Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Museum Skunkworks: Carving Out a Place for Risk-Taking

I once asked Elaine Gurian how museums can change. She said it happens in one of two ways: either the place is small and inconsequential enough that no one is watching, or there's a passionate, gutsy director willing to risk his or her job.

Here's the problem with both of these ways: they require circumstances that are outside of most museum employees' control. Where's the bottom-up option for people who are motivated to do something new within sprawling, bogged-down places? Where's the opportunity for risk in museums that are too big to avoid the media microscope?

There's a third way, a way modeled in huge tech companies trying to compete with young start-ups. "Skunkworks" are internal mini-companies given specific, often tangential projects outside the larger corporate bureaucracy. They can be secret advanced projects like the Lockheed design of the U-2 (Lockheed coined the term skunkworks in 1943). They can be parallel projects, in which a small team works independently to innovate something already in progress on a larger scale. Or, they can be satellite projects, exploring uncharted institutional territory.

Skunkworks projects have two advantages:
  • they allow institutions to develop really great ideas that would get squashed by standard channels and processes
  • they allow institutions to take risks in a controlled way that does not impact the majority of staff, day-to-day functions, or revenue streams.

The thing that all skunkworks projects have in common is a pass from standard bureaucratic procedures (see Lockheed's skunkworks operating rules for an example). Project leaders are typically given a small budget and team and let loose to work. They don't have to fill out forms or ask permission. The point is to encourage "safe risk" by segmenting it so that the related chaos does not adversely impact the entire institution. In a museum context, this effectively means carving out a small group and letting them function like a small, inconsequential, visionary institution--one that can move quickly, fail often, and hopefully innovate some new opportunities and methods for the larger museum.

The change created by these skunkworks doesn't tear the institution apart or require vision retreats. It's small and isolated. The failures, the successes, and the risks are owned by a few staff in their own world. This means not only that innovation can happen, but that it can happen in a controlled way--and can be applied, scaled, or ditched for the institution as a whole.

How do skunkworks projects get started? There are two ways: directive from the top or desire from the bottom.

There's more attention these days on the "from the top" model. Fast Company published a wonderful article in 2005 about IBM's skunkworks, the "emerging-business opportunities" (EBOs), which were initiated in 2000 by the senior vice president of strategy. In IBM's case, the EBOs carved out a space where experienced managers could develop new business models in industries that weren't viable in the short-term (and thus were systematically excised by execs focused on shareholder value). Their success is laudable (producing $15 billion in revenue in the first five years), and by encouraging entrepenurial rising staff into avenues outside the traditional bureaucracy, IBM can hold on to people who might otherwise peel off to their own ventures. IBM can offer these risk-takers something most startups can't: a safety net. When EBOs fail, the teams don't lose their jobs. IBM can learn from the mistakes, absorb the relatively small financial and morale losses, and move on.

But again, the "from the top" model requires something that few museum staff have: authority. And while they may receive less press, the more typical path for skunkworks is grassroots. An ambitious staff member goes to a manager and says, "I have this crazy great idea." The manager affirms the crazy-greatness of it--and its non-viability within the corporate structure. But instead of the conversation ending there, the staff member says, "here's how I think I could do this." They set a small budget, decide how much time the staff member (and any others) can devote to it, and the person goes at it.

We've all done this at some point--worked on something on the side and then presented it to hopefully delighted managers. But it's more powerful when the organization has a way to support these kinds of activities, so the renegades feel institutionally connected and the quiet geniuses feel motivated to come forward. It also lets people propose things that are outside of their own departments.

Another way to look at this is as an R&D arm for the museum. I met recently with some folks from an experience design firm who frequently do short 6-8 week research projects in fields outside their expertise. This summer, they're building a museum exhibit. There's no client, no cash. They don't see it as a waste of time to try these new things--they see it as a controlled way to explore new industries, technologies, and application of their skills. And they put some of their best people, not their interns, onto these projects. It's a way to have their leaders moving forward instead of spending all their time managing others.

Ok, you might say. But why do I need to put these people in a separate room and let them ignore the accounting forms? Doesn't that fracture our overall institutional culture? Can't we innovate into our current systems?

Yes. But it will be wrenching institutional change, or it will be wrenching institutional lack of change. It will not be nimble. It will not be controlled chaos.

