Monday, June 16, 2008

Innovation, Chaos, and Leadership: Skunkworks and the CEO

I'm at the Science Center World Congress in Toronto this week, enjoying the best (international idea sharing) and worst (fatuous self-congratulation) of the museum conference experience. I'll share more thoughts throughout the week, but this evening I wanted to offer my slides and comments from a panel this afternoon chaired by Eric Siegel on Innovation and the Future of Science Centers. I focused on small-scale innovation, taking off from last month's post on skunkworks.

What is the role of the CEO in institutional innovation?
As I prepared for this panel, I realized how dominant the CEO has been in conversations I've had over the last several months in the opportunity for innovation and change in museums. Over and over I've heard: "without X and her vision, we couldn't do this," or "as long as Y is here, there's no chance."

We've fallen into this problematic paradigm where the CEO must be the visionary who initiates change. Sounds reasonable on the surface, right? But it's troubling for two reasons. First, it focuses innovation on a single person, which means fewer ideas are breaking through and more communication has to happen to spread the ideas and get buy-in. But more significantly, many of the characteristics of innovation--flexibility, risk-taking, chaos, failure--are highly threatening to staff when they are embodied by top management. A CEO who changes his mind each week is no friend to staff, no matter how innovative his thinking is. Chaos on an institutional scale is unsettling whether it derives from a lack of leadership or aggressively visionary leadership. Either way, people are afraid for their jobs, uncertain of how to do a good job, and unclear on the overall mission.

My proposition is this: rather than pursuing institution-wide major changes in policy, process, or content, museums (and CEOs) should be setting up models that support small innovations in pockets spread throughout the institution. Since innovation requires chaos, that chaos needs to be structured within a support system that values and provides security to the innovators made to work in that system. On the panel, Jennifer Martin talked about the way the Ontario Science Centre's Weston Family Innovation Center invites visitors to innovate (take risks, fail, etc.) by providing them a safe environment in which to do so. Museum management needs to do the same.

So that's the first step. Managers and CEOs need to provide security and give staff confidence that risk-taking will not count against them. This point was highlighted in a Fast Company article about IBM's innovation support project, the "emerging business opportunities" (EBO) program:
When a pilot doesn't work, Harreld quickly kills the EBO and finds another important position at IBM for the erstwhile leader who took the risk: "You want to celebrate failure because you learn something. It's harder to do that early in your career. You need some level of security to say, 'I screwed it up,' and be comfortable that you're not going to get fired," he says.

The security element may sound obvious, but if you think about it, it's a strange bedfellow for innovation. Chaos needs stability? It's not always true; there are some businesses, like tech startups, in which everyone is engaged in chaos and risk-taking. There's no stability because everything is always changing. But (for good or ill) most museums are not tech startups. And the people who work at them aren't going to work each day wondering whether they'll boom or bust. Museums are about frameworks, scaffolding for learning. And in the case of institutional innovation, that scaffolding can support staff learning as well.

But providing stability is not the hardest part. More importantly, managers and especially CEOs need to step back from being innovators themselves. I refer to these leaders in their ideal form as "benevolent visionaries"--people who want to encourage new ideas but are willing to create the conditions for staff to generate them rather than creating the ideas themselves.

This is really hard. It means going to bat with funders and boards for ideas and experiments that are not your own. It means stepping back from the "thought leader" role and into a service role:
service to staff, comparable to service to board and mission. But the potential benefits are enormous. When leaders' passion for their museums goes towards supporting structures for others to innovate, identifying and granting opportunities for limited chaos, hopefully institutions can grow more flexibly--and more confidently--than ones in which the CEO is the sole owner of new ideas.

Is it harder for a CEO to be an innovator or a service person? Is it harder for top management to risk the institution or to empower junior staff to risk small projects? A lot of this comes down to ego, not change or risk. And I don't have an answer for how to innovate that.

Do you?

4 comments, add yours!:

Scarlett Swerdlow said...

Excellent post, Nina!

I work for a statewide arts advocacy and service organization doing advocacy, communications, and technology. I attended a workshop run by Beth Kanter last week in Chicago, and she recommended your blog. I'm thoroughly enjoying the Museum 2.0 experience : )

Is it harder for a CEO to be an innovator or a service person? This is an interesting question, and I hadn't thought to juxtapose these two identities in this way. I fundamentally see CEOs as service people. They make the work of the organizations - implementation of mission - possible by ensuring organizations have resources - human and monetary resources as well as spirit and passion. CEOs should foster innovation, rather than see themselves as innovators directly. It probably does come down to ego as well as personal style and comfort zone.

One reason Web 2.0 excites me as an activist is it lowers the threshold for experimentation. Not just the technology itself, but the grassroots culture that surrounds it.

Mal Booth said...

Yes, I agree, great post Nona!
I think I agree with the sentiments of your penultimate paragraph. CEOs should set up an environment that encourages innovation and experiementation and sell that to their boards as the best way for the organisation to learn. They need to truly manage the risks involved (not avoid them). Some years ago when I came into my current role (not a CEO), but the leader of a reasonably large professional group in a national museum, I said that at least part of my role here was to help create the kind of chaos out of which creativity flourishes, and then I had to manage the resulting distress. I have not been quite that radical and it has taken longer than I thought, but we've headed in that direction.

Mal Booth said...

Ooops, Nina, (not Nona)! Can you edit that out?

mediafutura said...

Great post Nina,
working for a one of major East Coast art museums, and having had a number of bosses with different skills in managing people and their ideas, I cannot agree with you more. When you go down the ladder, I think this dilemma for any manager to be an innovator or to serve their staff depends on their sense of security too. CEOs most certainly need to be the ones that make this available, but alas that doesn't happen that often within large institutions like Museums. Especially when the economy is going down the tube...