Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Building a Culture of Experimentation

Note: the Blueprint book club will start next week. Sorry for the delay.

It’s not every day you find a prototype in the bathroom. Last week, I sat down on a toilet in our museum and found myself looking at an interactive station intended to test a “Legends of the Stall” sign concept for the restrooms. Legends of the Stall was started by a visitor services staff member, Katie Chrivia, who collaborated with interns and volunteers to develop the content and the design. I’d forgotten about Legends of the Stall, assuming it was ticking along in the background or pushed aside by the busy-ness of daily tasks. And then I found this prototype in the bathroom, put up without anyone’s permission, well-executed, and garnering useful responses. I peed, read the sign, and added my comments to the growing list on the wall. And left, smiling.

Rock on. Some of my happiest moments as a director come when I encounter awesome things in our museum that I had absolutely nothing to do with. It’s the pride of the “space maker” who enables other people to be risk-takers. I’m starting to really appreciate the difference between being an individual agent and creating a culture of agency. It wasn’t intuitive for me as a hands-on person. I knew how to do it myself. I knew how to do it with a team. Now I’m learning how to not-do it, but to enable it.

And increasingly, what I’m trying to enable is a culture of experimentation. We often talk about “change” or “innovation” as the goal for our institutions, but I’d argue that building a culture of experimentation is more important than building a culture of change. I’m not even sure a “culture of change” is a meaningful concept or one that could be sustained over an extended period. Experimenters are driven by the desire to try things out and see what works, to collect data, to learn from the results. They are open to possibilities. Innovators and change-makers may not be.

What does a culture of experimentation look like? For us, it means:
  • We feel empowered to try things out. My colleagues are responsible, caring people who want our museum to be awesome. They have the good judgment to know that putting up a prototype in the bathroom is not just ok, but a really good way to engage people with our work and improve the final result. There's no oversight or permission required because the activity is self-evidently in keeping with our goals and strategy.
  • We seek and value the feedback of others. Katie genuinely wants to make the Legends of the Stall as good a project as possible. So she asks people what they think. Across all of our work—exhibition planning, event programming—we’re constantly looking for ways to get feedback from visitors and colleagues. We’re constantly changing how and what we ask people so we get more useful feedback.
  • We ask questions that will lead us to action. Whenever an intern takes a prototype out on the floor, I ask her, “What might change about this project based on this test?” If she is not willing or able to articulate a potential change, it’s not a prototype—it’s just a model of a foregone conclusion. At the MAH, prototypes have to be used to test a hypothesis, or to decide among options. This becomes more and more automatic as people feel the confidence that comes with making a decision based on data instead of arbitrary soothsaying.
  • We feel comfortable with critique. This one is really important. Some experiments fail. Some exhibit ideas are lame. Some event components are dull. The more we put ourselves out there and live with the good and bad feedback, the more we see negative feedback as helpful to our progress. I’ve been happily surprised at how our team has become highly engaged in constructive critique while maintaining positive feelings about each other. I’m glad to see critical questions alongside the encouragement and recommendations on Legends of the Stall. That’s what pushes us to improve.
How does experimentation play a role (or not) in the culture of your organization? Or alternatively, what kind of culture are you trying to build, and what indicators reflect that?

Oh, and semi-relatedly, we're hiring
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