plan, and vision statement that spoke with clarity about the Museum’s role and purposes. Our mission statement calls for the Museum to “forge emotional connections between visitors and immigrants past and present; and enhance appreciation for the profound role immigration has played and continues to play in shaping America’s evolving national identity.” Our strategic plan calls for the Museum to “provide leadership to the national and international historical museum community by demonstrating how institutions can utilize the past to illuminate key issues of the present.” And our vision statement calls for the Museum to “demonstrate to visitors and the larger public, viscerally and intellectually, that America’s open society, democratic institutions, cultural creativity, economic vitality, and ability to accommodate difference owe to our experience as an immigrant nation.” That kind of clarity allows us to offer powerful historical programs and to speak effectively about present-day immigration to the broader public.”

In three sentences around mission, vision, and strategy, you have an incredible example of how understanding what matters can direct one’s life work.  Morris then continued with this call to relevance:

“The fact that a nation could build and continually renew itself through the hopes that brought uprooted peoples to our shores has never been more important than it is now. The stories of those dreamers form the heart of the Tenement Museum. Let me know if you want to visit with us—in these unsettled times—to renew your commitment to America’s enduring values.”

I have always been proud of the National Trust’s association with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and never more so than during these unsettled times.  We will miss Morris’ presence at our meetings when he retires this summer, but something tells me that this clear voice for justice and the importance of our past stories to life today will continue.  Thank you, good friend, for reminding us of how to be clear about what matters.

Tenement Museum

Lower East Side Tenement Museum (photo credit: LESTM)

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Opening Day

Teams on Opening Day

Nats and Marlins line up for Opening Day Introductions at Nats Park

Today saw a near-perfect opening day for the Nats and their fans.

Strasburg pitches seven strong innings and gets the win.

Harper homers.  Adam Lind – in his first swing as a Nat – pinch-hits the game-winning two-run homer.

Blake Treinen gets a 3 up, 3 down ninth for his first save as the new closer.

Andrew and I had good seats along the third base line and enjoyed a cloudy but mild spring afternoon.

A beer.  Some brisket. A win.  What could be better?

Old Glory at Opening Day

Old Glory at Opening Day

More to come…

DJB

 

Seeing Opportunity in Every Difficulty

NLDS 2016

Ready for Opening Day

Today is opening day for the Washington Nationals.  If the president really wanted to make America great again, he would declare opening day of the baseball season a national holiday.  It could be a celebration of optimism and new beginnings.

I find that a clear-eyed optimism is an important element for a balanced outlook on life.  While former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson spoke for one approach when he said, “I’m an optimist, but an optimist who carries an umbrella,”  one of his predecessors as prime minister – Winston Churchill – probably did a better job of hitting the nail on the head. Churchill, who governed during some of the darkest days of civilization, said, “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

Circling back to baseball, fans for every team in America are optimistic (clear-eyed and otherwise) on opening day.  They know that in years past teams have gone from “worst to first” in one year (see Atlanta Braves, 1991), so it could happen again.  Heck, even the Cubs won the World Series last year after a drought that may have seemed to their fans like a millennium (but was only a century) in length.  New players blend with familiar favorites – just like old and new buildings in a thriving, vibrant city – as we look expectantly to the future.  The fact that opening day takes place in the spring when the trees and flowers are coming back to life makes the symmetry that much better.

When I was at the Mayors’ Institute on City Design last month, I was struck by how many of the cities represented had minor league baseball stadiums.  A recent survey by the National Trust’s Forum Research Desk found 33 historic ballparks still in use in cities represented by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.  All of this led me to think that perhaps the reports of the death of baseball as America’s game have been – to paraphrase Mark Twain – greatly exaggerated.  My favorite minor league park among the ones I saw at the Mayors’ Institute was Modern Woodman Park in Davenport, Iowa.  The city has made the conscious decision not to build a flood wall on the nine miles of the Mississippi River that boarders Davenport and to build in a sustainable, resilient way that respects nature instead of trying to tame it.  Yet the baseball stadium sits within sight of the river.  In the floodplain.  When the river floods (as many as several times per year), temporary walls go around the stadium, a floating walkway is set up to the parking lot on higher ground, and baseball is played on a field surrounded (literally) by the mighty Mississippi.  Who says American ingenuity is dead!

Modern Woodman Park

Modern Woodman Park on game day…during a flood. (photo credit: MiLB.com)

No matter your thoughts about baseball, enjoy this spring and the time of new beginnings.  And let’s look for opportunity in difficulties.

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB

Problem Solvers

Mia Lehrer MICD

Mia Lehrer speaking to the Mayors’ Institute on City Design in Charleston

I spent much of last week with eight mayors, and seven other resource panelists at the Mayors’ Institute on City Design in Charleston, South Carolina.  The mayors – two women and six men – came from cities as large as San Bernardino, California, and as small as Juneau, Alaska.  Three of the cities were state capitols, at least two were located on historic Route 66, they spread from coast to coast, every community had a historic core that the mayors saw as vital to their identity and future, and all were ethnically diverse. The political leanings of the mayors – and those of their cities – spanned the spectrum.  Some had been in office for several years, others were relatively new to either the mayoral office and/or public service.  One was a writer on social justice.  Two were accountants by training, while another was a banker.  One had spent much of his career running YMCAs.  As befits the mayor of a city that abuts Canada, the mayor of Juneau had worked for the U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection service for many years.  Another was a Main Street business owner.  In other words, their backgrounds were as varied as their cities and their politics.

We all came together as part of the 66th gathering of mayors and architects, planners, developers, and other professionals to address major civic challenges through design. As you can see above, none came in with a design or planning background, yet they embraced the notion that how our cities look and work can have profound effects on issues as wide ranging as housing, transportation, social justice, financial sustainability, environmental challenges, and much more. Mayors tend to be quick studies who, of necessity, have to grapple with a wide range of community concerns.

MICD Charleston

Speaking at the Mayors’ Institute of City Design in Charleston, March 2017

I had several revelations from the discussions we held around a design challenge in each community, but I want to focus on two.

First, mayors are problem solvers.  Yes, they come at those problems from different points of view. One spouse said that her husband, the mayor, “saw through the eyes of his heart” in his empathy for all his constituents, while others, dealing with serious financial crises, had to focus their minds on stabilizing their cities’ very shaky financial foundations.  Yet whatever the challenge they presented, they sought to make a difference in people’s lives. As I watched the thought process they brought to the eight challenges before them, I was reminded of Albert Einstein, who said, “The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”  These mayors were open to seeing new perspectives and formulating the problem in different ways to get to the right solution.

Problem solving can be in short supply in today’s political world, where scoring points can appear to be the primary goal.  That leads me to the second revelation from my time with the mayors: these conversations gave me an optimism for our public discourse and civic life that I’ve been missing in recent months. Public service for the public good is alive and well in America. Our mayors are facing tough problems while they are grappling with noisy interest groups, shrinking resources, politicized state and national governments, and much more. Yet they are plugging away, listening to different voices, shaping problems in new ways to reach healthy solutions.  That’s both comforting and reassuring.

It is easy to complain and obstruct.  My week with some of America’s mayors has challenged me to drop any easy path I may take towards complaint and worry and instead roll up my sleeves and get to work solving the problem.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB