Just back from San Francisco, currently sporting the worst air quality on the planet but also hosting PastForward, the National Preservation Conference.
For me it brought back fond memories of Beijing, 2004.
It was the final meeting for National Trust President Stephanie Meeks. I remember flying from Chicago to Washington DC and back the same day to vote her into her position back in 2010.
Her speech at the Plenary session hit five major points that well illustrate the status of heritage conservation in 2018 and its future direction. You can see her full speech here, but I hope she will allow me to reflect on her five points below.
Heritage conservation is about what people want and need, and not about museums and architectural obscurities. It is about Main Streets and housing and schools and jobs and how communities are built and thrive. It about more than tourism and curation – it is about how we feel about belonging to a place, investing ourselves in it.
Stephanie cited Abraham Maslow’s 1943 “Hierarchy of Needs” where PLACE and a sense of belonging were first identified as essential human needs. Current neuroscience has dramatically underscored this early intuition with the solid research into the brain chemistry of architecture and environment in the work of Colin Ellard (which I blogged about here in 2016.)
The latest developments go even further that Ellard’s quantification of how – chemically – interesting buildings make us feel good and parking lots make us anxious. I just read Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s Welcome To Your World, a study of the new concept of embodied cognition – that how we think about and understand our world is crafted by our built environment, largely in an unconscious way. She makes the case that good design is a basic human need, a key to brain health and a source of emotions. “Recognizing and identifying patterns produces in us a sensation of pleasure.”
We see ourselves in our surroundings.
It turns out architecture is neither a luxury nor an externality. It is the way we construct our thoughts and feelings. The heritage conservation field is only beginning to take advantage of these new frontiers in neuroscience which prove something we suspected for a long time. Look for a big expansion in the coming years.
The changes to heritage conservation in the last two decades are epic. In terms of diagnostics, we can now learn so much more about archaeology and buildings with minimally invasive techniques impossible in the 20th century. Ground-penetrating radar. LIDAR. We can snake cameras into the tiniest crawlspaces and cavity walls, and we can point cloud anything with a regular camera if need be.
Presidio 2007 – an actual point cloud station but they did show us how to do it with camera.
New tools are also available for rehabilitation. I learned Thursday that a company actually makes siding that matches 1940s asbestos siding! We can 3-D print components, or we can find the companies that still make the same sash cord they did 90 years ago.
The greatest innovations, of course, have been in interpretation of historic places.
Painting with light. “Restored By Light” at Mission San Jose, 2016
Innovation works at two levels here. First, we have to reach the next audience through the media they choose to use. Second, we can restore history without resorting to massive physical intervention, as seen above.
Interpretation at the recently reopened Cooper-Molera historic site, Monterey, CA.
Innovative interpretation is key not only to the massive tourism industry, but also the more basic and democratic project of sharing why we save and repurpose elements of the past. People love the stories in the simplest of buildings. They enrich our experiences, which people crave today more than things.
Stephanie referenced the virtual reality interpretations of historic sites, and I would simply add that augmented reality is already a staple of museums and public history today, in 2018. The next generation of tourists will expect AR at every heritage site. Full stop.
I blogged about this moment almost two years ago here.
Scale. We complained at Harvard Business School this summer that every case study was about scaling. But yes, scaling is growth and that is the pattern of political economy and indeed civilization. So too in preservation we need to scale beyond the regulated landmark by incorporating heritage – in some form – into every aspect of building and planning. We are doing it here in San Antonio, from our neighborhood workshops that invite ALL communities regardless of designation to the city’s recent efforts to improve infill zoning.
Stephanie specifically referenced the rehabilitation of Cooper-Molera Adobe, the National Trust site in Monterey which I was involved with and saw in all of its free-entry glory last Saturday. It is like the Gaylord Building now – a restaurant, bakery and event space pay for the lively restored and crisply interpreted historic house. Nice job!
