Wellsprings of Success

By Dr. Bruce Dearstyne

History museums and other public history programs, like museums in general, have experienced several years of budget constraints, static or declining visitorship to historic houses and sites, challenges to stay relevant and vibrant in the face of significant demographic and ethnic population shifts, and the impact of the web, social media, and mobile phones that set expectations for being able to access information anytime, from any location. In this setting of complexity, volatility, and uncertainty, some programs have declined. Some have hunkered down and stuck with traditional offerings.

But others seem to have turned challenges into opportunities and are thriving on a diet of transformation and change.

What are the wellsprings of success for programs that are prospering and planning for a bright, expansive future? Leaders of these programs are taking new approaches in creating and shaping their programs’ future. They are building strong program cultures and launching new program dimensions. Progress and success reflect their abilities to lead in several areas: 

Challenge the status quo. Leaders hold onto core purpose and enduring values but tend to be dissatisfied with the status quo. They are constantly vigilant, strengthening their ability to anticipate by scanning the environment for incipient signals of change. They encourage dialog, hold meetings where dissent and debate are welcome, encouraged, and expected, and foster organizational learning. They push past ambiguity and uncertainty and make tough decisions even when the evidence is contradictory or inconclusive.

Seek information broadly. They are active in professional associations and constantly seek to learn about best practices and model programs. They read management and leadership literature and case studies from their own and other fields to glean insights that can be interpreted and applied at home. On their desks, alongside publications from the field, you might see books like Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc., Tom Kelley and David Kelley, Creative Confidence, and Steven Krupp and Paul Schoemaker, Winning the Long Game: How Strategic Leaders Shape the Future. The expansive leaders monitor entrepreneurial, innovative companies such as IBM, Starbucks, P&G, Disney, and others for ideas on creativity and innovation. 

Use strategic planning to leverage change. Strategic planning is more than just adjusting program direction. It is often used to leverage change. Leaders craft a consultative process to revisit and tone up mission, take stock and adjust priorities, jettison outmoded approaches, assess customer preferences, and strike out in fresh, new, unprecedented directions.

Manage creativity and accelerate innovation. Progressive leaders urge staff members to present creative ideas and have a systematic approach to soliciting, considering, discussing, challenging, refining, and selecting the best proposals. They often use a process derived from “lean startup” methodology to put the best ones to work. This involves short development cycles and extensive customer engagement and feedback in the development of new services and programs; small-scale, low-resource, low-risk initiatives to test ideas; prototypes and iterative development; and “validated learning” – if something works, adopt it and scale it up; if not, “pivot” to something else and use the lessons learned to improve the next innovation. The new approaches are different from our customary approaches of extensive planning and detailed preparation. Too much assessment, these leaders believe, can stall the transition from creativity to innovation. In addition, new offerings don’t have to be perfect. Often, “good enough” is sufficient to launch. 

Put engagement at the center of the program. If you look at these program’s key strategies, engagement is often at the core. The concept involves constantly communicating, cooperating, engaging, dialoging, listening, evaluating, teaching, appealing, publicizing, and persuading. It includes an ability to impart the program’s perspective and at the same time get to understand how others feel about its services and programs. It exhibits a receptivity to new points of view. These programs seek opportunities for cooperative projects and partnerships. They dialog with their existing customers and seek ways to reach new ones in carefully defined priority areas where there are opportunities to expand. They use social media extensively and creatively to broadcast information, engage customers, build alliances, and use exhibits and public programs as a basis for extensive discussions. They constantly engage advocates at two levels – an inner circle of elite, capable, committed, and enthusiastic activist supporters with influence, resources, or both; and a broader circle of informed, concerned, and knowledgeable advocates who can be called on to lobby local officials, community groups, the news media, and local benefactors.


Dr. Bruce Dearstyne has over three decades of leadership experience in archives, history, public history, and university teaching. His most recent book is Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning, and Advocacy for the Digital Age, published in 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield and the American Association for State and Local History.