Last Friday, I had a discussion with Chris Catanese from the
On the face of it, museums are a lot more like banks than they are like dot coms. The corporate mentality is low-risk, averse to endeavors that don’t obviously support the museum’s mission statement or bottom line. And while we’ve all heard the horror stories of the excess at dot coms circa 1998, when each employee was given their own alpha-wave measuring espresso-maker, there are also the successes—the Googles and Squid Labs and iRobots—that are pioneering not only new products, but new ways to do business as well.
Here are some corporate practices I’d love to see us steal from the conference rooms of
Making Time for Innovation
There’s a catch-22 about innovation: everyone wants wild and wonderful ideas, but no one wants to invest the time and space (and bad ideas) it takes for those gems to arise. In most businesses, including most museums, the corporate culture values “doing your job” to the exclusion of other endeavors that might create a huge hit for the business and the bottom line. But many technology companies don’t work that way. Google is the gold standard, encouraging each employee to spend 20% of their time (one day a week) on projects of their own devising. I’ve heard about another employer—a hotel—that offered $1000 to employees to use on self-determined projects to improve the guest experience. These initiatives are not instituted by companies to make their employees feel good (only). These companies recognize that innovation requires time and resources and that the potential reward of offering those resources is worth the risk.
Three years ago, at ASTC, I took part in the RIG (rapid idea generation) session offered by Julie Bowen and others from the Ontario Science Centre. It was an energizing three-hour activity, one that their staff uses several times a month for cross-company brainstorming. At the end of the session, Julie asked us, “how many of you see this as viable in your institution?” We all desperately wanted it to be viable and yet knew that the cultural obstacles at most museums would be insurmountable. The immediate reaction to these kinds of initiatives is fear—that people won’t do their jobs, that they’ll be wasting company time—but it’s my guess that people who have this opportunity become more passionate about their jobs, more aware of the broader goals and interests of their company, and feel more valued and respected by their employer (and therefore more likely to stick around). Those are “soft” gains, but there are hard gains too—the one in a hundred idea that turns into a hit.
Incorporating support for innovation into museum corporate culture isn’t just about people sitting in rooms dreaming of the next Bodyworlds. As much as possible, it should be about encouraging people to do—to try a program for seniors, to host a MySpace page, to build a cart activity and get it out on the floor. That way, staff are learning, stretching, and feeling supported in taking risks (which will make them more willing to take the risks that lead to the great ideas). Which leads to…
Releasing Products in Beta
Beta’s been getting more action than all the other greek letters put together these days. When I started using flickr, librarything, and grand central they were all in beta. Heck, two of them still are in beta. This isn’t a testament to my 2.0-savviness; it’s indicative of those businesses’ mentality towards finished products. When it comes to products that are user-centric (as museum products should be!), the companies that develop the products realize that they need users—not just testers, but bona fide users—to finish the job and help them determine what the final functionality of the product will be. In museums, we often talk about the fact that “visitors make their own experiences,” and yet it’s a fact we swallow begrudgingly, like pills that are too big. Instead of fighting their users for control, web 2.0 businesses court users and cross their fingers that the users WILL create their own experiences. It’s much easier to succeed by providing features that people are clamoring for than by guessing what they might appreciate.
It’s understandable that museums are uncomfortable potentially tarnishing their brand with unfinished products. But going beta, at least in part, keeps things fresh and promotes a culture of energy and action. There are some museums, like the Exploratorium, which have made “beta release” a central part of their brand image. ALWAYS IN BETA doesn’t mean stopping design when it gets too hard. It means never finishing the design process, never letting exhibits turn from active elements to dust-collectors. It means legitimately involving evaluators and educators in the design process, working with users and exhibit builders to refine the final product. Which relates to…
Staff Team Mash-ups
There are some museums so large that they resemble military encampments, each department a fortress with its own culture and governance. I often meet people from big museums who talk about staff from other departments as if they were rare birds sighted once a decade.
This is a frequent but accepted by-product of large institutions of all kinds. You start out as a small group working together in one room, development sitting next to exhibits sitting next to security. But eventually everyone has their offices and staff and walls—literal and figurative—start to harden.
Is there another way? Some media and technology companies are experimenting with new ways to put teams together for projects, trying to integrate people with different talents and experience more flexibly. Sure, there’s a logistical challenge: who’s your boss if you float from project to project with different managers? Where do you sit? Introducing ambiguity in the answers to some of these questions may be a good thing if it reduces factionalism. There was an exhibit at MOMA on the new CCTV building in
There are some gentler ways to start down this path. At my museum, every department head has to work one weekend day per month on the floor. Some museums offer brown bag lunches or informal presentations by staff on projects that not everyone is aware of. Prioritizing inter-team relationships can increase effectiveness and individual connection to the company. Which brings us to…
Making Company Culture part of the Brand
The points above are all about actions that tangentially relate to company or museum brand. One of the most striking things about technology companies—and this has now had impact across American business—is the extent to which company culture often IS the brand. Google’s motto isn’t “bringing search to you.” It’s “don’t be evil.” It’s hard for me to separate IDEO from their (literally branded) creative process, or Make magazine from its DIY ethic.
The first piece of this is having and supporting a strong, energized, positive company culture. But the second part is encouraging staff—and visitors—to evangelize. There are some technology companies that have a full-time employee, high up in the corporate team, with a strange title: EVANGELIST. I remember the first time I met someone who said he was an evangelist. I told him I was Jewish. I’m not sure how useful such a person would be for museums, which are more about long-term sustainability than fueling the hype fire, but encouraging staff to blog, to speak at conferences, to grow and spread the museum word, is good for buzz and long-term image.
The great thing about all of these points is that the companies that are most aggressively pursuing them are successful for-profit businesses. The for-profit world is famous for being more bottom-line oriented and less staff development focused than the non-profit world. But now, there are for-profits that are outclassing museums with respect to innovation, and making money at the same time. Why WOULDN’T museums want to get on the trampoline and see what happens?