The challenge of bringing the heritage conservation message to scale is implicit in the initiatives described above – including all older neighborhoods regardless of their architectural integrity or consistency; reaching out to include diverse voices from history; understanding heritage as a part and parcel of EVERY planning and zoning decision.
The challenge for groups like the National Trust or San Antonio Conservation Society is how do you transmit scale into your organization? Can you grow membership in an era of declining membership? Can you create micro-members who join for a singular moment and cause? Can you re-tool surveys to fully incorporate diverse and intangible histories?
This was not one of the categories in Stephanie’s speech, but it was a frequent topic of educational sessions, since San Francisco is leading the way in dealing with Living Heritage through its thematic context studies, Legacy Business Program, and cultural place initiatives.
Japantown, San Francisco
These initiatives explode the traditional bounds of architecturally-based heritage conservation by focusing on intangible heritage and community values that are embodied in PLACE but not ARCHITECTURE. Some of these sessions were TrustLive follow-ups to the TrustLive presentation at our September Living Heritage Symposium in San Antonio, featuring my friend Theresa Pasqual. I blogged about our 2017 symposium here.
Three and a half years ago I attended the Pocantico Conference on Climate change and heritage. With so many coastal cities threatened by rising sea levels, climate change remains a central concern in the field of heritage conservation.
Preservation is always triage – which are the most important places to save, and which must be let go due to limited resources or political capital? Climate change accelerates these hard choices. I am reminded of Valmeyer, Illinois, the little town that moved – in its entirety – up to the bluffs following the devastating Mississippi River flood of 1993, or the National Historic Landmarks on the east coast that have been moved inland as storms worsen.
Like Lucy the Margate elephant.
This was a nice touch on Stephanie’s part. Spread Joy. The joy of heritage, a work that supports the brain and enlivens the body through its haptic interaction with a nurturing environment, an environment rich in stories and social interaction.
We know about this in San Antonio, where 12,000 volunteers entertain 85,000 attendees each year in support of preservation. A Night In Old San Antonio® will be here April 23-26, 2019!
If you want to see what the Alamo Plaza plan was like exactly four months ago prior to a series of public meetings, check out my blog from June 20 here. If you want to see what the City Council approved last week, check out my blog from June 20 here. Not much changed, although a booklet called Alamo Plan August 2018 did address a series of the questions that came up during the public meetings and explained why things pretty much had to stay the way they were. Like the website, the book starts on the negative, decrying all of the icky things that happen in front of the Alamo.
Always best to start with the negative..
We don’t get the POSITIVE vision for the site until after the City hands over control. It is curious that we only are presented what Alamo Plaza shouldn’t be – the few images in the booklet are generic and uninspiring.
The Crockett, Palace and Woolworth Buildings that we have been advocating for for the last three years. These face the Alamo chapel. In the August 2018 book they announce they will “assess the significance and integrity according to national standards” and “assess opportunities for reuse, including how to connect multiple floor plates”. This is the equivalent of Henry II’s plaintive wail “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
The City Council voted to lease the plaza and streets to the State of Texas for 50 years (with two 25-year extensions). The main changes over the four months were not changes to the plan as much as changes to those opposed to the plan. The two main parades (Battle of Flowers and Fiesta Flambeau) agreed to the new parade routes, the Citizens Advisory Committee publically approved the plan, and the Historic and Design Review Committee approved the moving of the Cenotaph, which raised the most controversy over the summer.
The new location of the Cenotaph within the plaza area was arguably the only change made to the plan itself. They did add some new drawings commemorating the Payaya Indians who first inhabited the 1718 mission to the final presentation and book. These added illustrations received significant commendation from the Council members for interpreting more than just the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. So… they included the 18th century, but what about the 20th???
The Phil Collins-sponsored metal model plaques that were installed this year start with 1744, and then march to 1785, 1793, 1836, 1846, 1861 and … then stop marching at 1900. This is the problem: They claim to interpret 300 years of history but actually stop halfway, prior to the 20th century. Which is when Adina de Zavala and Claire Driscoll actually saved the Alamo. And a city happened.
