Can Museums be “Developmental Organizations”?

An interview with Dara Blumenthal of Live Grey

Robert J Weisberg
May 27, 2017 · 8 min read

The field of organization design has evolved quickly. Are cultural organizations taking enough advantage of this new discipline? Dara Blumenthal brings an academic background to the org culture world and spoke with The Museum Technologist about an underappreciated part of workplace design: the development of the people who work there.

(This article originally appeared in a slightly different form here on my blog, Museum Human, back when Dara worked with The Nature of Work, which has since joined forces with Live Grey.)

Cultural organizations and organizational culture don’t always play nice together. Future-leaning tech companies always seem on the cutting edge of enlightened workplaces and progressive institutional practices, while non-profits, especially in the cultural sector, would not appear to be leading players in tech. So what do museums do to combat the ping-pong tables of high-tech corporations while also serving (and growing) diverse audiences and maintaining their sense of mission, all while increasing revenue? (Oh, that’s all? )

Well, it’s not all ping-pong tables all the way down, and few people know that better than Dara Blumenthal, who co-founded of The Nature of Work with Nathan Snyder, after a stint together at the now-shuttered org-culture consultancy Undercurrent (the Mudhoney of the org design world). At The Nature of Work, Blumenthal didn’t just diagnose process problems in today’s workplaces. She was setting her sights higher, at the very way in which people are viewed — and view themselves — at work and in society, with a take that she calls “organizational development” rather than just
“organizational design.” (Check out my posts about new work methods in a museum setting here and here.) If you know about Design Thinking, you might recognize in Dara’s ideas something of a psychological-research-based version of DT.

It won’t be easy: the curatorial mindset is often at odds with progressive workplace practices and is suspicious of buzzwords, and museum staff have had consultants and reorganizations up to here. But Dara brings a Ph.D. in sociology to the table; this isn’t just wikipedia-and-chill consultancy here. Her ideas just might be different enough to really make a difference.

[This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.]

The Museum Technologist: There’s been so much discussion in the past few years about improving our workplaces. What is your company’s take on organizations?

DB: We’re trying to figure out what works in terms of organizational design development. We believe that the organization primarily exists inside the minds of the people who operate it and happens through the actions and behaviors of those people coming together.

The Museum Technologist: So what is the difference between “organization design” and “organization development”?

DB: Organization design thinks about how organizations are “structured“’” to get work done. Traditionally, this has been hierarchal. Organization development is about the people who are in and of the organization. But what’s important is that they are entirely reliant on each other to function. Different people, or different teams, make sense and meaning of their organizations in different ways, and that difference shows up in how people get their work done.

RJW: So how do you focus on this?

DB: My background is in sociology, identity, critical theory, and cultural studies. It’s interdisciplinary, and that’s important, not only talking about new processes but also about people, at all kinds of organizations. All of these processes are just structural, but leaders confuse them for the organization itself. At The Nature of Work we unfolded the organization by matching a team’s developmental capability with the work that needs to get done. We made strategy personal. Even with all of the study of organizations, there’s been very few ideas about how people are now, at work.

The Museum Technologist: So you’re saying that we’ve lost sight of the people in the organizations when we talk about improving organizations? It seems like you’re advocating for a more holistic approach, almost “whole organization studies.”

DB: That’s right. Also, we’re helping organizations to understand that the networked world today has a higher order of complexity than the workplaces of the past. Organizations now need to be more like living systems. And humans too need to be understood as living systems — not static parts you can control or predict with software. Working today requires more thinking, feeling, and relating. So we should be hiring people not just for their skills, education, experience, but how they use their judgment to actually get their work done with others.

RJW: What do organizations need to do, then?

