Monday, June 22, 2009

What Makes an Innovative Idea Actionable?

What do you do when you encounter a really great and unusual idea, one that you could implement but would require you to change some aspect of what you are currently doing? Do you jump in or do you shelve it? And what distinguishes the former from the latter?

Recently, I've been wrestling a lot with the relationship between innovation and impact. I'm working on a personal project (slowly) to open a cafe/bar venue that is also a design incubator for participatory exhibits. My goals are two-fold: to develop a dynamic, creative, social platform for my community and to distribute its successful elements to other civic learning institutions (museums, libraries, community centers). The further this moves towards reality, the more I'm focusing on how I'm going to serve the people walking in the door and the less I'm thinking about my colleagues. My strategy is: make it work really well, research what works and doesn't, and share the design lessons with the world. If the venue is successful and we share our honest results, won't others want to adopt some of our practices?

Maybe not. I was recently discussing this project with an audience research specialist, Peter Linett, who is working on a related project to encourage experimentation and risk-taking in museum practice. Whereas I'm taking the "make it as awesome as possible and they will pay attention and want to steal the ideas" approach, Peter is trying very deliberately to create a structure that supports participation from diverse museum professionals and museum venues from the very beginning. My model is the shining star. His is the virus.

Which has more impact on your actual daily practice? I draw design lessons from outside models all the time, so "creative thievery" approach feels natural to me. There's a whole section of this blog called Unusual Projects and Influences. Whether it's an online game like Signtific, a tutoring center like 826 Valencia, or an educational event like Living Library, my engineer brain wants to figure out what makes these innovative projects tick and then tinker with those design lessons in my own work.

But I also remember the first time I participated in a RIG (Rapid Idea Generation) session with Julie Bowen, then of the Ontario Science Centre, at a conference in 2004. Julie got about 25 of us incredibly excited about their innovative three-dimensional brainstorming process. We loved it. And then at the end, when she asked how many of us could do this in our own museums, no hands went up. We all felt like the process was too alien to our work environments, too hard to sell, too hard to integrate. We saw that it was brilliant, but we weren't willing or able to make the changes so we could use it.

So that's one big reason innovations don't get integrated: they are just too foreign to our standard practices and work environments. That's an internal barrier--something about ourselves and the way our teams approach new ideas. But Peter pointed out an external barrier I hadn't anticipated: some innovations just don't feel "museumy" enough. Get a few museum exhibit designers talking about their favorite museums and some serious outliers like the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the City Museum will pop up high on the list. And yet, as Peter pointed out to me, if we love those unusual standouts so much, why don't more museums adopt elements of their practice? Peter commented,
I did hear from several people that the museum folks who loved visiting the City Museum when they were in St. Louis were quick to add, 'It's not a museum.' These categorical objections operate on assumptions that aren't really examined, and not just about educational values or the status of objects, but also about the personality and tone that define museums in some minds.
I was somewhat surprised by this. I'd always thought that museums didn't adopt more of the fabulous outlier work because it wasn't decoded in an understandable and actionable way. That's why I required my museum studies students to carefully document their Advice exhibition--so that the learning from that unusual project wouldn't be lost and could be applied in other places.

But Peter suggested that places and projects that are fundamentally not "museum-like" will not have impact on traditional museums. This worries me because the implication is that no matter how successful my venue is at connecting strangers in creative and intellectual play, museum professionals will look at it and say, "that's nice, but it isn't a museum."

The further I go on my own personal design process, the less I care about this issue. I'm enjoying designing a place that I think is going to be successful and a hell of a lot of fun. I realize that it is presumptuous and a little silly to worry about field-wide impact. But I want to keep grappling with this problem, because my ultimate goal IS to make existing institutions more dynamic, relevant, and audience-centered. I'm not interested in creating a whole new set of institutions to replace or compete with the old ones. But I do want to start by pushing from the outside where the ground rules and constraints are different. I want to make a well-documented model to serve as an engine of new physical ideas.

I imagine that many of you who read this blog are interested in outside models for innovation in museums. What does an outside model have to have for you to be willing to take a risk and make some internal changes? Do you need research? Ticket sales reports? Does it need to take place in a venue similar to yours? How can I (or anyone) design a project that is both maddeningly challenging and incredibly useful?

8 comments, add yours!:

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan Spock said...

Seems to me most museums put a higher value on continuity than the inevitable disjunction innovation requires. This is partly why museums stick around so long compared to businesses. But, I'm actually glad the inspirations remain rare and relatively uncopied, otherwise they would just seem commonplace and, I don't know...mediocre? Doesn't good stuff stand out only because it contrasts with run-of-the-mill?

In my limited experience, there are always plenty of cool, if not always innovative, ideas around. The things lacking are the sheer persistence to work through all of the problems engendered by the ideas, and the ego strengths necessary to embrace a spirit of optimizing an idea over making my idea the only idea worth doing.