Despite the casting of this summer’s plan as an “interpretive plan,” the only hints at interpretation were images of costumed interpreters and the recent hiring of a living history director. Although they have assured me there will be 21st century museum staples like augmented reality, there is a curious fondness for the unpopular and unprofitable world of 20th century living history, which I surveyed in another recent blog.
In fairness to our city leaders, we raised a big stink about the importance of the Woolworth’s Building in Civil Rights history (see my blog here) and this was referenced in the City’s lease agreement, if not into the Alamo Plan publication. But it can still be demolished.
Fine looking building – would be worth saving for architecture. But the Civil Rights history is even more epic.
The other big issue this summer was access, a subject of our petition. The new museum which will occupy the space (and hopefully the facades) of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings will be open 9-5 and during that time only one access point to the plaza – next to the museum – will be open to the public.
No sneaking in!!!!!
Up to six gates in the new fences surrounding the plaza will be open at other times, so that vital midnight selfie in front of the Alamo will be only a bit less convenient than today. This element of the plan upset most of the architects and planners in town, and again, there was minimal change – more off-hours access points were added, but daytime stayed at one.
My normal time is 7 AM, although I will probably have to leave my bike outside.
So, now all the decisions will be taken by the state. The Citizens Advisory Committee and the Historic and Design Review Commission will comment on the results of the architectural assessments, but the power lies with the General Land Office of the State of Texas.
We can hope. Our focus at San Antonio Conservation Society remains on the buildings. Roads can be closed and opened. Gates can be added and subtracted, Fences can be erected and deconstructed. But once you tear down these historic buildings, they are gone forever.
This will be a primarily visual blog highlighting some of the heritage sites I saw this past month which I had not seen before. First is the Tuberculosis sanitarium houses on Zarzamora here in San Antonio.
Built starting in 1938, this complex of a dozen buildings features red tile roofs and southwestern style sun-baked wall finishes. TB patients would each get a small cubic house with plenty of windows and really sweet architectural details.
Gotta love a real steel casement window. They rolled that steel 7 or 8 times to get those delicate profiles. Nothing like it today.
University Health Systems owns them and uses some for offices and some for storage. We are hoping that several can be preserved in the long-term, focusing on those built in the 1938-48 period of initial construction. The overall feeling is like you are on a 1920s silent movie set!
We also got to tour the Sisson House, a very early house adjacent to the acequia at Mission San Jose. The American Indians in Texas are planning to create their museum there. The house is owned by the National Park Service.
The fun part here is trying to figure out which section was built when. There are two structures, and parts of the main house here appear to be wood, but a rear portion is stone and/or caliche block.
Did they take stone from the abandoned mission and build an addition? The rear building has a surprisingly deep basement – was it built first? I love these kind of forensic escapades with knowledgeable historic architects around as we debate potential answers.
Even the double munched standing seam metal roof has a curious proportion on the shed addition.
The next treasure is in Billings, Montana and it is a house museum. I have seen many, many house museums, but the Moss Mansion in Billings is really something. Built in 1903 and designed by Henry Hardenbergh of Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel and Dakota Apartments, this house was an exercise in architectural styles, beginning with the insanely detailed Moorish foyer:
To the left is a library so paneled and English that is has a stained glass window of William Shakespeare, while to the right is a room so French and pink you expect Louis XIV-XVI to materialize out of thin air.
The level of architectural detail is really off the hook – this house did not do a wall finish, but a wainscot, a wall finish, a crown finish and a relief plastered ceiling in every room in every style. Here is the parlor beyond the library in a Nouveau style:
The crown molding here in the study is about 8 inches high and 4 inches deep
Not only is there a massive bathroom on the second floor with tile all over the floors and walls, but even the ceiling is tiled with rosettes at every corner:
horror vacui non potest
Dining room detail. The other side of the room has stained glass.
Not only did they have the first telephone in town (and owned the company, if memory serves) they also had electric hair curlers in every bathroom, and massive ice boxes in the pantry.
