Monday, April 23, 2007

Best Practices in Innovation from the Tech World

Last Friday, I had a discussion with Chris Catanese from the Museum of American Finance about things museum can learn from the technology (and web 2.0) world. We didn't dwell on twitter and high-speed gadgets; instead, we focused on lessons from the business side of the technology field.

On the face of it, museums are a lot more like banks than they are like dot coms. The corporate mentality is low-risk, averse to endeavors that don’t obviously support the museum’s mission statement or bottom line. And while we’ve all heard the horror stories of the excess at dot coms circa 1998, when each employee was given their own alpha-wave measuring espresso-maker, there are also the successes—the Googles and Squid Labs and iRobots—that are pioneering not only new products, but new ways to do business as well.

Here are some corporate practices I’d love to see us steal from the conference rooms of Menlo Park:

Making Time for Innovation

There’s a catch-22 about innovation: everyone wants wild and wonderful ideas, but no one wants to invest the time and space (and bad ideas) it takes for those gems to arise. In most businesses, including most museums, the corporate culture values “doing your job” to the exclusion of other endeavors that might create a huge hit for the business and the bottom line. But many technology companies don’t work that way. Google is the gold standard, encouraging each employee to spend 20% of their time (one day a week) on projects of their own devising. I’ve heard about another employer—a hotel—that offered $1000 to employees to use on self-determined projects to improve the guest experience. These initiatives are not instituted by companies to make their employees feel good (only). These companies recognize that innovation requires time and resources and that the potential reward of offering those resources is worth the risk.

Three years ago, at ASTC, I took part in the RIG (rapid idea generation) session offered by Julie Bowen and others from the Ontario Science Centre. It was an energizing three-hour activity, one that their staff uses several times a month for cross-company brainstorming. At the end of the session, Julie asked us, “how many of you see this as viable in your institution?” We all desperately wanted it to be viable and yet knew that the cultural obstacles at most museums would be insurmountable. The immediate reaction to these kinds of initiatives is fear—that people won’t do their jobs, that they’ll be wasting company time—but it’s my guess that people who have this opportunity become more passionate about their jobs, more aware of the broader goals and interests of their company, and feel more valued and respected by their employer (and therefore more likely to stick around). Those are “soft” gains, but there are hard gains too—the one in a hundred idea that turns into a hit.

Incorporating support for innovation into museum corporate culture isn’t just about people sitting in rooms dreaming of the next Bodyworlds. As much as possible, it should be about encouraging people to do—to try a program for seniors, to host a MySpace page, to build a cart activity and get it out on the floor. That way, staff are learning, stretching, and feeling supported in taking risks (which will make them more willing to take the risks that lead to the great ideas). Which leads to…

Releasing Products in Beta

Beta’s been getting more action than all the other greek letters put together these days. When I started using flickr, librarything, and grand central they were all in beta. Heck, two of them still are in beta. This isn’t a testament to my 2.0-savviness; it’s indicative of those businesses’ mentality towards finished products. When it comes to products that are user-centric (as museum products should be!), the companies that develop the products realize that they need users—not just testers, but bona fide users—to finish the job and help them determine what the final functionality of the product will be. In museums, we often talk about the fact that “visitors make their own experiences,” and yet it’s a fact we swallow begrudgingly, like pills that are too big. Instead of fighting their users for control, web 2.0 businesses court users and cross their fingers that the users WILL create their own experiences. It’s much easier to succeed by providing features that people are clamoring for than by guessing what they might appreciate.

It’s understandable that museums are uncomfortable potentially tarnishing their brand with unfinished products. But going beta, at least in part, keeps things fresh and promotes a culture of energy and action. There are some museums, like the Exploratorium, which have made “beta release” a central part of their brand image. ALWAYS IN BETA doesn’t mean stopping design when it gets too hard. It means never finishing the design process, never letting exhibits turn from active elements to dust-collectors. It means legitimately involving evaluators and educators in the design process, working with users and exhibit builders to refine the final product. Which relates to…

Staff Team Mash-ups

There are some museums so large that they resemble military encampments, each department a fortress with its own culture and governance. I often meet people from big museums who talk about staff from other departments as if they were rare birds sighted once a decade.

This is a frequent but accepted by-product of large institutions of all kinds. You start out as a small group working together in one room, development sitting next to exhibits sitting next to security. But eventually everyone has their offices and staff and walls—literal and figurative—start to harden.

Is there another way? Some media and technology companies are experimenting with new ways to put teams together for projects, trying to integrate people with different talents and experience more flexibly. Sure, there’s a logistical challenge: who’s your boss if you float from project to project with different managers? Where do you sit? Introducing ambiguity in the answers to some of these questions may be a good thing if it reduces factionalism. There was an exhibit at MOMA on the new CCTV building in Beijing that included a demonstration of the projected daily paths of different kinds of employees through the building. The design intentionally supports overlap and mixing, even though that means lots of walking (and presumably, incidental interactions with others).

There are some gentler ways to start down this path. At my museum, every department head has to work one weekend day per month on the floor. Some museums offer brown bag lunches or informal presentations by staff on projects that not everyone is aware of. Prioritizing inter-team relationships can increase effectiveness and individual connection to the company. Which brings us to…

Making Company Culture part of the Brand

The points above are all about actions that tangentially relate to company or museum brand. One of the most striking things about technology companies—and this has now had impact across American business—is the extent to which company culture often IS the brand. Google’s motto isn’t “bringing search to you.” It’s “don’t be evil.” It’s hard for me to separate IDEO from their (literally branded) creative process, or Make magazine from its DIY ethic.

