Enabling a Culture of Innovation

Another day, another grand day out – this time to speak at the Risk and Reward: Enabling a Culture of Innovation conference organised by Oxford Museums Partnership at the glorious Pitt Rivers Museum/Museum of Natural History and to hear a fantastic suite of innovation stories, many involving Universities.

Having secured the after-coffee-mid-afternoon-graveyard slot it seemed sensible to ensure some energy in the room through a game of Better Business Bingo – and I’m delighted to say that the fabulous group of delegates came up with some brilliant ideas to improve our beloved (and entirely fictional) Bugsley Museum and secure a more sustainable future for its important collection of military widgets. The point being, of course, that creating an environment of playfulness and fun is one of the important things that leaders can do to create a culture of innovation in their organisations. It was a point that reverberated through several of the presentations.
I was also there to fly the flag for the South East Museum Development Programme and museum development generally – a valuable source of support, ideas and seed-funding for innovation that not all museums make the most of!
After a thoughtful opening message from convenor Lucy Shaw @LVShaw, first up was Paul Smith @museumsmithery, Director of our host Museum of Natural History, who shared his personal viewpoint as a leader, responsible for enabling a culture of innovation in a University museum. Paul shared a series of case studies from the delightful 2015 ‘Dodo Roadshow’ a successful profile-raising exercise that went from conception to completion in 22 days with a total budget of £3,000 – to a series of significant exhibitions experimenting with new ways of connecting contemporary science and society. Start small, make the most of the assets you already have (in their case a van, a dodo, enthusiastic staff and warm links with museums from Land’s End to John O’Groats) and don’t assume senior staff have all the best ideas. Be playful, to get ideas flowing but don’t neglect the need for serious, useable data to underpin decision making and evaluation. Paul’s personal leadership journey has required him to dig deep, to maintain energy and momentum, and to be resilient in resolving problems when experimentation goes wrong. Which it sometimes will if you are trying new still. Paul and his team try to keep these occasions to a minimum by identifying a ‘risk envelope’ – an area of unexplored potential for new activity but within manageable risk parameters. How do you identify that risk envelope? By knowing your operating environment really well – that calls on data, data, data again.
Next speaker was Liz Hide @themuseumofliz who shared a fascinating series of stories from her experience of facilitating the cross-disciplinary University of Cambridge museum consortium. Original support from the former MLA and more recently the carrot of MPM funding and encouragement from Arts Council England have created the environment for museums that in the past had minimal contact to work together at a strategic level to create a joined up cultural offer. This level of collaboration doesn’t just happen and Liz set out the menu of joint activities that have progressively deepened the partnership and enriched its outputs: joint programming; capacity building (e.g. creating shared posts); organisational development (creating networks and communication mechanisms; collective audience/non-user research; partnership and workforce development. Through this thought-through, strategic approach the museums now, together, have a much stronger voice in the locality’s cultural sector and are creating projects and opportunities that benefit a wider range of cultural partnerships. Lovely stuff.
We then had a great example of smart use of a national investment mechanism from outside the cultural sector to drive innovation. Alice Purkiss @alicepurk is a Knowledge Transfer Partnership Associate, funded by AHRC to enable knowledge exchange between University of Oxford and the National Trust. Alice presented jointly with Oliver Cox, Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the University. They gave examples of how partnership is helping to channel the deep understanding of academic research to be shared with staff, volunteers and visitors to historic properties and landscapes, enriching audience engagement and understanding. It was fascinating to hear how much work is involved in enabling the two disciplines of ‘academic’ and ‘curator’ to talk to one another. To the average museum visitor or non-visitor the academic historian and museum curator may appear much of a muchness. But Alice and Oliver have discovered, through their work with curators and academics, that these two groups often feel that they come from very different worlds and speak different languages. Fortunately, through initiatives like the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, Knowledge Exchange, Share AcademyOxford University Museum Partnership and a number of Museum Development-facilitated Higher Education/Museum link-ups there are plenty of valuable ‘Babel fish’ being created and shared to smooth communications. This was possibly the presentation that prompted the most heated discussion. How diverse are the perspectives when two not-so-dissimilar worlds meet? Do collaborations with people we get on with offer as much grit for our oysters as dialogues with people we don’t get on with? How can we expand the diversity of voices, to prompt more innovation?
