Intentional Practice Series: It’s hard to be intentional—for us, too

Let’s not sugarcoat it—intentional practice is hard. It is not something you conquer, or something you do once and then pat yourself on the back for a job well done. It is a process not an end result and, here’s the honest truth, it never ends. So, why do it at all? Well, at RK&A we believe that informal learning organizations, like museums, want to make a difference in the quality of people’s lives, the way we define impact (as Randi wrote in her blog introducing our monthly series of writing about intentional practice). To make a difference in the quality of people’s lives, we believe organizations will need to be intentional in their practice—including consulting firms! Once people start down this path, they embark on a sort of journey, at least from our perspective. I’d like to describe a journey we had (and continue to have) with one of our clients.

We received an RFP from a botanic garden to conduct a summative evaluation of a permanent exhibition. As is typical, RFPs don’t always capture the essence of what our clients need. Instead, their needs become more apparent and transparent in the initial meeting for a project. During the initial meeting for this project, it quickly became clear that the organization would benefit from thinking about its permanent exhibition in the context of the whole visitor experience rather than as an isolated experience. It is common for organizations to think about each experience they offer as distinct but we know from years of conducting audience research and evaluation that visitors do not necessarily see such distinctions. Further, because achieving impact is so difficult, an organization really does need to align all its efforts around impact; and this is where intentional practice comes in.

Our suggested deviations from the RFP were fairly significant, but to this organization’s credit, it was open to a new approach—openness to new ideas or a new way of working is a key factor in embracing something like intentional practice. Not only were staff at various levels open to us significantly restructuring the scope of work, the director was on board as well, which is hugely important if intentional practice is to be a successful planning strategy. The new scope included intentional planning workshops to define the organization’s intended impact paired with an audience research study to assess the visitor experience in the context of this clarified definition of impact. The study maintained a focus on the permanent exhibition space and did so by exploring the space within the broader visitor experience.

After the first planning workshop, staff were invigorated by the idea of intentional practice but the journey had only really just begun—for us and for them. I want to make two main points about this type of journey: (1) it can be a little messy, even under the best of circumstances, and (2) it is ongoing (and somebody needs to be driving the bus or it doesn’t really happen). To illustrate the first point, we tried something during our second planning workshop that fell flat. We asked staff to do something that we, as evaluators, are quite comfortable doing on the spot—synthesizing (or detecting patterns among) ideas that emerged from a brainstorming session—but, really, such work is hard for others to do on the spot. We’ve since removed this exercise from subsequent iterations of this workshop and added others, as part of what makes this continuous process so effective (albeit considerably messy), is customizing and experimenting with ideas to help our clients practice intentionality.

To illustrate the second point, since the completion of the first project, we have worked with this client on several other occasions. We are not always afforded this luxury, but this organization has allowed us to support its intentional practice; we are now driving the bus together with each subsequent project. And, each time we work together, we incorporate the original intentional practice work into the current aspect of the visitor experience we are exploring; and, each time we do this, staff’s ideas for impact evolve and change and so does their practice. For instance, staff is currently focused on how one particular aspect of the impact statement—demonstrating its living collections’ connection to people—can be actualized in the garden’s interpretation. This is what I mean when I say that intentional practice is an ongoing process or pursuit. It truly never ends, but worthy pursuits rarely do.

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