Thursday, December 16, 2010

Participation Starts with Staff: The Ruru Revolution

Let's say you've gotten excited about some innovative ideas for your institution. You want to get some projects going, but you're not in any particular position of power. Where do you start?

Ruth Harvey has a brilliant solution to this problem. Ruth is a curator of pictorial collections for Puke Ariki, a museum/library/visitor center in the small city of New Plymouth, New Zealand. Last year, Ruth received a Churchill fellowship that allowed her to visit U.S. institutions that were doing innovative work in audience engagement. (We met when I sent her a list of offbeat places to check out.) She came back inspired and eager to get moving on some experimental projects at Puke Ariki.

But Ruth was really smart. After a meeting with staff members from across the institution, she realized this was an opportunity not just to engage with visitors in new ways but also to energize and connect staff from across Puke Ariki. Puke Ariki has about 70 full-time staff members, of whom 10 work for the museum, and the institution is pretty siloed. As Ruth put it, "There was the feeling that staff often stick just to their teams and didn’t see themselves as a part of a bigger Puke Ariki – people tend to refer to themselves as “library”, “museum” or “i-Site” staff rather than seeing themselves as a part of the whole."

So Ruth decided to start with a simple project in which she'd invite staff from across Puke Ariki to write first-person labels about favorite objects. It was a project anyone could participate in that would hopefully create a shared sense of purpose and excitement among staff.

But she didn't just ask people to write labels. With a few cohorts, Ruth started a group called "Ruru" (which means owl in Maori) and a blog called Ruru Revolution. Ruru Revolution is a staff blog (which, luckily for us, is also public) in which Ruth and her colleagues cheer each other on for participating in the personalized label project. Every time someone writes a label, he or she gets a badge (a pin featuring the Ruru mascot owl), a photo taken, and an energetic writeup on the blog. This entire first phase of the project is set up to encourage staff to participate and reward them for doing so. Even the way the labels are being rolled out--first for staff in a January scavenger hunt, and then later for visitors--promotes a sense of fun, buy-in, and a special experience.

This is really unusual and totally brilliant. I've known people who start new experiments by writing high-concept proposals about the reasons behind the ideas. I know people who organize small meetings and try to push things forward. But this is a direct cheerleader approach. The Ruru Revolution blog documents a group of people getting excited about doing something new. And it looks like it's working.

Perhaps the most notable and potentially silly part of the Ruru approach is the badges staff get for participating. Why on earth would people want to participate to get a pin? But the badges are a brilliant stroke that really fit staff culture at Puke Ariki. Ruth explained that staff at Puke Ariki wear badges of all kinds on their key fobs and see them as a kind of unofficial currency, so it was a natural choice for this project.

Ruth explained the Ruru approach this way:
We see ourselves (currently) as an underground group that is working to affect institutional change at Puke Ariki – we want to encourage different and better ways of working and of providing satisfying experiences for visitors. So the badge, in my view, is about identifying other ‘revolutionaries’ – it’s a talking point. It helps to keep the project fresh in people’s minds and gets people chatting about what people have done to deserve their badge. However, that said, bribery really DOES work! People have been excited to get a badge and I imagine it has been, at least to a degree, a motivating factor in getting their labels written.
But that reward has been coupled with a lot of energy spent encouraging people, keeping them informed and praising them for their participation. The blog has been a great way of keeping people informed and I have certainly spent lots of time asking people about what they plan to write about in informal settings (and I imagine the other Ruru group members have too). The badge, though, has been a good way to get to praise people who have contributed labels in person – when they email their label to me I take them a badge in person and tell them what I loved about what they’d written. I think that has really helped with making them feel integral to the whole project instead of on the periphery. I’ve also intentionally described the staff as “experts” throughout the project and I actually think that – when the individual’s talents are often overlooked in a big organisation and its hierarchies – being given the chance to prove what they have to offer is very empowering.
Read the blog, get inspired, and find a way to bring the Ruru Revolution spirit home in a way that fits your institutional culture!

And by the way, I learned about all of this because of a cold email from Ruth. If you're doing something special and participatory, for goodness sakes, let me know.
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