Consider this anecdote. A few years ago, I worked at a museum that held a $1000 contest to come up with a great new advertising idea. I won with a suggestion ripped from The Mystery Spot--give out free bumper stickers as people leave, and watch them spread the brand around town. I was given a check, and the marketing department was given the idea. Nothing happened. Zero bumper stickers made. If they had given me the $1000 to start my own bumper sticker campaign--heck, $250 would have been sufficient--I could have designed a sticker, had it printed, and started handing them out. Instead, a new idea got passed through the standard channels and went nowhere. It had executive-level support, but it didn't fit into the schedules and standard way things were typically done, so it couldn't be done.

It can be painful and scary to try to change your core services. It's hard to try a "whole new approach" to exhibits, programs, fundraising, etc. while the train is moving. Rather than wishing on visionary directors or out-of-the-way places, we can use skunkworks models to support our own mini-visionaries in the nooks and crannies of the institutions we already have.

What do you think? Can you imagine your institution supporting a skunkworks project? Can you see yourself suggesting one? If you could start your own tiny universe to innovate one thing in a museum, what would you do?

8 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Nina, I think you are absolutely right about the need for creative play, for experimentation, for internal skunkworks. (All ideas that were popularized by defense contractors and government research but seems to have lived on in the Bay Area despite being buried in other places.)

However, everything you've said requires a culture that allows this to happen. And that comes from the top. So yes, these are bottom up projects, but like your bumper sticker, it goes nowhere if the top won't listen to the bottom.

My first job out of school was for a data company in Charlottesville, during our new employee orientation our CEO told a story about how he was the CFO at a major S&L in the 1980s. And yet, he couldn't make any decisions. He was paid handsomely, had the fancy title, but ultimately his recommendations were repeatedly ignored (that S&L was one of the major disasters that began the S&L crisis too). He was emphatic that if ANYONE in the company didn't feel they had the opportunity to effect change, to make decisions and act upon them, that they needed to see him. That wasn't the culture he wanted to create. It was very flatly organized and he didn't want managers pulling rank over subordinates. So right there in the new employee orientation, the CEO laid out the guiding principle for innovation at that company. But it came from the top, even if the ideas came from the bottom.

Nina Simon said...

I agree, Christopher, that overall institutional culture plays a big role. But I think skunkworks are the kinds of projects that could happen in small pockets. A manager could earmark $500 for special projects, or a young employee could suggest that he or she spend a few hours a week on something off the beaten path.

In this way, I think museums could pursue experiments in social media, new kinds of labels, etc., without it requiring a zillion meetings. A sort of institutional ok on the kinds of things people already do in secret (or in their dreams).

Anonymous said...

Speaking of building stuff from the ground up... I saw something that said Corbis was building a museum?!?! Anyone heard anything on this?!


Milt said...

Museum Skunkworks efforts occur in many variations, sometimes even unplanned and unanticipated. A personal project of mine, http://www.prattarmyairfield.com , became a major area of interest and project for the local Historical Museum in Pratt Kansas. My website compliments their floor exhibit as well as encourages visitation to our local Museum. Inquiries from across the US have been received from those who served and trained on the first B-29's in WW II.

Unknown said...

What if museums followed Google's lead and adopted the 20% rule? Let employees work on their dream projects but then bring those projects to the larger collective and let the staff at large vote to see which ones get further attention/funding.

More on the 20% rule from wikipedia

"Innovation time off
As an interesting motivation technique (usually called Innovation Time Off), all Google engineers are encouraged to spend 20% of their work time (one day per week) on projects that interest them. Some of Google's newer services, such as Gmail, Google News, Orkut, and AdSense originated from these independent endeavors.[74] In a talk at Stanford University, Marissa Mayer, Google's Vice President of Search Products and User Experience, stated that her analysis showed that half of the new product launches originated from the 20% time.[75]"

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post! I am just beginning to formulate an idea for our local museum, which is in the process of building a new, much larger and more comprehensive facility. No one on staff currently has any experience in digital media -- a huge missed opportunity. I want to begin creating a "Digital Interpretive Media Center," and I think this skunkworks paradigm is just the ticket to get it started.

Anonymous said...

Skunkworks is a great idea. Reading your article made me rethink my own position in my institution. You could says I'm my own one person skunkworks. I'm the first exhibit designer on staff in a place where exhibits aren't their main focus. So pretty much everything I do and come up with is new and a bit of an experiment. The only down side would be the stress, since my "skunkworks" directly impacts the institution. Not much of a safety net.

Anonymous said...

Again, an excellent analysis of the problem. (and ideas getting lost somewhere in the institutional bureaucracy is a BIG problem)