Museum Innovation: Risk, Experimentation and New Ideas

RobStein.jpgHow can the museum itself become a living laboratory of innovation? Robert Stein, Deputy Director of the Dallas Museum of Art, on how to bootstrap innovation in museums

Innovation is an elusive elixir. While innovation promises a cure for our ailments, finding it consistently is harder than it might seem. What does it take to instill confidence and experimentation among staff in the museum? How can the museum itself become a living laboratory of innovation?

Creating a culture in the museum that embraces risk is a prerequisite to allow significant innovation to take hold. Recognize that by attempting innovation you expose yourself to risk. The freedom to innovate can only happen when museum leaders remove the stigma of failure from the process. Instead, celebrate failure as a badge of honor and a key component needed to break old models and embrace innovation.

A common pitfall for museums is an unhealthy addiction to monumental undertakings. When massive projects loom with ties to outside support and countless staff hours invested in a single deliverable, it becomes very difficult to admit the possibility of failure. As a result, we shy away from risk, mitigate the probability of embarrassment, and crush innovation in the process.

Instead, encourage innovation by setting smaller, but still ambitious milestones. What is the smallest achievement that is still compelling? A series of small, but interesting wins are fertile ground for innovation and, in aggregate, create a resilient momentum that can’t be stalled by intermittent failures.

It’s foolish to think that something as valuable as innovation can be achieved for free. While I don’t believe you can buy innovation, you can invest in it. Gather together a small pot of money to use as a seed for experimentation in your museum. Give staff the freedom, permission, and a small bit of cash to try new things even if you think they’ll never work. 

In addition to cash, invest consistent time with staff for an open discussion of experiments they are attempting. The excuse to bounce ideas off each other can be a hotbed for problem solving, building team spirit, and seeding new ideas for innovation. Time more than money holds us back from break-through solutions to tough problems. An over-burdened team is seldom a creative one. Find ways to create space by choosing to do less. It’s easier said than done, but this single action can do more for innovation in your museum than almost any other.

Robert Stein, Deputy Director of the Dallas Museum of Art