This house survived because it stayed in the family until the 1980s. Reminds me of the Maverick Carter House here in San Antonio, which is STILL in the same family, has a similar vintage and a similar Richardsonian Romanesque exterior.
Entry, Maverick Carter House, San Antonio
I actually toured that one back in August, so it doesn’t count for September.
Here’s me with Stephen Cavender at the Audi Dominion, which replaced a Robert Hugman house that was not known at the time. We are standing by a plaque recalling the house and there is an area that uses stones from the property to create a small rest area whilst the house outlines are traced on the lot.
Finally a wonderful courtyard with a tile waterfall design from O’Neil Ford’s incomparable Trinity University, listed on the National Register of Historic Places this year and the site of the city’s second Living Heritage Symposium! That deserves another blog…
In the 1950s, Colonial Williamsburg was the number one tourist attraction in the United States. Its “living history” displays within the carefully curated town landscape were a novel attraction, and many other sites across the U.S. from Mystic Seaport to Lincoln’s New Salem followed their lead. It was the dawn of television and big-finned automobiles: living history was hot.
That was seventy years ago. Last year, Colonial Williamsburg reported it had lost $277 million in five years, laid off 71 staff and sold properties to avoid further hits against its endowment. This summer it celebrated avoiding layoffs and reducing its debt to $317 million. Conner Prairie in Indiana boasts of 11 years of breaking even after an economic debacle in the early 2000s. Old Sturbridge Village brings in $2 million in admissions but breaks even on a $12 million budget thanks to investments, property sales, and major gifts. Plimoth Plantation has seen ticket sales drop 30% in the last 30 years and now has a labor dispute with its suddenly unionized interpreters. Civil War reenactments draw a fraction of the spectators they did in their 1990s heyday. Living history is no longer hot.
Don’t get me started on the coureurs de bois
Sound management is helping Colonial Williamsburg and Sturbridge Village and Conner Prairie survive, but are they thriving? Clever programming has some sites increasing attendance, but none are approaching the quantities of visitors found in the heyday of living history in the 20th century. Premier sites like Colonial Williamsburg or Ironbridge Gorge in England draw half a million visitors a year. But they used to draw twice that. $20 million in admissions might seem like a lot until you compare it to an annual operating deficit of $50 million.
good old days in New Jersey
The advent of the Millennial generation, whose interactions with the physical world are mediated through smartphones, raises the question: Is there a future for living history? The demographics are worrying: In 2012 20.5% of Americans 18-24 visited a historic site, down 8 percentage points since 2002.
with Inn four miles of Denver
Many sites have raised ticket prices to overcome declining attendance and Colonial Williamsburg is considering building a fence around the site to capture more ticket sales. Some sites excel with school groups, but school groups rarely pay, exacerbating the economic challenge.
There are positive reports from some sites about developing more “immersive” experiences that appeal to more people. This runs counter to the trend in house museums, where the guided tour and costumed interpreter have given place to the self-guided tour.
It isn’t simply generational – it is also technology. For 30 years, technology has been giving individuals more control (at whatever quality) over printing, photography, navigation, communication, and determining how you spend your day. Most tourists today expect to control their experience in a way unimaginable 30 years ago.
In the next five years we will learn whether a new generation wants to witness and interact with costumed interpreters or just keep their finger on the pulse of their smartphone.
Does Living History have a future? And how much will it cost?
Sources and Further Reading:
“Historic Sites Face Modern Day Pressures” Virginia Gazette, September 16, 2018
“The Decline of the Civil War Re-enactor” New York Times Magazine, July 28, 2018
“Americans Declining Interest in History is Hitting Museums Like Colonial Williamsburg Hard” The Federalist, August 22, 2017.