I'm not really a big fan of innovation for its own sake. In each case, there has to be a compelling reason. When people sit around trying to be innovative for reasons of personal frustration, it too often pulls away from the important stuff -- serving museumgoers in particular -- and can lead to a vortical, inward-thinking malaise. I think innovation gets propelled quite naturally by some problem to be solved or in response to an opportunity that presents itself. Defining the problem or opportunity is half the battle, then a long period of iterative gruntwork. Loving something passionately seems to have something to do with it, with the endurance required.

I think museum people do well to keep the focus on the public in all things. People go to museums hoping to have their head turned around a bit, to encounter something different, get a new take, escape the routine. Try hard to serve, the innovation will follow.

J. Baird said...

A very interesting topic. I tend to prefer treating the environments I want my idea implemented in as a limiting factor. For example, when I designed the comic project, I specifically made it as simple as possible so that others and myself could bring it to as many venues as possible.

Games are a great example here. On one hand, you have Magic the Gathering, with thousands of different cards and strategies. Great stuff, but not everyone can shell out the money to afford all the really neat items. Then there are simple card games, like Fluxx. One deck and that's all you need to play.

While Magic the Gathering is very innovative in how it approaches game mechanics involving cards, it's Fluxx that will be bought more widely because of it's simplicity.

To sum it up, I'd say "elegance" and "simplicity" are two very strong factors in whether an innovation is adopted broadly.

Dan Spock said...

I totally agree w/Create a Comic project re: simplicity and elegance. Some innovations are inherently adaptible, like the kind of video capture feedback devices that record visitor opinons or comments, with tweaks they can be extrapolated to other purposes because they kind of take the place of the old comment book standby.

I think game formats are similar, the time-honored scavenger hunts, or contests, etc., the rule frameworks and, in some instances, the technology can be put to different subjects and filled out with unique purpose made content.

Then there are the things that seem more obviously to be one-offs. I remember that when we developed a mutli-story multimedia elevator ride show called the Flour Tower, it invloved making a show control system talk with a freight elevator control. Someone suggested that we patent or license it. But the technology only really made sense in that particular context: dramatizing working life in a large multi-story flour mill. Making an elevator-based ride outside of the context of an actual historic site seems expensively gratuitous in the extreme.

So elegance might be defined as a solution/innovation well-suited to the task, hence "actionable", not merely something done for the sake of it, because you can or because the technology makes something possible.

Nina Simon said...

Some very common objects and experiences, like card games or elevators, become innovative when applied in unusual situations. Some of the projects that bring me the most delight are those that have taken "an old idea" and stuck it somewhere new.

We make fun of the way that appliances get mashed together--the toaster/clock/shoe shiners of the world. And yet I love the pirate store/tutoring center and the art museum/shuffleboard court.

There are probably some true innovations that are literally new and indescribable in the context of familiar things. Maybe those ones will have the most ultimate impact but are the most challenging to push forward. In the meantime, I'm happy with a lot of unusual and exciting hybridization. Maybe that's one step down from innovation. That's ok with me.

Dan Spock said...

I worked on this project called the Museum of Creativity once. We were discussing the different levels of innovation comparing incremental adaptive innovation to paradigm shifts. Innovation of the adaptive sort tends to be almost inevitable. For example, once you have a steam engine, it won't be long before you adapt it to power a boat. Much tech innovation vis a vis museums seems to fall into this category. Once everyone uses a handheld device, it won't be long before museums use it to deliver content.

The other thing is inevitable convergences. A decade ago, you could look at your desk top and there might be half a dozen different peripherals and business machines. You had a printer, a scannner, a fax, a copier, back-up storage devices, a hub, an ethernet box, etc. It seemed obvious to me then that eventually these things were bound to wind up in the same box. Why would you want three separate paper scanning platens or three printing units if you could converge on just one? So now you have these combo units leaving more room on your desk for different clutter.

The smart phone is just the latest of these convergences. Who can't remember juggling a laptop, PDA, cell phone, wristwatch, GPS and music player? So now that these are combining, they're like fuel cell replacing internal combustion if the museum were a car. Certainly audio tour wands, but even most labels will, I think, begin to vanish. But interpretation will be revolutinized at the same time purely because a handheld can do so many more different things and our relationship to them is inherently different physically and cognitively. When you layer in gaming, things will get really interesting, for the public especially.

Anneleen said...

Der Nina,

Last Friday I was travelling by train in he northern part of he Netherlands, when I came up with a similar or maybe the Same idea of a coffee to go exhibition design. I figured it could be an interesting experiment, to combine both and add real and rapid choice to the concept of exhibiting. I stil nee ho think about it more, but I might start wit a try out in a project soon.
I really like your book. I also understand why it is difficult sometimes for institutions tot innovate. Fortunately some museums are trying tot really open up andere make this step ahead.
Kind regards, Anneleen

Anonymous said...

Dear Nina,

Last Friday I was travelling by train in he northern part of he Netherlands, when I came up with a similar or maybe the Same idea of a coffee to go exhibition design. I figured it could be an interesting experiment, to combine both and add real and rapid choice to the concept of exhibiting. I stil nee ho think about it more, but I might start wit a try out in a project soon.
I really like your book. I also understand why it is difficult sometimes for institutions tot innovate. Fortunately some museums are trying tot really open up andere make this step ahead.
Kind regards, Anneleen