StEPs 4Culture: Avoiding Zombie Projects

StEPs Planning session, Issaquah Depot © 2014 4Culture staff
StEPs Planning session, Issaquah Depot © 2014 4Culture staff
StEPs Planning session, Issaquah Depot © 2014 4Culture staff
StEPs Planning session, Issaquah Depot © 2014 4Culture staff

Heritage 4Culture has launched a capacity-building initiative for the local heritage community called StEPs 4Culture. Based on the American Association for State and Local History’s Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations, StEPs 4Culture is a series of convenings and roundtables addressing standards through mentor and peer support. Lissa Kramer of the Issaquah History Museums recounts here experience at the Planning Roundtable on August 12.

I recently participated in the second of a series of round tables for the AASLH StEPs program, hosted by 4Culture at the Issaquah History Museums.

The topic of the day was “Planning”, facilitated by Eric Taylor of 4Culture, and Brandon Claycomb, a board member for IHM who is also a strategic planning consultant. More than 20 King County heritage organizations participated, with both staff and board members from organizations present.

Brandon started the ball rolling by emphasizing that planning doesn’t always have to be as complex as an elaborate strategic plan; that depending on what level an organization is operating, sometimes it’s first necessary to enact smaller plans to create success. He said basic pieces of this smaller planning include not losing the big picture in the details, being mindful of “opportunity costs”, and recognizing “zombie projects” that never go anywhere and won’t die.

One metaphor he used compared organizational planning with public transportation, noting that well-funded public transportation is cheaper and faster than driving but that “half of a transportation system is not half as good” and could in fact be worse than no transportation system at all.

I took this to mean basically that organizations should commit fully to a narrow focus instead of trying to accomplish everything all at once while not having enough resources to complete any of it. I also thought about how often organizations are tempted to jump into a program or project that has not been fully vetted; my experience is that these are often doomed to wind up as anemic versions of what they could’ve been- if not failure outright.

Other colorful illustrations helped participants understand basic management principles such as “opportunity costs”. Brandon shared a story wherein his young twin daughters were able to identify that their plan for filling a pool with Jell-O was about the same cost as a coveted American Girl ® doll, thus represented a lost opportunity and altering their strong desire for swimming in Jell-O. While I can’t promise that no one at the round table won’t consider Jell-O swimming as a humorous fundraising event, it did make a clear point that decision makers need to think strategically about whether an opportunity that presents itself that might reduce an organization’s ability to use their limited capacity to pursue other more fruitful or mission-targeted opportunities.

The workshop was punctuated by several small group assignments, ending with one that called for participants to focus on the strengths of their organization and what they could do “more of”. It was applied positive thinking, accelerated by group support. We ended the day by identifying an action that we committed to taking the following day for a project we considered stalled; whether it was to move forward or to lay that “zombie decently to ground”.

Thanks, Brandon and Eric, for a great workshop and for everyone’s full participation!

Lissa Kramer is the Programs Coordinator for the Issaquah History Museums and volunteers with the Washington Museum Association. She’s been working in museums for fifteen years and consults for museums in Minnesota, Alaska, and Washington. Lissa completed graduate study in Museology and Nonprofit Management at the University of Washington.