DB: Organizations need to consider adult human development. There’s long been this idea that we stop developing when we stop growing biologically, but in fact newer research has emphasized that our socio-emotional and cognitive development is lifelong. Now we have 100 years of data on adult development. Using the framework described in the book from Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, An Everyone Culture, we can locate three different levels of development in the workplace—and since adult development hasn’t been taken seriously, for the most part we’re a level behind where we need to be to solve the sort of problems that are now coming our way. For example, generally leaders are at level 2 (see chart from The Nature of Work below) when they need to have the cognition and socio-emotional development of level 3, and so on. Most people can’t even have “real” authentic conversations at work, let alone bring their whole self to the problem-solving at hand. This is a huge problem on our networked world.

You can see levels of development here:

(courtesy The Nature of Work)

The Museum Technologist: Are there elements of new workplace styles, such as Holacracy, which are more appealing to new workers?

DB: Smaller companies distribute authority and autonomy more equally. This is more attractive to millennials coming into the workforce. But we have to be careful; there’s this idea that to act like a tech company or a start-up is what every company should do. And start-ups, as they grow, often lose everything that was disruptive to begin with! They make the same mistakes as the companies they were trying to get away from.

A lot of our obsessions with inefficiency and best practices are short-sighted and won’t by themselves create change. Holacracy is not inherently developmental, and fundamentally, work has to become developmental.

The Museum Technologist: When did these ideas about work change?

DB: Psychologists started writing about work being seen as more self-reliant and more complex in the ’90s. They saw work as part of the “whole self.” You are bringing your whole self to work, even if it’s not welcome! All these ways of imagining your self — they’re all there at work. We are always fully in our work, even if parts of ourselves aren’t expressed, even when we’re subjugating parts of ourselves.

Part of the challenge is that many organizations are strengths-based, and this has to do with performance evaluations, how people are incentivized and motivated — it is all based on an incredibly simplistic notion of the human as a cog in a machine. But today we are much more dynamic than that, our jobs require it of us. So we need to foster growth-based cultures where weakness, mistakes, difficulty are opportunities for growth and change — not seen as liabilities. This isn’t the opposite of a strengths-based culture, it is actually of a higher order, where strengths and weakness come together to support and develop the whole team. I’ve worked in client organizations where you can’t even say the word “problem” — how will they ever get better? How will they ever evolve if this notion isn’t even in their discourse?

We need to help people understand the challenges and problems they encounter in their work from a developmental lens, to help create “ecosystems of practice” and awareness so that the community can develop and function — this is what we need as a society.

Company, are you there? It’s me, your human employee (An Everyone Culture, image from The Chicago Tribune, via Tim Casasola in Medium)

The Museum Technologist: Do non-profits, especially cultural institutions, face particular challenges in developing their organizational culture, especially the human development of their staff?

DB: The interesting thing about these sorts of organizations is that as institutions it is their purpose and strategy that determines how they organize and operate, and not the other way around. It is tradition that rules, so it can be very, very difficult to try new things and to move quickly. Even the smallest change can be experienced as destabilizing to some who have spent their entire careers getting comfortable in these organizations.

In some respects, organizational change it can be like some sort of blasphemy to some folks within an organization, because the strategy and purpose of the organization gets collapsed or fused with how it functions. Yet someone may be a total mismatch for their role. This is where the work needs to be done to safely restore the dynamic between strategy and how the strategy operates organizationally, and this is a great place to introduce the idea of the organization design as a metaphor for social relations and work processes within organizations. This is moving the focus from structures to a smaller scale, to behavioral patterns and how people make sense of and make meaning of the organization.

The Museum Technologist: Any thoughts in conclusion?

DB: A lot of people are doing organization design, and the work is interesting and compelling, but as a society we need to update our conception of what it means to be a human, at work, when we think about our work. I’m hopeful about where that is going — with mindfulness and empathy on the agenda. People are thinking about it, and having a national conversation about the workplace.

Here’s a reading list from Dara Blumenthal for those interested in finding out more about organizational culture.

BTW, here’s my own org culture reading list:

Finally, if you’re looking for great interviews and conversations about the museum field, check out the #MCN50 Voices series, celebrating 50 years of Museum Computer Network.

The Museum Technologist

Interviews at the intersection of museum practice and…

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