Five Reasons Why You Should Have an Interpretive Plan

I cringe when I hear the words Ready-Fire-Aim used to describe the planning approach that many organizations use in developing new programs and facilities. I cringe because it was my favorite approach thirty years ago. I simply had no planning experience and it seemed reasonable to try something, anything, and hope it would work. Funders and managers

Lisa Brochu directed the interpretive plan in 2001 at Wolong Panda Reserve in China. Walking the route visitors will take helps in analysis of site mechanics.
Lisa Brochu directed the interpretive planning process in 2001 at Wolong Panda Reserve in China. Walking the route visitors will take helps in analysis of site mechanics.

sometimes enable this process by providing money for an idea without a plan because it just sounds like something that might fly or because an ego drives the process, causing you to build a new facility, exhibit, or program because the boss or a donor wants it.

Most companies, organizations and agencies have a stated mission. They know their purpose, but then they guess about what will work to help them achieve that mission because guessing is faster, cheaper, and easier than participating in a thoughtful process. Here are five reasons to slow down and invest in a plan.

  1. Save money – You won’t waste money on useless facilities or programs. It is easy to build a theater that rarely has an audience, an exhibit that doesn’t get seen, a building that has no traffic, or a tour that never quite has enough people to break even. With a good plan you save more than the costs of planning by not building things you don’t need. You also don’t spend money forever maintaining facilities or programs that underperform.
  2. Enhance quality – The very best experiences are designed with specific customers in mind to achieve objectives and work seamlessly making thoughtful use of available resources. That rarely happens by accident.
  3. Builds consensus – Great plans involve diverse stakeholders and build an understanding of what is being planned. It’s a team-building process. Top-down orders that don’t consider the needs of staff, customers and partners often result in projects that fail due to lack of support from those who must implement them.
  4. Everything sends a message – Often an architect or engineering firm is hired for the specific purpose of building facilities. After the infrastructure is on the ground and it’s difficult to make changes without great expense, they invite an interpretive planner to determine what to put in or around the facility to create amazing experiences that engage people and help them understand complex processes, people and places. But in so doing, they’ve sold the experience short – the building, landscaping, flow of traffic, site, elevations, aspects, mechanical systems, lighting, textures, colors and more can help tell a story and encourage engagement. If the architects or engineers don’t understand the story and objectives in telling it, they can inadvertently create conflicts with the desired impact of the interpretive experience. Form should follow function in these facilities, and that requires thoughtful planning right from the start with a full understanding of the interpretive implications.
  5. Well-planned facilities/programs get better as they age. They get fine-tuned, improved, morphed toward a planned future. Ill-conceived projects are abandoned, retrofitted to new uses and continually modified to work in a minimally acceptable way.
The Wolong Interpretive plan involved managers, scientists and local citizens.
The Wolong Interpretive plan involved managers, scientists and local citizens.

A thoughtful interpretive planning process will bring people together around the mission and vision of the organization and objectives of the project and/or program. There are no doubt many other reasons for starting your project with a well-reasoned interpretive plan, but if you need help convincing yourself, your boss, or your donors, the five listed here should give you a place to start that conversation.

-Tim Merriman

Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

5 thoughts on “Five Reasons Why You Should Have an Interpretive Plan

  1. I like these reason. We need to give some agency or manager the reason why they have an interpretive plan. But some manager focuses on economic benefit of the planning. How could we answer this question?

    1. Thanks for your comment and question. I’ve been a manager without a plan and know that several financial losses result from not planning. As I see them, they are:
      1. When you build facilities or new tours that seem like a good idea without a plan, you are more likely to have wasted financial resources on an unsuccessful facility or tour that eats operating resources.
      2. People expand our business and profits by telling others about high quality experiences. Planning helps you put higher quality programming on the ground at the start and you fine tune it with customer feedback.
      3. Priorities matter and money is wasted when you build or create a low priority facility or program first when another one would have built your financial resources faster. Great interpretive plannings is based on collecting the right information about what is planned and then analysis of it to determine how to be more strategic and tactical. Developing facilities and programs in the right order saves money and builds income faster.

      Sometimes as managers, we are too close to our own business and a planner brings us objective study and analysis that allows us to see our business in a new light. Profit is a reasonable expectation from private sector public sector interpretive programs and facilities, but you optimize it by planning, and eliminate waste.

      All best wishes with your work.


  2. Thanks for your answers very much. Your ideals are useful and helpful to me. I will explain this question easliy and clearly. I am glad to share my experience with you.

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