I love it when a plan doesn’t come together.
I recently gave a talk called Connect the Dots, which explored how cultural professionals find greater personal satisfaction when they make a direct connection between their daily work and the betterment of society.
I was ultimately happy with how the talk turned out. But here’s a confession: I meant for this to be a completely different talk. Have you ever had this happen? You have a vision for a project or a paper or a work of art and when you look up from the canvas, something else has spilled out? I once had a music composition teacher who said to me, “Look at your ‘mistakes’ before you erase them.” I’ve never forgotten that advice. For this talk, I didn’t erase the mistake — I went with it.
But I still want to tell that other story, so here it is.
Both versions start in the same place. Two employees of the Museum of Science in Boston (Heather Calvin and Annette Sawyer) brainstormed a simple idea to help foster children, and ended up with a major free admission program touching the lives of 20,000 foster kids. I related their story from initial idea in the back of a taxi, to the triumphant launch of the program surrounded by kids, press, and the First Lady of Massachusetts.
Annette Sawyer and Heather Calvin, Museum of Science Boston
Ultimately, this was a story of the power of two individuals to improve the lives of thousands. The second story underneath this one is an “odd couple” story. Heather is the AVP for Visitor Experience and Operations at the Museum, operationalizing the admissions desks, membership programs, and whatnot. Annette is the VP for Education and Enrichment, heading up the Museum’s learning and outreach programs. And while for people outside the museum world this may not seem at all like an unconventional pairing, in the world of arts and culture, it actually is.
At many cultural institutions, the education program can be very much a walled garden, sharing a mission and not much else with the rest of the institution. Meanwhile, admissions and membership can be its own silo, with a steely-eyed focus on revenue, visitor flow, and operational strategies. They usually live on separate branches of the org chart. They can have their own cultures, and their offices may be many floors apart.
Here is the magic of a great, unexpected collaboration. It starts at the start and goes ’til the end. From initial idea, to formation, to execution, Heather and Annette were in it together.
More than once, I have had a meeting at a museum where I’ve deliberately asked for a cross-section of departments to be represented at the meeting. As they enter the conference room, I’ll find that there are multiple employees of the museum who have literally never met each other before this meeting!
That is what makes Heather and Annette’s alliance so special. They really are an unusual pair — and they relish it! From my conversations with them, I have gleaned three keys to an unconventional collaboration, and why you should consider it:
1. Seek out Unexpected Collaboration
The foster kid initiative began when Heather and Annette shared a taxicab back to the Museum after attending the same community event. They could easily have made small talk or silently checked email on their phones (ugh!). Instead, they embraced the serendipity of a cab ride with a less-known colleague. They struck up a conversation about the Museum mission and goals.
Now I know some of you are thinking: “What if I live somewhere without taxicabs?” It is an obvious question. If you don’t have nearby cabs, you have to just be that much more intentional about searching out unexpected connections. If you are puzzling over a new project, or are just looking for inspiration, why not seek out a friendly face from another department? Pull together a lunch chat on a topic you’ve been struggling with, and invite folks from other areas. Find your Felix or your Oscar. Have you ever had a colleague ask your opinion and you weren’t flattered and ready to offer it? Well of course not.
A family at the Museum of Science Boston | Photo © EBW
2. Leverage your superpowers in tandem
While I will admit that I find those “teams of superheroes” movies a little much (just how many “Avengers” can they fit into one screenplay?) I do like the underlying concept. At the critical moment that The Hulk can’t save the day because he’s too huge, here comes Ant Man to shrink down and defuse the bomb. At the Museum of Science, Annette brings “The Spark” to push others to think big and stand up for bold ideas. Meanwhile, Heather is “The Solver,” using her own gifts for work out thorny logistical issues. They are both convinced that this incredible program would never have happened without their Wonder Twin powers.
In order to match 20,000 foster kids with the museum, Annette expertly managed the advocacy and external evangelism required to sell an idea like this one. And when it came time to operationalize an online free admission system for foster parents, Heather was able to take the baton and run it over the finish line. (There were many other heroes at the Museum who made this happen as well. Perhaps I am warming to those Avengers movies with 67 main characters).
At the critical moment that The Hulk can’t save the day because he’s too huge, here comes Ant Man to shrink down and defuse the bomb. Likewise, Annette and Heather are both convinced that this incredible program would never have happened without their Wonder Twin powers.
3. Take the WHOLE journey together
That day in the taxi, even though she was technically the senior person, Annette didn’t say to Heather, “I have this idea — how are you going to execute on it?” Rather, she asked: “How can the museum make the biggest impact in our community?” She started a dialogue. In fact, it wasn’t Annette (“The Spark”) who moved the conversation towards foster families. It was Heather (“The Solver”) who made the connection. Let the best idea win, regardless of title or seniority.
The business of arts and culture is riddled with cases of demands disguised as “collaboration.” Imagine if Annette and her team had dreamed up this entire thing in a vacuum, and right at the end dropped it on Heather’s team. Have you ever been at that meeting? Yes, we all have.
Here is the magic of a great, unexpected collaboration. It starts at the start and goes ’til the end. From initial idea, to formation, to execution, Heather and Annette were in it together. Does that mean more meetings? Yup. Does it mean more emails? Likely. Does it slow things down? Most definitely. And it is invariably a better result and a tighter team at the end.
Poke your head in the mysterious department at the end of the hall. Sit with a different group in the lunchroom. Ask opinions of people who are not as close to your problem as you are. It could be the start of something grand — with or without a taxi nearby.
Do you have a favorite Odd Couple moment?