Wednesday, September 28, 2011

On Saying Yes

It's a Saturday night when I get the email. "Sharon D. Payne," member of the incredibly popular Santa Cruz roller derby team, wants to pitch a partnership with our museum. She doesn't have a specific idea for a partner event or exhibit, but she feels like we have a lot to offer each other in terms of publicity and a shared focus on enhancing cultural experiences in the community. And she wants to do it now--in the next two weeks.

I want to say yes. In fact, I do say yes. But then, it turns out we've already said yes to three other groups for the event in question. I end up having to call and say we're going to wait until the spring to make something happen. And then I feel like a jerk.

I love saying yes. Yes to the heirloom seed library that now graces our lobby. Yes to partnerships with the Second Harvest Food Bank and the Homeless Service Center. Yes to tie-ins with the Symphony and the Boys and Girls Club. Yes to the Big Read with the library, yes to the Burningman artists who want to show their giant kinetic sculpture in the lobby, yes to projections on the side of the building.

Saying yes is one of the few things I can offer sympatico community organizations and individuals. We have a "no money, no bullshit" motto here right now; there's no money for partner projects, but we can say yes with a minimum of bureaucracy and red tape. We've actually gotten some of our best partnerships (like the seed library) because another organization said no. Being nimble and open to a bit of chaos is a luxury that comes with being a small institution on a mission to be a community hub. It's exciting to have someone approach us on a Tuesday with a great idea for Saturday, and as much as possible, we try to say yes.

But it's getting harder to do so as time goes on. Each time we say yes, the schedule gets a bit more full, the space is a bit more complete, the insanity a little higher. I'm learning to say "yes, but not now" or "yes, but let's figure it out a little more," and sometimes, painfully, "no."

I can see how it gets easy for an organization to get in the habit of starting from "no" instead of "yes." Chaos can be stressful. When we have more money and programs, maybe we won't want to deal with the headaches of installing a giant multi-person hammock in the lobby--even if it is free.

I don't want to get there. I believe that we're doing our best work when we are able to say yes to people who walk in the door with good ideas and real community needs to be met. And I feel like we're most fresh and dynamic when we can keep being responsive to the next idea.

The challenge, then, is to figure out how to say yes consistently, smartly, over the long term. Just as any project has its messy, open-ended phase before it hardens into completion, we're in a messy phase as an institution. What will we harden into? Is it better to try to stay in the messy phase as long as possible, or to create a structure that supports the messiness within a more formal setting?

This brings me back to Paul Light's recommendation in Sustaining Innovation that organizations need to learn "how to say no and why to say yes." My presumption is that as time goes on, our answer to the question of "why to say yes" will change. Right now, we're saying yes because it's a way to build trust in the community, to build on the enthusiasm of others, and to enliven our space with the passion and diversity of our partners. It would probably be a worthwhile exercise in the future to make sure we sit down as a staff and ask ourselves: "why should we say yes to this or that?" and track the change. But I don't want to codify anything to death. I'm still not sure whether informality and flexibility can be a permanent state of being... but I'd like to try. And in the meantime, I'm dreaming of what will make the most sense in the spring with the Derby girls.

Do you feel like you work in a place where "yes" is the default? What do you see making that possible (or impossible)?
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