The first piece of this is having and supporting a strong, energized, positive company culture. But the second part is encouraging staff—and visitors—to evangelize. There are some technology companies that have a full-time employee, high up in the corporate team, with a strange title: EVANGELIST. I remember the first time I met someone who said he was an evangelist. I told him I was Jewish. I’m not sure how useful such a person would be for museums, which are more about long-term sustainability than fueling the hype fire, but encouraging staff to blog, to speak at conferences, to grow and spread the museum word, is good for buzz and long-term image.

The great thing about all of these points is that the companies that are most aggressively pursuing them are successful for-profit businesses. The for-profit world is famous for being more bottom-line oriented and less staff development focused than the non-profit world. But now, there are for-profits that are outclassing museums with respect to innovation, and making money at the same time. Why WOULDN’T museums want to get on the trampoline and see what happens?

8 comments, add yours!:

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...

Is it any surprise that many museums are more like banks than companies?

Do a quick scan of employment ads for museum directors --- inevitably the qualities desired have more to do with "fundraising" than "fun raising."

How can museums search for passionate, innovative leaders that also know how to make payroll?

Are there such people, or should museums be running parallel "creative" and "business" tracks
with comparably paid positions?

Anonymous said...

Hey Nina

I know what you mean and certainly within my team I try to make as much time for experimentation as possible and some of the things we've done like museum blogging, our collection search, an experiment with mobile phone bookmarking, even bits of our kids website have been the result of coming up with an idea and running with it . . . live, as beta.

I certainly subscribe to the idea of early public release, and making alterations/iterations as needed.

More broadly though you have to remember that museums are often also collecting institutions, charged with preserving heritage from one generation to the next. And when this weighs upon you (as it should!), sometimes the careful road is the one to choose.

Probably the ideal museum is one which has pockets of innovation that are allowed and encouraged to thrive, whilst the core super long-term business of preservation is handled by others.

Sometimes they can come together - the innovation of the collection search at Powerhouse has been instrumental in drawing attention to our collection, some of which dates back thousands of years - the very core of why we exist.


Nina Simon said...

It's interesting that both Paul and Seb's comments suggest that perhaps museums should split their innovative/creative endeavors from the core business--whether that is selling tickets or preserving artifacts. I think a lot of tech companies are going the opposite direction, trying to break down the distinctions between creatives, producers, business folks, etc so that everyone understands the core mission better and can stretch beyond their designated roles.

So Seb, I agree that the ideal museum (and more generalized institution?) encourages pockets of innovation supported by a solid core identity and product. But I think we need to open those pockets to everyone in the institution, and not put business people or registrars or anyone else in a vitrine they can't break out of on occasion.

It's fabulous that you support innovation on your team. But too often there are the anointed creatives sitting on their yoga balls in a funky corner of the office while front line staff, admin, etc. feel that their creative contributions are not valued or, worse, not needed. How can we promote innovation as an employee value across all departments?

Anonymous said...

Hey Nina

Probably the only way to achieve that is to align innovation with the core values of the organisation, or, better still, make it one of the core values.

Remember that there are actually very few companies that last the length of time that major museums have been around for! Indeed, I don;t think I can name one - except maybe some of the old Japanese firms that still do what they did 300 years ago.

Also, don't forget that not every bit of innovation is going to be visible to the outsider! And a lot of the most innovative stuff isn't public facing.


Anonymous said...


How many companies that have stood the test of time have also included innovation within their core values? 3M, Disney, Walgreens, HP, Johnson & Johnson... you can go through the entire Jim Collins stable if care to. Many of those companies have faced enormous change and rolled with it, by innovating but ALSO by sticking to what they do best.

However, making the comparison between for-profit and non-profit requires more than just a leap of language. Major museums (and other non-profits) that have been around for more than 100 years have very different business models from corporations that have been "built to last." First, no great philanthropists endowed Toyota for the common good. Second, museums are not competitive market-driven businesses that are responsible to their shareholders -- they ought to be judged by a completely different set of metrics (metrics that may not involve $ signs). Third, while more businesses have failed than succeeded, how many museums have folded? What external forces allow them to persist?

Nina -- all that remains of a lot of the SiliValley companies that embraced best practices in innovation is piles of used office furniture. There are more banks than dot.coms. I agree wholeheartedly that cross-departmental teams can do great work within a culture of innovation, but I don't think innovation is enough. What separates out the great institutions is, I think, a strong organizational vision embraced and manifested in the continual work of each employee. Getting the RIGHT employees on board, keeping them, and getting them together in a room, are, IMHO, more important than merely forcing innovation.

Finally: Paul, I think passionate leaders will figure out how to make payroll. I don't think passionless leaders will figure out how to make their museums great.

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...

If museums want "innovators" in all areas of their operations, then they should build in systems to recognize and reward those innovators.

Anonymous said...

I think recognition is a paycheck every two weeks (and the satisfaction of Getting Things Done).

Mikkel Thelle said...

Hi Nina

Really a core issue, also in Scandinavia. At the National Museum of Denmark where I work, there is a lot of formal support to the idea of new media and the web, but there is a great need for a kind of "transit" place, where the ideas can live until they go into the organisation. I think the idea of innovation pockets is good and should be discussed - and larger museums like my own has a responsibility to use thier size in creating such pockets - also to spread innovation to smaller institutions