November 10, 2021 / News & Blog

Necessity: The Mother of Invention

This article is part of the “Inside the Curve: Business as (Not Quite) Usual” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.

—Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark

By Jonathan Zarov, Madison Children’s Museum

The pandemic forced Madison Children’s Museum, like many children’s museums, to pare down staffing and operations drastically. Though it is not a path anyone on the museum’s staff or board would have chosen, stripping back created opportunities to reorganize departments, roles, and systems as we rebuilt. The result is a more sustainable and efficient organization—more data-driven, and stronger in many ways than before COVID.

The museum closed March 13, 2020 and reopened to the public on June 3, 2021. Over that period, our staffing levels dropped from seventy-five employees to twenty, most working part time. Staffing levels wouldn’t increase until spring 2021, as we prepared for reopening, and current staffing remains at approximately 50 percent of pre-COVID levels.

During the long closure, the museum served the community with COVID-safe outreach, such as hopscotch games painted on sidewalks in more than 70 neighborhoods; take-home activity kits; outdoor drive-through events, cross country ski classes at a local park, and online programming.

Some of the most important work during closure, though, was gestational, as leadership engaged staff in considering what a reimagined, post-pandemic museum would look like and then planned for reopening.

Some opportunities to create efficiencies arose in the wake of staff departures. When two members of our leadership team moved on to new positions, we restructured and reduced the team from seven to five, a more manageable number for meetings and decisions. Remaining leadership team members took on additional responsibilities to support development work, meeting with supporters, writing grants, and helping to shape and support a major campaign, “Our Future in Play: a plan to survive, thrive, and play outside in 2021.” The campaign has raised over 4 million dollars to date, which, together with relief funds, has sustained the museum through the pandemic and reopening—and funded a new, 10,000-square-foot outdoor exhibit for active play called the Wonderground, opening at the beginning of October 2021.

But the institutional reorganization that most affects—and improves—day-to-day operations was the creation of a new Visitor Services Division.

Pre-COVID, the education and marketing departments each managed separate teams responsible for different aspects of the visitor experience.

When we merged the teams, we increased pay and benefits for these public-facing positions. We were able to re-hire several experienced staff who had been laid off for nearly a year. Having one combined team creates efficiencies through cross-training, enabling many staff to assist with front desk admissions, visitor engagement in exhibits, and membership processing.

We are currently employing John Doerr’s Measure What Matters approach to work strategically toward a small set of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)—with the help of volunteer employees from the Madison-based American Family Insurance’s Ignite team. Many of the key results (measurable goals) were focused on the visitor experience and our objective to “welcome visitors and wow them.”

To keep us on track toward that goal, we collected data through visitor surveys. The museum had shifted to advance ticketing during the pandemic, and a useful side effect was having every visitor’s email address. As a result, we can now send a post-visit “How was your visit?” survey to each day’s visitors. The regular stream of survey results has been highly useful.

We asked the classic Net Promoter Score question (“Would you recommend Madison Children’s Museum to a friend or family member?”), the gold standard for gauging customer satisfaction. Responses allow comparisons to other businesses and cultural institutions. Our scores are holding steady at around 83 percent (the average for science centers is around 71 percent, which is much higher than the average for most businesses). This number is one indicator that we’re on track—and it would sound an alarm if it were to drop suddenly.

Other questions assess visitors’ feelings about our mask policies (for the first few months, a museum-created policy required them for all visitors three and up; since September 10, a public health order mandates them for everyone two years and up). When mask-wearing was not mandated by law, it was helpful to know that visitors generally rated our mask policy as midway between too lax and too strict.

We also ask more open-ended questions about what visitors like best and what we could improve. We often correlate those comments with other data we collect. For example, we now count visitors in each area of the museum every hour. By correlating the timed admission numbers with the museum counts, we can estimate average time spent in the museum (about 1 hour and 40 minutes, a little shorter than we had guessed). Knowing how many people are in various areas, and when, helps us interpret visitor comments about crowding.

Perhaps most importantly, we have found new and improved ways to use data to guide operational decisions. Each week, our data and process specialist collects, analyzes, and presents data, combined with other factors we watch, such as changes in County health policies, weather for the week, and relevant news headlines. This short summary report provides the background for a weekly meeting in which we review the previous week’s operations and consider adjustments. The report informs decision-making around ticketing, capacity, and other COVID safety protocols.

Before the pandemic, most operational and policy decisions were made by directors. Now a more inclusive process—data collection through decision-making—involves staff at every level of the organization, fostering growth, development, and ownership for those involved.

Like everyone else, we look forward to putting the pandemic behind us, losing the masks and regaining full capacity. But a more data-driven cycle of decision-making and a more efficient organizational structure are positives we’ll take away from this challenging time.

Jonathan Zarov (he, him, his) is director of marketing & communications at the Madison Children’s Museum in Wisconsin.