“Colonial Williamsburg is still $317 million in debt, but things are looking up” The Virginian Pilot September 15, 2018
“CEO: Colonial Williamsburg’s financial outlook improves; no layoffs planned.” Daily Express, September 16, 2018
Old Sturbridge Village 2016 Annual Report
Conner Prairie 2016 Annual Report
This year I published a chapter called “Addressing the Diversity Deficit: Reform the National Register of Historic Places” in a book called Creating Historic Preservation in the 21st Century. This is a topic I have been working on for many years. You can see some of my writing on it here and here.
The National Register and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Treatment are not culturally neutral tools. For historical and pragmatic reasons, they privilege architecture and white male history. Worse, those cultures oppressed in the past are forced to relive that oppression when told that their historic sites lack “integrity.”
Where “Invisible Man” was written in the 1940s, Manhattan.
Those who were second-class citizens had to make do with second-class facilities and now second-class landmarks. Second-class status is perpetuated when we make minority landmarks live up to rules designed by and for the dominating culture.
Woolworth’s, designed by Adams and Adams in 1921.
The relevance of this struck me in regard to the State of Texas plan to demolish the Woolworth’s Building on Alamo Plaza, which emerged three months ago (see my blog about it here.)
This was a major building by a national chain at the major intersection of Alamo and Houston Streets. The interior is heavily altered, but the exterior looks much as it did when built in 1921. It is on the National Register and a local landmark. But wait. There’s more.
The San Antonio Woolworth’s desegregated its lunch counter on March 16, 1960, peacefully and without demonstration. This was a first for the South. The Greensboro, N.C. sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter had been only six weeks earlier. It was a first for Woolworth’s, a national chain that was still being picketed nationwide and would not officially adopt an integrated lunch counter policy for months.
A few days later Jackie Robinson, in San Antonio, compared the event to his entry into Major League Baseball and said “It is a story that should be told around the world,” according to the New York Times.
Five other stores also integrated peacefully on that day, and none wanted to be called out. The San Antonio Express and News reported:
“Speculation was that the flat refusal by the group to name the stores may stem from recent reports that some of the larger chain stores have ordered their managers not to integrate.
Also, a spokesman from one store said earlier that most of the businesses are for integration, but none of them want to be named as the first to make the move.”
Kress, one of the other stores.
Photos of the Woolworth’s store ran in the San Antonio News that day, and Kress was mentioned in the Light. While some of the other stores’ locations survive, thanks to Greensboro, Woolworth’s remains forever front-and-center in civil rights history.
SO – what happens now? Three months after they released their initial plan to demolish the Woolworth’s building, the Alamo is now hiring an architect to evaluate the buildings based on the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and their significance at the national state and local levels.
If you have experience with minority culture sites, you can see where this is going.
They have already released an illustration showing how the three building’s interior floors don’t line up. That will be Reason 1, although it will be wrong, because in this particular case you could gut the interiors so they do line up – just like Joske’s did – and still have the exterior where the young African-American boy peering into the store was photographed on March 16, 1960.
Joske’s, November 2014.
And you can still interpret the long-lost mission wall and buildings inside – in the shade.
Reason 2 will be that the building does not have sufficient integrity on the interior. This conclusion would require ignoring both the minority cultural context and current directives on evaluating interior integrity. Recognizing its deficiencies in addressing cultural and historical sites, in December 2016 the National Park Service issued new guidance that encourages conserving “a space’s historic associations even though its component features and materials may be themselves so highly deteriorated that their integrity is irretrievably lost.”
Woolworth’s storefront on Houston Street – the markings on the ground show where mission buildings were. Also where Travis lived during the siege. Probably his slave Joe as well.
Reason 3 will be this: If you demolish Woolworth’s you will still have other sites that witnessed peaceful integration in March, 1960. That is true, and incredibly insulting.
It says your history can make do with fewer landmarks. It says because you have Neisner’s, Kress’ and Green’s then you don’t need the only one people have heard of.
Erasing an authentic place for a reconstruction?
Whose history would be erased for whose?
