The foyer at Gallery Oldham

Working closer together

Maurice Davies and Helen Wilkinson, 15.04.2011
This article examines different approaches to inclusive working and decision-making, and offers two examples of how organisations can work closer together in practice
Inclusive working and decision-making involves encouraging all staff, from all levels of the organisation, to contribute their insights to improve the museum’s work.

There are many benefits of this way of working. The museum can draw on the ideas, observations and talents of all staff, which leads to new thinking and improved working practices, based on practical experiences. Staff increasingly understand the “bigger picture” and are able to work towards common goals.  Motivation, confidence and internal communication also improve, and people are able to focus their attention on positive and constructive change.

Genuine inclusive working and decision making is new territory for most museums. But, as the following two examples show, it can change an organisation for the better.


Norton Priory Museum and Gardens has introduced an inclusive approach to decision-making. It joined the Museum Association’s Smarter Museums programme with an initial aim of introducing a new appraisal scheme. At the same time, it developed a five-year strategic plan that has clarified its aims and objectives.

The museum was encouraged to create a “diagonal slice” group of staff from different teams and from different levels of seniority.

Director Clare McDade says that the group allowed the museum to properly discuss its role and plan. “We had lots of conversations to clarify why we’re doing what we’re doing. It’s been really important for the organisation; it’s given us a shake up.”

Helen MacKintosh, who advised Norton Priory on working more inclusively, says involving people from different teams and levels helps staff see the bigger picture and creates an environment in which teamwork becomes the norm.

Norton Priory staff have now set up several more cross-organisation groups to improve other aspects of their work, such as fundraising, exhibitions, site management and marketing.

McDade says the marketing group, for example, has helped the museum work better in an area where it doesn’t have specialist staff and has prevented marketing from “falling down the cracks”.

Other areas, such as site management, can be the overlapping responsibility of staff from different teams.

Inclusive working also helps break down any internal divisions. Every member of staff at Norton Priory is on at least one group and the museum has also reintroduced regular all-staff meetings, which had lapsed, and introduced bi-annual evaluation meetings where staff can reflect on what’s been achieved and plan ahead.

The museum’s core values have now been built into its appraisal system and staff are asked how they will contribute towards these. “That’s a way of keeping everyone focused on moving forward together – it’s also a way of dealing with difficult behaviour,” says MacKintosh.

McDade recommends others start working more inclusively. “If there are any issues you’ve been wanting to unpick, just do it,” she says. “But do it in a thoughtful and constructive and as structured a way as possible. Don’t just jump into it. Take some time out and talk to other people. Planning and thinking is required.”


Gallery Oldham started to introduce more inclusive working practices during discussions about how to improve the venue’s service to visitors. An initial meeting helped set the scene, but it wasn’t until the second meeting that people started to express their opinions, which were often quite candid.

“Pandora’s box was opened and all the evils of the world came out,” says Dion Etheridge, visitor services manager at Gallery Oldham. “But, as with Pandora’s box, the last thing that came out was hope. After those passions and frustrations – and anger in some cases – had cleared, it was in the open [and] needed rectifying.”

There were specific problems that staff felt needed addressing – including a lack of communication. Etheridge says people felt information wasn’t being passed on; for example, the technical team felt that back-to-back changeover of exhibitions meant they didn’t have sufficient time to do a thorough job.

As well as deciding to reduce the number of exhibitions, the gallery also reintroduced regular staff meetings. Different teams of staff take it in turns to lead a meeting, and each meeting starts with an invitation to everybody present to ask questions or share something of importance.

Gaby Porter, Gallery Oldham’s Smarter Museums adviser, says that it’s important for every person to be given a turn to speak in the first few minutes of a meeting, otherwise they are unlikely to say anything at all.

She also advises avoiding making statements: “[Instead] use questions that open up thinking rather than invite an already rehearsed response.”

While most people need time and encouragement to explore questions, meetings need to have a structure that will enable people to move towards the solution. “It’s looking forwards and looking at opportunities, building on what’s going well, rather than focusing on the negatives,” says Porter.

For successful inclusive working, it’s important to consider how people feel about their work. Recent research by the Work Foundation characterises outstanding leaders as people who recognise individual's emotional investment in their job.

Lucy Shaw, coordinator of Smarter Museums at the Museums Association, says: “Some organisations may not look at it as inclusive working; they might look at it as ensuring staff well-being and taking some sort of moral responsibility for whether people enjoy working for your organisation and whether people feel there are opportunities for continued development and thinking and ideas.”

Etheridge believes this approach has changed the gallery’s working culture and generated new ideas for improving the visitor experience. “In all honesty I can’t say that everything has changed and it's all suddenly is roses,” he says. “But I believe that we have moved an awful long way.”


Before you start…

  • Changing the organisational culture needs confident leadership, either from the very top of the organisation, or by someone respected and trusted by the person at the top
  • Don’t try to lead change alone. Norton Priory and Gallery Oldham used external consultants, who had both specialist skills and the ability to stand back. They were also perceived as neutral, making objective recommendations, and were able to question and challenge senior staff
  • If external consultancy is not possible, consider getting support from a suitably experienced person in another organisation, or joining or creating an action learning set

Getting people onboard…

  • Encourage people to be honest, to listen to each other and to challenge each other constructively
  • Resist going in too quickly with preconceived ideas. Allow solutions to emerge from the process of questioning, listening and thinking
  • Start by working with a varied group of staff who can all see the benefits of change and will support it. Work with them closely and consistently, and their enthusiasm will begin to influence other staff. Some experts advise that an organisation needs 75% of staff on side before change can take place effectively
  • Once decisions have been made to change things, implement easy things quickly, so that people can see that it isn’t just talk and ideas and that things are actually going to be different and improve

Making lasting change…

  • Accept that deep, lasting change takes time to happen and needs consistent attention
  • Make sure all staff know what is happening and give people regular opportunities to contribute their ideas and views
  • Celebrate success and thank people
  • Make communication a shared responsibility

Dealing with difficulties…

  • Accept that some individuals will resist change to their way of working
  • Be ready for the fact that people can wrongly assume that normal rules of line management no longer apply
  • Accept that it probably isn’t realistic for everyone to have a say about everything

Small things can make a difference…

  • Brief all staff about each forthcoming exhibition or major event
  • Get everyone to say something early in a meeting
  • Set meeting dates well in advance and make it clear that everybody is expected to attend. Time staff meetings so that part-time staff, or ones that work on a rota, don’t miss them all
  • Have a staff suggestions box, and respond to every idea submitted to it. If something isn’t feasible, explain why
  • Anonymous staff surveys can be a good way of assessing how people’s attitudes are changing


  • Change can be difficult and take time to do properly, but it is worth it to get a happier, stronger, more effective organisation

This article is an edited extract from the Museums Association's Culture Change, Dynamism and Diversity report, written by Maurice Davies and Helen Wilkinson. Click here to read the report