Through the work of the Staff Action Research Group it became clear that there were different paradigms or worldviews at work in the museums. We developed a series of working models to seek to make these different paradigms visible. The limitation of the working models was that it implied that choosing one coherent worldview was the answer – an approach that would prove to be unhelpful. However, the thinking done through using the working models directly underpins the Tensions as Strengths approach.
As the Bradford’s National Museum Staff Action Research Group developed their agendas – and built on the cross-cutting questions that arose from reflecting on Above the Noise: 15 Stories From Bradford – it seemed we needed some way of making sense of the lived contradictions or challenges we encountered. In the discussions the staff group were having they were able to perceive quite different worldviews or paradigms at work in the museum. Sometimes, they noted, different paradigms were even deployed within the same meeting.
This idea of making visible different, even clashing, worldviews is very common in systems thinking. In particular it is associated with ‘soft systems methodology’, an approached coined by Peter Checkland and John Poulter (see 2006) which has been highly influential in action learning, action research, and management and organisational change contexts.
Working Model Fragments
We attempted making visible the different worldviews through trying to characterise what we called ‘working model fragments’. They were:
- Project Management Structure
- Group-wide decision making
- Branding consistency
- Communications and Messaging consistency
Use resources to meet needs
- Meet needs of social and economically excluded communities
- Content producer
- Trusted partner
Clear STEM mission
- Defined purpose
- Informed by Expertise
- Knowledge and creativity exists outside the museum
- Strengths-based model (people have capabilities not deficits)
- Power sharing
Local Strategic Partner
- Clear articulation of purpose in Bradford
- Contributor to strategic initiatives (e.g. Bradford 2025)
One member of the research team, Julia Ankenbrand, then worked with the staff group to identify when and how these working models came up and clashed in their everyday working life. We also sought to link back to things collaborators had said to us during the Above the Noise reflective process.
The group developed one example which shows how the clash between centralised decision-making and participatory practice is experienced in practice.
Decisions in the museum are made by going through a centralised decision-making process. That means suggestions that are brought to staff by potential collaborators have to go via their managers to the appropriate places. One impact of ideas needing to work their way through various stages up and then back down the decision-making process is that no individual has to take responsibility for a decision. The message coming back to staff can feel impersonal and difficult to communicate to those they are collaborating with. To staff it becomes risky to bring in partners as they know they are potentially exposing them to a system that can take a long time, seems impersonal and that they have no agency in.
The impact of the working models
The working models did not quite work. They failed because, unintentionally, the way we set them up felt too much as if there had to be a choice made between coherent worldviews. But the thinking done with the staff group through the working models discussions – which very concretely identified tensions in their everyday working lives – went on to underpin the Tensions as Strengths approach.
Peter Checkland & John Poulter (2006) Learning for Action: A Short Definitive Account of Soft Systems Methodology and its use for Practitioners, Teachers and Students. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.