Photo: UTSA Special Collections Courtesy San Antonio Express News
In October, 1939, San Antonio passed the La Villita ordinance to preserve its oldest neighborhood, stating boldly:
RE-CREATING “LA VILLITA” AS A PROJECT OF SAN ANTONIO: PROVIDING FOR ITS RESTORATION, PRESERVATION AND CONTINUATION; ENUMERATING CERTAIN IDEALS, HOPES, AND PURPOSES: SETTING FORTH IN NARRATIVE FORM SOME OF ITS INTERESTING HISTORY; AT THE SAME TIME ORDAINING THAT VILLITA SHALL NOT BE A DEAD MUSEUM FOR MINCING SCHOLARS, BUT A PLACE FOR THE LIVING, AND THOSE NOT YET BORN.
Whoa. They actually repeated the line about mincing scholars in the ordinance itself, with an illustration comparing the mincing scholar to a jitterbugging couple, adding “Moreover, there are more jitter-bugs than scholars.”
The Cos House, one of the first seven La Villita buildings restored 1939-41.
La Villita was and is to be a collection of historic buildings selling crafts, thus preserving handcraft traditions as well as buildings. Nearly 80 years ago San Antonio was trying to save its intangible heritage through legislation – for the people, not scholars! The ordinance said it was “always aiming to meet the needs of TODAY and TOMORROW, ”
Bolivar Hall – they also named all of the 1941 sites after Latin American heroes – Bolivar, Juarez and Hidalgo, to promote peace and trade. “Promotion of World Peace” was a stated purpose of the ordinance.
The San Antonio Conservation Society had a key role in all of this. After the WPA money ran out, the City implored the private Conservation Society to purchase more buildings, extending the crafts village another block to the east with the purchase of the Dashiell and Bombach houses in 1942 and 1949. We still own these.
Dashiell House today
Otto Bombach House, home to Little Rhein Steakhouse since 1967.
The crafts village had working tile kilns and even today you can see soap made there, along with other handmade items, since that jitterbugging 1939 ordinance is still in effect. (As a scholar, I try to limit my mincing when in La Villita.)
Entrance to Plaza Juarez, La Villita. The cannon may help discourage mincers.
The City also asked the Conservation Society to move its harvest festival from Fall to Spring and from the River to La Villita to help bolster the craft village. So we did that in 1948. And again the next year and the year after. This year we celebrated our 70th A Night In Old San Antonio®, the signature event of Fiesta, in La Villita.
NIOSA opening parade, 2017.
With as many as 15,000 volunteers and over 80,000 attendees, NIOSA® is huge by any standard, and it explicitly hearkens to the variety of cultural inheritances of the city, from Native American and Spanish to African-American, Asian, Mexican, German, French and more. It is appropriately decked out with paper flowers and cascarones made by yet more volunteers. After 70 years, it is itself an important cultural tradition and inheritance.
NIOSA volunteers meet every Thursday morning. Year round. 50,000 cascarones don’t make themselves.
The event itself has to be experienced to be believed. Crowded. Colorful. Steamy. Fun-loving. Every kind of meat on a stick. Standing in line for tortillas. Music and crazy hats. Not a mincing scholar in sight.
The final quadrant of La Villita, Maverick Plaza did not come into being until various commercial and industrial buildings there were demolished in the 1960s. This is the biggest part of NIOSA and it is also the site for 3 new restaurants in the coming years. The economics of the craft village have been challenging, and now the City is asking Chef Johnny Hernandez to help make it a culinary destination.
This approach – and the whole history of La Villita, will make for an interesting discussion at the second Living Heritage Symposium being held by the Office of Historic Preservation on September 5-7, 2018.
The first symposium last September brought international experts from around the world and country to discuss new approaches to preserving culture that have little, if anything to do with architecture. The Office of Historic Preservation, led by my longtime friend Shanon Miller, has already jumped in to these new approaches with its Legacy Business program.
Del Bravo Records on Old Highway 90 – a Legacy Business.
Susan West Montgomery of the National Trust for Historic Preservation told us today that San Antonio and San Francisco are the only cities really dealing with the issue of living heritage.
That is cool to hear. Those are the places I’ve been living the last six years.
