Thursday, October 29, 2009

Reflections on MuseumNext and Facilitating Brainstorming

Last week, Jim Richardson and I hosted MuseumNext, a 24-hour workshop for museum professionals focused on bringing new, wild museum projects into the world. It was held in Newcastle in the north of England, and about 70 folks from around the world (but mostly Europe) came to play, learn, make stuff, and help each other work out challenges inherent in trying to make risky ideas happen. Thank you to everyone who came and helped co-create an exciting experimental event in a beautiful city.

MuseumNext had four main sections:
  1. Interactive activities, including an opening workshop with a group of designers associated with an extremely wonderful exhibition called Doing it for the Kids featuring sustainable toy designs. Participants sewed sock aliens, injection-molded army men, constructed robots, and drew animals. We also ended the entire event with one of my favorite exercises, the Exquisite Corpse game, in which participants co-created comics of their craziest museum dreams.
  2. "Wild idea" sessions, featuring six dream projects, some already in motion, others firmly ensconsed in their creators' heads. Folks from the Utah Museum of Natural History, Worcester City Museum, Manchester Art Gallery, Centre for Life, Netherlands Architecture Institute, and the Knowledge Media Research Center (Germany) brought projects they wanted to make happen, and each worked with a group of about 10 other participants for about four hours over the course of the two days to work out plans and ideas to move the projects along. The projects ranged from activating a dead collection to developing a mystery game around a strange artifact to developing a hackerspace to planning for massive changes to institutions new and old. Click any link above to see the video from the initial pitch and final report from each group.
  3. Unconference sessions, featuring topics as diverse as "playing an ARG" (with real labyrinth adventures), "engaging visitors who were dragged to the museum," and "measuring and defining success in participatory projects." We only did two rounds of these, but they were very active and I think a lot of people were surprised to find them so useful even though they were organized on the spot.
  4. Facilitator bits. I gave an hour-long talk about participatory design practices (video here), and Jim gave a small tour of an exhibition he had organized nearby. We also had quite an extensive reporting-out session at the end with the Wild Idea session leaders sharing what they had learned and where they would go next. I was thrilled to frequently hear, "I started out thinking X, but my group convinced me Y."
To me, the greatest value of MuseumNext was the Wild Idea sessions, but they were also the component that I would most revise in a future incarnation of this kind of event. On the positive side, the Wild Idea sessions allowed people to do something that is usually very expensive: get outside perspectives and support on their projects. I was very interested in the way an event like this can effectively flip the standard model for brainstorming with outsiders; rather than each project leader paying individuals to come help work on their project, everyone paid to come and help each other. While the program still involved money and travel, to my eyes, it was much more efficient to bring together a large group of smart people, let them pick the projects they thought they could both contribute to and learn from, and then let them go at it. I'd like to see larger conferences incorporating an element like this--a structured opportunity for people to brainstorm with those who are outside their own personal networks.

That said, the phrase "structured opportunity" is where MuseumNext suffered most. While Jim and I explained clearly to Wild Idea proposers what they needed to do to submit their project for consideration before MuseumNext, we didn't give them enough support in actually facilitating their group brainstorming at the event. The groupwork was not easy; few participants knew each other or the institutions in question before showing up the first night. I realized too late that brainstorming with strangers is something I'm used to, but it's not inherent in the job descriptions of most museum collections managers, educators, and researchers who were leading the groups. Everyone worked hard and did do a fabulous job, but we had the typical problems with unbalanced participation, people getting confused or frustrated, and overall project time management.

And so I would like to offer a public apology for this, and to share with you some of the lessons of facilitating brainstorming that I have learned over many years of successful and not so successful workshops. I tried to help workshop leaders work some of these in on the fly, but that put unreasonable stress on them. I'm sorry. You did great.

To remedy this error, here are four things I've learned about facilitating brainstorming sessions. They sound obvious, but several took me years to figure out.
  1. Vary the activities. I like to incorporate talking, writing, and doing/making into workshops. This both breaks up the time and supports participants who feel most comfortable expressing themselves in different ways. By varying activities, you can involve everyone without putting quieter participants on the spot--instead, you find the activity where they shine. This started for me when I worked with a group that included some very vocal and very quiet folks - we used worksheets to balance out the skills and avoid always favoring the big talkers. And I'm a really active person, itchy if sitting too long, so I like to add in some physical exercises to get people moving (and, where reasonable, engaging with visitors). If you need a source for good activities, there's a world of training methodologies on the web.
  2. Give a schedule and list of target goals, even if you don't entirely stick to it. People like to feel that they are making progress, and if you can "check things off the list" as a group, it helps everyone stay focused and motivated.
  3. If you are working for several hours, slot it over two days. In my experience, one-day brainstorming sessions for new projects leave some people a bit uneasy because it moves so quickly. They feel like things are getting "decided" before they can really think things through. Sleeping on it often brings people back on day two focused, confident, and ready to work. At MuseumNext, we used this model, and while many people left on the first night in some form of despair, they were amazed at how everything came together on day two. I've seen this bear out in many kick-off meetings for projects, and that's why if you call me about a one-day workshop, I'll probably ask for two.
  4. Always start and end with something creative. This may reflect my bias towards doing, but I find that if you get people doing something a bit silly, they get out of normal patterns and hangups and are more willing to think broadly. Also, how people feel at the beginning and end of a workshop significantly impacts how they feel about the overall event. At MuseumNext, these creative bits were the design workshop and the Exquisite Corpse activity, but I've done everything from social games to zombie yoga (seriously).
What do you find helpful in facilitating brainstorming on new projects with diverse group members? If you were at MuseumNext, what else can you share about the event to help others understand what you got out of it?

2 comments, add yours!:

claire antrobus said...

I was at Museum Next and would like to thank Nina, Jim and the other participants for a very inspiring 24 hours.

To my surprise I enjoyed the 'un-conference' sessions - although I wasn't sure what to expect. They gave an opportunity to talk about an issue with other interested people without feeling like you had to be an 'expert' to contribute. We had some good discussions - to be continued!

I was in one of the smaller groups for the Wild Ideas and I wonder how size determines the time you need - we covered lots of ground and the discussion was very successful. In fact, I would have liked to tried out another 'wild idea' with another group too.

The only thing I would liked to do differently was more/better opportunities for networking - it would have been nice to have found out more about the other delegates but we ran out of time.

NIna - your presentation was a great summary of the issues and had some useful examples - I've encouraged a few of my colleagues to take a look.

Hope there's going to be another event soon - I know several other people who'd love to come along.

Ian Simmons said...

I had to duck out of day 2 due to a migraine alas, but thought the event was really great, fortunately my colleague Andy Lloyd picked up my sessions and we got really good stuff about Hackerspaces sorted, however, next time maybe don't do such intensive stuff so late in the evening, I found it quite a strain and it may have triggered the headache