This week we returned to project management, and arguably one of the most important parts of the project management (public history) process – evaluating our success (or lack thereof). All of the articles asked some great questions, and stressed a few key things. But before I get to that, allow me to follow a (very) quick tangent. I have often been accused of “asking all the hard questions”. Usually at work, when someone or multiple someones are attempting to divine the silver bullet solution to some inordinately complex problem, I am the one sitting in the corner asking the hard questions. I’m the one who wants to pull the issue apart further, delve into different aspects of the question, or start from scratch to better understand what the problem really is and what we are trying to accomplish. Believe me, this has usually been met with frustration and unhappiness more often than open-mindedness and accolades.
For those of you who read Preskill’s article, you can already see where I’m going. I really enjoyed her ideas, especially her four “imperatives”. She echoes Stephen Covey: “start with the end in mind” (her first imperative). Before we even begin a project, we must think about the end. What do we want the public to get from our project? If we concur with Preskill when she quotes Weil in that “the ultimate goal of a museum was to improve people’s lives”, then we need to think about that “ultimate goal”.
We also need to do so in concrete terms. Preskill challenges us throughout the article, stating that “people can easily articulate in general terms what they want to achieve overall”, but that they tend to stay at the “30,000 foot level” and have a difficult time talking specifics. This is one of my most frustrating moments in meetings. We define success in broad, undefinable terms. We talk about wanting people to “engage”, to “learn” or to “enjoy” their experience. Far too nebulous. If we are going to be able to gauge success, then we need to get specific. Really specific.
To do this, we must have “courageous conversations” (her fourth imperative). She puts it out there – this is not easy to do. This is not easy to collaborate on, or to agree on. Any team (any one worth its salt, anyway) will come together with a wide array of personalities, unstated goals for the project and idiosyncrasies that will only emerge as people begin to work together. But here are where the best ideas come from; here is where the best projects emerge. Working together, we can accomplish more than we thought possible and we can develop ideas that could not have been envisioned as individuals. But to do this, we must approach evaluations as an “affirmative data collection” process (her third imperative). Evaluations are not inherently negative. They only become negative when we think about them in those terms. Evaluations are not necessarily a judgment on all the things that did not go right with the project; they are just a way of discovering what might work better.
This semester has taught me a lot – not only about digital history, but also about public history. It has taught me that we must constantly be thinking about what we are doing, who we are doing it for and why we are doing it. It has taught me that the project management skills used elsewhere are widely applicable, and very useful in creating and maintaining digital public history websites. It has also taught me that it is incumbent upon us as the historians to ask the hard questions, to think critically about how we want to engage our audiences. Open-mindedness and hard work are critical to success. Oh yeah, and start with the end in mind.