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Photo by vladeb on Flickr.

by • 18 Dec, 2012 • InspirationComments (6)4631

Scaling skunkworks projects in museums: radical innovation and sustainable business

One of the (two?) heavily-debated topics at last week’s Sharing is Caring conference in Copenhagen was on how to organise teams to spur innovation. (The other, which I might reflect on in a future post as I have done in the past, on that not every position in a 21st century museum needs a PhD as the best candidate.)

In the keynote in conversation with Shelley Bernstein of the Brooklyn Museum I expressed my belief in small teams working on a tight schedule, limited budget and in relative freedom from organisational politics on huge challenges. A lot of the really worthwhile projects in museum innovation I know of have been achieved in similar situations and it’s certainly the way I like to work. Michael Edson of the Smithsonian quickly replied:

Certainly, there are risks with such projects, but I disagree with Michael that these projects don’t scale. At night, during dinner, (watch out: namedropping!) Lene Krogh Jeppesen, innovator at the Danish Ministry of Taxation, Sarah Giersing of Copenhagen Museum, Jacob Wang of the National Museet and others continued the discussion. Are skunkworks projects scalable and if so: how do we both spur radical innovation and create sustainable businesses?

Fortunately, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book Antifragiledebatable as it is, thankfully – gives some insights in the origins of innovation and provides me with counter arguments to Michael’s tweet.

First, before we talk about skunkworks projects or ‘steering committees for innovation’ (don’t really exist), I think we need to decide we really urgently need to change. This sounds obvious, maybe, but I don’t think many of us quite grasp the immensity of the challenges that lie ahead of us in this century as cultural institutions. I sometimes feel we’re like pigs on our way to the slaughterhouse halfheartedly talking about escaping. Time is running out.

Secondly, if we’ve agreed we really need radical change and innovation, we need to think about whether we can achieve this with ambitious vision statements and working groups and horizontal brainstorming sessions. Obviously not, or many of the recently launched projects by larger institutions wouldn’t have been so boringly cliche. Closer at home, in our Digital Engagement Framework workshops, the best and most visionary ideas I’ve come across in the past year were epiphanies under pressure, not the outcome of our structured process.

Which leads me to 3: Are radical innovation and sustainable business even opposites on the same spectrum? The (obvious) answer: no. Our workshops create sustainable processes that allow for skunkworks projects to succeed. Skunkworks projects don’t have to be scalable; the mere fact they’re happening results in sustainable change.

In his aforementioned book, Taleb argues for the idea of “antifragility”. Antifragil stuff gets stronger because of the fragility of its parts. Nature, for instance, is antifragile, as are airlines (every plane crash makes other planes safer). An organisation becomes antifragile (that is: truly sustainable, even if all funding is cut, the building is taken hostage and visitors decide not to come anymore) when it allows parts of it to be very fragile. These parts could be relatively isolated projects looking for new ways of doing business, such as the skunkworks projects described in this post. (This, by the way, is everything you need to know about the book.)

If a skunkworks project succeeds (and even if it fails), its lessons, inspiration and ideas need to be shared with the organisation, not the project itself. Not the project or way of working, but the ideas and energy created are scalable. This seems like standard practice if you consider the sheer amount of museum conferences where people talk about isolated projects to share its lessons with the wider community.

Internal conferences about lessons learned and mistakes made (with free lunch) therefore aren’t a bad idea to scale innovative ideas. Nor is a “scalability expert”, a person in the organisation who makes sure people share not only knowledge and information, but also ideas and inspiration. You could very well be such a person. Apart from an open mind, I think the only needed skills are that you easily make friends with everyone.

This way, while the institution  steadily continues with its daily business, a bunch of radicals can push boundaries and discover the future, which then slowly feed back into the organisation. Radical innovation is a part of sustainable business, also in museums.

Photo by vladeb on Flickr.

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  • Linda Norris

    I’m slow to this post, Jasper, but so, so, so helpful as Rainey Tisdale and I are working on our museums and creativity book.  Skunkworks and scalability has been a puzzle and this helps to clarify for me.  I’m intrigued about the idea of a scalability expert!   Thanks, as always, for making me think further….

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  • mp_edson

    Jasper, 

    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to revisit the subject of skunkworks and scale. I’m very focused this year on the topic of scale–what it is, how it works, and why GLAMs (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) need to question their old assumptions about how big an impact they could have in the world. It’s a complicated topic: there’s so much I don’t know (the list seems to grow every day), and so much I think I know, only to find that my knowledge is superficial. This post of yours motivated me to examine my assumptions about the risks and benefits of skunkworks – – to do some more reading and thinking on the topic – – and I am grateful for that.

    The premise of your post is that skunkworks projects do, in fact, scale. Not only is this contrary to all the research I’ve been able to find but it contradicts advice you gave from the stage at Sharing is Caring, where you emphatically stated that no-one should be excluded from innovation and problem solving in museum organizations. 

    Furthermore, I’ve studied your post for evidence to support the claim that skunkworks scale and I can’t find any. None. It’s all conjecture. There’s not even anecdotal evidence. This would be OK in the easy style of exploratory blogging, but you’re going against a large body of research and thoughtful observation, and you’re giving people advice about how to do their jobs, how to lead their teams, how to spend public funds and fulfill the missions of their institutions: A higher level of proof is required. 

    I’ve done some homework on this subject and written an article called “Skunkworks and Scale” which I’ve posted as a Google Doc at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Ena4LefZKgJIGbWorRmUgflp6ZOYgYX1VOzfiN0w83Q/

    This quote is typical of what I found:

    “Aggressive skunkworks and incubators often are not the right approaches for most companies; they do not offer innovation salvation and, in fact, tend to bring a host of new and serious challenges for a firm’s core businesses.”
    – – from Create Competitive Advantage with Innovation, 2011, page 12

    The document is open to comments, and I hope you and your readers find it useful. I learned a lot putting it together.

    – – Mike

  • Hi Mike,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Although I’m not sure my premise is that Skunkworks _projects_ scale, but rather Skunkworks _ideas_ (tested and proven in projects), I agree with your question for evidence to back this up. I don’t know of any well-documented cases from our sector, but one of my favourite (well-documented cases, although in Dutch, so you’ll need Google translate) is KLM:

    http://www.marketingfacts.nl/berichten/van-social-media-naar-social-business-de-best-practice-van-klm
    http://www.marketingfacts.nl/berichten/thecase12-klm-van-social-media-naar-social-business1

    You’ll be able to find much more on it if you Google, but the bottom-line is that a rather unplanned, but successful response of a small team to a crisis managed to introduce new concepts to the organisation and cause a large organisation to think and act differently.

    In a similar way you could see the acquisition of small start-ups by bigger companies (for their staff, their technology, their ideas) as a similar concept. True innovation is brought along in a small team and then a bigger entity uses this to move forward. Facebook’s changes in how to deal with images after having bought Instagram comes to mind (although this might have been more about the potential of the people than about actual innovation).

    I agree we have to be careful in this discussion as things can be misunderstood easily. I sincerely doubt, however, the problem with radical innovation for most organisations is “radical”. I strongly feel the problem is “innovation” in the first place. I’m curious about the proof that large bureaucratic institutions bring along real change in steering committees, which – as far as I know from literature and experience – is maybe even rarer than successful skunkworks projects and the opposite of what you’re asking me to proof.

    I’ll continue the discussion in your Google Docs, hopefully if I can add something valuable.

    Best!
    Jasper

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