by • 18 Dec, 2012 • InspirationComments (6)10411

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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