After lunch, Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust’s Director of Operations Traci Dix-Williams @dix_traci gave a very real picture of the leadership graft involved in nurturing a culture in which volunteers and staff are empowered to innovate. In a gloriously visual presentation, The examples of workforce engagement initiatives Traci shared included: a project to involve people in making the organisation’s vision statement clearer and more concise; smart use of support from West Midlands Bridge organisation Arts Connect to bring creative practice into the organisation, communication days involving the whole workforce and campaigns raising the profile of customer service. Traci’s presentation showed just why it’s worth organisations investing in leadership development as she acknowledged the Oxford Cultural Leaders Programme as the source of many of the approaches and techniques that she has implemented with her teams.
Next up were Rachel MacFarlane @MacfRachel, Projects Development Officer at Colchester and Ipswich Museums and Scott Collins, Museum Trainee, talking about the Arts Council England Museum Resilience-funded Training Museum. What a great way to invest in a future workforce more representative of the community the museum serves. As well as learning a strong range of skills (both museum-specific and transferable) the trainees are clearly making strong networks, contributing valuable capability, capacity and insight to the museums and having a great time. Many of the trainees had not previously considered museums as a career. They are now actively involved in communicating the idea of working in the sector to school students, through meeting school groups in the museums and going back to their own schools to make presentations.
The next presentation was also about an exciting workforce development project, this time Jo-Anne Sutherland of Heritec Limited on the Erasmus+-funded Creative Museum involving partners in seven European countries in enriching museum practice by expanding professionals’ sphere of experience through links with other sectors – including creatives, universities, hackers, grassroots groups and makers. Making this kind of thing work well means: connecting activity strongly to your core purpose, says Jo-Anne – who are you doing it for and why?; opening up to explore new friendships, partnerships and funding streams; be brave and persistent; prototype and learn from mistakes. Discussion of the challenges of European funding bids that followed this presentation gave me a welcome opportunity to plug the useful EU funding ‘top tips’ and ‘jargon buster’ that we’ve recently commissioned through one of our projects.
After the break it was my turn and I was delighted to find that in spite of a very filling lunch the promise of chocolate worked its magic as an incentive to creativity. As well as introducing a creativity matrix as a simple tool to involve people in generating ideas that address a museum’s key challenges and maximise its assets and opportunities, through my session I showcased just a few of the great examples of how museums in the South East have used our support programmes as a springboard to experiment, innovate and take risk. I specifically mentioned the Hampshire Cultural Trust museums that took part in our Lean Systems Thinking project, the Mary Rose Museum’s current Young Museums Shapers project and the Bloxham Museum’s use of a Development Grant to introduce low energy LED lighting to its displays. Loads more case studies on our website. Of course I also took the opportunity to promote our Business Innovation Grants scheme, which museums to experiment and take risks to create new business services and products, drawing on learning from an approach developed at Oxford University Museums Partnership.
One of the innovation approaches I’d included in my creativity matrix was ‘fresh eyes’ and the final speaker, Elvin Turner of DPA, @elvinturner came from outside our museum/University bubble to share valuable approaches from the world of business, in particular the idea of ‘Minimal Viable Product’ drawn from the Lean Startup suite of methods. He showed how Sony has been using MVPs to test new ideas in low-cost experiments. Keeping the experiments quick and cheap and extracting the maximum learning from them means risk is reduced, senior decision maker confidence maximised and more staff are able to get involved in developing innovations. For Sony, low-cost means doing pilots that cost £500 instead of £50,000 but the same idea can be scaled for the skint museums sector – by asking yourself ‘what can you learn for £50?’Elvin also referenced the powerful Business Model Canvas by Osterwalder and Pigneur that also informs the very useful report by we’ve just published on how museums can learn from other arts organisations.
One of the recurring motifs was about evaluation. How can you measure the success of your innovations? So now I’m curious to see how the event organisers will evaluate this energising event? What new things will happen down the line, because we were part of this conversation?
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