One of them has weather. The other does not.
It’s great that San Antonio is on the cutting edge of preservation in 2018, but as we saw above, that was equally true in 1939, when they already saw the end of living history re-enactors and urged not simply preservation of buildings, but the “continuation” of building and craft traditions that would engage the next generation.
It is enough to make this mincing scholar break into a jitterbug.
One of our many case studies during the coursework this week had to do with Design Thinking, and it got our group to thinking about how well designed this course – Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management – has been. In addition to the supercharged professors, they carefully make use of the most important learning resource in any institution – the other students.
We come from four countries and represent a dizzying diversity of organizations. As I mentioned in the last blog, one of our tasks this week was Peer Consultation, where we each present a strategic challenge in our organization to the other 7 in our living group and hear their advice. This is another brilliant design move on the part of HBS. If you want to get insight into your problems, ask someone who doesn’t know your organization. Plus, each of these 7 people are brilliant leaders themselves.
Here we are right before the first Peer Consultation. The basic idea: You have a one-page statement of your challenge, you present 5-7 minutes, then you turn around and listen while the group discusses what you should do. It was incredible – these people think so fast, so strategically and so forcefully. You can’t help but get incredible insights.
The view while you are turned around and they are talking about you
Then we added a twist as we completed our first review of Corinne – Sevaun started a list on the big sheet and asked everyone to say what Corinne was. We did it with all 8, and by the end we had these big sheets of affirmations. Not only did you get wonderful insights into a strategic challenge, you got affirmation, something that does not happen everyday to people in our positions.
We are called Team 67 since we are Living Group 67 and we are all fast friends at this point. It has been a great privilege to spend this week at Harvard, and I am very grateful to the Harvard Business School club of San Antonio for making it possible. I am also grateful to the incredible professors, the challenging and insightful case studies, and the analytical frameworks I have gained. But mostly I am grateful to be able to work with 7 brilliant, insightful, powerful and balanced executives in close quarters for a week. Cheers to Mark, Corinne, Dawn, Chienye, Greg, Jorge, and Sevaun!
Hard to keep up with this schedule! We have four case studies per day and today we also have our peer consultation, where the other 7 people in our living group provide feedback on a strategic challenge within our own organizations. That should be fun!
I will dutifully explain how this is my financial stability plan…
One of the great advantages of a course like this is taking the time to look at organizational issues analytically. This is extremely difficult within the everyday. Plus, the faculty here are giving us excellent frameworks that help us perform these analyses, as I explained in the previous blogs. One of my favorites from yesterday was a triangle that helped diagnose problems within a labor force. It involved intuitive categories like Capability (skills training, etc.) and Motivation (involvement in mission) but added the key category of License. License is what you are allowed to do. License gives the staffer agency and some autonomy, which provides positive feedback to Motivation and ultimately to Capability.
My other big takeaway from yesterday has to do with the purpose of an organization. Feature this:
The purpose of an organization is to reduce the friction that comes when people work together toward a shared goal.
More to come…
The energy of these Harvard Business School professors is amazing. They bound up and down the aisles in our classroom, scribble on about 9 blackboards, and exhibit a dynamic range in their speach and mannerisms, endlessly inquiring, responding, teasing, encouraging and laughing. Every one of them has put on an incredible show.
And it isn’t just a performance, although that is what we have on our mind when the soundtrack to Hamilton seems to be in the background before each session. More than performance it is engagement. This is Executive Education, which means we are swimming in a sea of expertise and experience that only begins with the peripatetic professors and continues with a tsunami of colleagues running nonprofits of every size, description and locale.
That’s me, obviously.
We are 161, with 80 per class session, but we have a residential living team of 8 that meets at breakfast and lunch for group preparation. Every one of these people is amazing. Smart, talented, and full of insights and experiences. My living group hails from four countries and we are already fast friends. As I said long ago, education is more than a two-way street – it is like a highway interchange with multiple roads intermingling and soaring off in new directions.
