Last month, I gave the closing keynote at the National Digital Forum in New Zealand. The end of a conference is often a time of great enthusiasm quickly followed by a gaping maw of inability to act on that enthusiasm back at work. For this reason, I spoke specifically about how to make dream projects possible at real institutions. You can see or download my slides and you can watch the video of the talk. Or you can read this condensed version of the talk.
Elaine Gurian once told me there are two ways for institutions to innovate: they can be so small that no one notices them, or they can have a director who is willing to put his/her neck on the line for the innovation. It’s nice to have both. Unsurprisingly, some of my favorite museums are small, funky places run by iconoclasts—but that’s not useful to most professionals who work for organizations in which they have little control over size or leadership matters.
So if you’re not at one of those weird little institutions, how do you make innovation happen? How do you overcome institutional resistance to change and uncertainty to do something wild and hopeful?
It takes six steps.
First, you have to connect your idea to the institutional mission. I’ve written about this before, and it’s particularly relevant if your idea falls outside the traditional products or services of your organization. Pick apart your mission statement, and look for the words and phrases you can connect your project to. Ask leaders to be accountable to the mission. I used the example of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which has a mission statement that includes unusual words like “bold” and “fearless.” If your institution says it is bold and fearless, how do your programs support that? What new projects might allow you to better reflect those aspirations? When you speak in the language of the institutional mission, executives will understand you better and be attentive to the new connections you draw from the mission to proposed projects.
Second, you need to find the right tool to implement your idea. Especially when working with technology, leading with tools instead of mission-driven projects is a mistake. If you say, “we need a blog,” others in your organization won’t know how to contextualize that within the programs and mission of the institution. If you say, “being transparent is part of our mission, so we need a way to share more of the behind-the-scenes everyday work we do here, and since people here are comfortable writing and taking pictures, the best way to do that is via a blog,” then people will come onboard.
Third, you need to align your idea with institutional culture. There are some ideas that will never fly where you work. Maybe the director is obsessed with “company secrets” and you’ll never be able to share behind-the-scenes work. Or maybe education staff are not willing to engage real-time visitors in dialogue around controversial issues. That’s fine. If your idea is mission-relevant, you will be able to find a way to make it palatable within the context of your institution. I used the example of two very different exhibitions that solicited visitor-contributed content: Playing with Science at the London Science Museum, and MN150 at the Minnesota History Center. The London Science Museum team designed an entire exhibition and then left a few open vitrines at the end for visitors to contribute their own toys during the run of the exhibition. The Minnesota History Center team solicited visitor nominations for exhibition topics and then built an exhibition out of those contributions. Both resulting exhibitions featured visitor-submitted content, but each institution did so in a way that felt comfortable to their work processes and abilities.
This may sound obvious and natural, but it’s easy to underestimate the power of institutional culture. Sometimes staff are unaware of their own cultural biases and requirements even as they manage new projects. I worked on one project in which the client institution thought they wanted unfettered teen expression. When they saw the results of that expression, they struggled with the content and eventually integrated it into their project in a way that diminished the teens’ involvement and hard work. In the end, this generated a substandard product for the client, and disappointment for the teens.
Fourth, you need to find a way to evaluate what visitors do – and more importantly, to evaluate using criteria that are understood and appreciated by everyone in your institution. It’s not helpful to just measure outputs (number of visitor comments, length of stay) if those don’t translate to something that staff understand as useful outcomes. There are several good resources on evaluating participation. There is a preponderance of reports about the value of new media literacies towards educating productive citizens of the 21st century. Assessment tools like the Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills report can help you couch both your goals and evaluation in contexts that are well-understood by funders and executives alike. Another source of resources comes from the growing body of social media evaluation tools. I’m particularly enamored of this simple diagnostic used at the Museum of Life and Science in North Carolina to articulate the types of institutional goals they are trying to achieve with forays into participation. They use these explicit goals as measuring sticks for the projects and experiments they pursue.
Fifth and most challengingly, you need to reserve resources (dollars and staff) for project operation. Unlike most traditional cultural products, projects that encourage visitor participation require staff to “tend the garden” of contributions long after the launch date. I consider this the greatest obstacle to the inclusion of participatory practice in cultural institutions because it fundamentally changes the way organizations staff and fund projects. Many museums are making this shift as they hire “community managers” who communicate with users on an ongoing basis. But institutions that incorporate dynamic content and participatory engagement throughout struggle to prove every day that they need to continue providing consumable materials and floor staff to sustain engagement.
Sixth, you need other people to help you. Pushing forward new projects in your own institution can be a tiring and thankless task. If you have friends and colleagues—whether internal or external—who can help you get to the next step or just commiserate and cheer with you, you’ll feel less lonely in your endeavor. I believe you need to find specific people—not just social networks—who can help you in this effort. When you meet someone who can help you, ask her. When you meet someone you can help, make an offer. These transactions will make change possible.
To help jumpstart these relationships, we did one of my favorite activities. People took out two business cards. On the back of one, they wrote something they need. On the back of the other, they wrote something they could offer someone else professionally. We unveiled a giant gong in the front of the room. If you found a "match" - someone you could help or could help you - you got to come up and hit the gong. People bonded over all kinds of skills, from helping digitize collections to performing outcome assessments to strategizing about new programs. And despite the exhaustion of the end of a long conference, everyone got up and moving in their quest to hit the gong (as evidenced by photos like this one).
As a brief design digression, I'd like to suggest that the gong is essential to this activity working. It's a motivator that has no intrinsic value - certainly less value than the outcome of the activity of finding a helpmeet in your work. But it helps focus WHY people will participate in something a bit silly by coupling it with a silly win condition. It invites people to play. It's another example of how scaffolding participation with design objects can make interpersonal exchange more desirable.