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.