The pitch Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2009

Jeffrey Patchen needed to figure out a way to help The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis weather the current economic downturn.

Volumes and volumes have been written and recorded on how to keep a business organization upright in turbulent times. So whose idea did Patchen implement? Jack Welch? Bill Gates?

Think closer to Steven Spielberg.

Patchen, the president and CEO of the museum, which generated $25 million in revenue in 2008, implemented an idea he learned from the film school at UCLA. He calls it “pitchfest.”

“The idea is that employees can pitch new ideas about how we can drive attendance and new revenue to the museum,” he says. “So through a series of surveys and electronic requests for information, employees are submitting ideas for doing this.”

It is only one avenue through which Patchen generates ideas, but it has helped keep the museum financially stable as organizations around the country wade through economic quicksand.

Smart Business spoke with Patchen about how you can get everyone at your business involved in weathering the storm.

Get everyone thinking. You have to be as honest and as transparent as possible when communicating during tough times. You need to involve those who are responsible along with you for the changes that might be necessary and living with those changes. But you also need to be as upbeat and positive as possible. One of the best messages you can give is that together we’ll weather this and get through it, and at some point, the economy is going to come back.

The current economic environment is great motivation to get people to come up with new ideas to improve the state of the organization. With our pitchfest program, after the ideas are solicited and gathered, the top group of five to 10 will pitch their ideas to the executive team. The most viable ideas from that group will be implemented, and there will be rewards and recognition for those people who came up with the most viable ideas.

Building a culture that values creativity and ideas from employees is a challenge, but it’s very important at the same time. It’s one of the most important challenges of being a leader in any organization, and (so is) having an executive team that is also willing to recognize and encourage that. The most difficult part of that is getting employees to realize that not every good idea can be implemented due to resource limitations. But on the other hand, thanking employees for their great ideas and keeping the idea on file for a time is a way to recognize their contribution.

Pitchfest is a way to get employees involved in how we can do business differently, do business more efficiently, drive more attendance to the museum and drive more earned revenue to the museum so that reductions in expenses, including things like layoffs, are absolutely minimized.

Stay visible. In terms of my role as CEO, communication comes back to the idea of being everywhere all at once.

You need to stay visible as part of communicating. Making visibility a priority as a leader is simply part of what comes with the territory. I never have enough time on the floor, even with the time I do spend on the museum floor. But I need it, because it gives me an opportunity to have face-to-face interaction with all our employees, from our actor-interpreters in our exhibits to housekeeping to retail, to our food-service employees, and get a sense for how things are going, what are their concerns. It’s a way for me to do depth-testing within the organization.

Remember that, in the end, all your communication goes back to being visible. It’s being visible on the floor. For me, it’s about being visible after hours, since the museum has an after-hours life hosting gatherings and banquets. So the accessibility has to do with visibility and acknowledging that there are different weekly life cycles in an organization such as this and trying to maintain visibility across those different life cycles.

Outline your plans. It starts with a strategic plan and, even before that, a set of core values. We’re in our second strategic plan in my tenure. So it starts with examining those core values and what we’re all about, who our audience is and what are those things we believe that are truly important in the visitor experience. That then leads to some goals with measurable outcomes and strategies and tactics.

I also attend the beginning orientation for every employee; I tell my story and the story of the museum. I talk about our core values and strategic plan. I meet with all our employees monthly and talk to them about a variety of issues and topics related to the museum.

Communication doesn’t have to start at the top. Sometimes it does, with a set of shared core values and shared understanding of our day-to-day goals and operations. But ideas can come from anywhere.

As an example, in addition to the pitchfest program, we have an exhibit development program, where an idea for a new exhibit can come from an employee, a donor, up above or down below, and we have a means to assess, evaluate and consider it. Of course, not everyone’s ideas are doable and fundable, but we’ve had some extraordinary ideas come from our staff and our volunteers.

How to reach: The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, (317) 334-3322 or www.childrensmuseum.org