Four classes every day – four case studies. Here are some of my insights and nuggets from today. The first was “purple windows.” from my classmate Dawn. That is when a funder says they like purple windows and next thing you know all of your nonprofit programs are supporting purple windows. The moral is that donor-driven efforts have the potential to push you off of your mission.
Coincidentally, Beacon Hill – the oldest historic district in Boston – is actually known for its purple-tinted windows.
Some nonprofits operate with a lot of donor direction, like our case study of one founded by venture capitalists, whose appetite for risk and experimentation is legendary. But risk is hard to emulate in the social enterprise world. My biggest takeaway from the VC nonprofit was their confidence in investing in human capital – they focus on leadership more that operations, and we all could learn from that.
Another lesson from the business world is the ability to “fail forward,” the subject of our second case. Failing is hard in nonprofits because our mission is basically to…not fail. But failing, as we learned today, is a learning path in business. As one professor said “I hate to fail, but I love to learn.” How can the nonprofit learn to experiment without “failing” the mission to deliver vital services?
Our third lesson today was on “design thinking,” and coincidentally it was about a Bay Area (where I lived) company working in Lima, Peru, where I did a multidisciplinary design studio six years ago when I was faculty at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. So, I was familiar with design thinking and rapid prototyping, although the “discipline” has grown in the last six years. It is an accordion-like process of expanding and contracting ideas and iterations as you move from an Exploratory to a Conceptual to a Prototyping phase. The takeaway here, next to the importance of inductive thinking, was the importance of keeping ideas fluid and portable. I will take this with me to our Staff Retreat next month.
Not big enough for the Staff.
The final lesson was about entrepreneurship, which was brilliantly defined as “the relentless pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources.” Again, kind of tough in the nonprofit world, but also an essential quality to insure we don’t stay still or complacent.
One question we are asking ourselves two days in: Is there a scenario where a nonprofit is just fine at its current size and operation? So much of what Harvard has been teaching us is about growing the enterprise, going to scale, merging, expanding and exploring. What if we are okay where we are?
I mean, this looks nice – would more be better?
Three and a half more days to go – stay tuned.
I have just finished my first full day at Harvard Business School’s Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management, a weeklong course I am attending thanks to the largesse of the Harvard Business club of San Antonio. The course takes advantage of the Harvard Business School Social Enterprise Initiative, which has helped conceptualize and provide frameworks for understanding the different “business” of the nonprofit organization.
As might be expected, this effort has produced some pretty amazing outcomes at Harvard and here is a taste of what we can expect this week: FRAMEWORKS for Strategic Thinking; DESIGN thinking; Entrepreneurship; Leading Change; Scaling Impact, and working with Boards. The best things I got out of the introductory sessions last night:
- As we move from inputs to outcomes in our social mission, we move from auditable claims to aspirational claims. We need the latter because they are motivational, but they are a bear to quantify for donors.
- Nonprofits are three circles in a Venn diagram of MISSION; CAPACITY: and SUPPORT. The sweet spot where all three reside is generally small.
Many of the case studies we are looking at – and today they varied between the space shuttle Columbia, a hospital in Massachusetts, a training school in Pittsburgh and a call center in Israel – could be better understood by following these two frameworks.
Frameworks are important.
My biggest takeaway today involved the greatest challenge a leader is faced with: going against human nature. Our natural human impulse is to seek certainty, affirmation and conformity. What a leader needs goes against our nature: ambiguity, dissent and a process to make the right decisions. It is a questioning, uncomfortable process of constant examination.
My second takeaway is that leadership is, in fact, a process, not a person. It is the process of bringing a new unwelcome reality to an organization and helping them adapt to it. This has brought me back to thinking about strategic planning and the many Board roles I have occupied in my life, and even this blog from three years ago, which references those earlier ones and focuses on the nature of my field – heritage conservation.
Interestingly, I am one of only two people in heritage conservation – and one of only a couple from the South, out of 161 participants from five continents. And I am very fortunate indeed to be here. More soon.