Innovation: no need for a revolution

Black Country Living Museum
Black Country Living Museum

Too often, innovation is seen as synonymous with risk and upheaval but it can also be achieved through incremental change and by working within a museum’s existing zone of activity

The term ‘innovation’ summons images of risk-taking, breaking with tradition or some other form of transgression, which is why many of us react with caution when encouraged to embrace it.

But while thinking outside the box is no bad thing, there may be plenty of scope for innovating while staying happily within its boundaries. The assumption that, in order to implement radical change you may take a hit – in finances, reputation, visitor numbers – is not necessarily an accurate one.

When Oxford Museum of Natural History decided to take to the road with one of its greatest treasures, the dodo, in response to the I Love Museums campaign in 2015, the calculus of risk was very small.

The idea, born from a staff brainstorming session, was to visit as many museums as possible from Land’s End to John O’Groats and at each one, the dodo would have a ‘conversation’ with an iconic object. With social media documenting the dodo’s exploits, it attracted major publicity and brought more venues on board. By the time it concluded, three weeks later, the dodo had waddled into 25 museums.

It took just three weeks from the table discussion to the project launch and total cost was only £3,000, says director Paul Smith.

“Innovation and risk-taking have been linked together so you can’t do one without the other but I dispute that,” he says. “The dodo project was creative, lively, dynamic but we would have lost nothing, financially or reputation-wise, had it not taken off. I would have spent that amount of money on a team-building exercise.”

The risk envelope

Smith’s theory is that there is much that museums can do which is innovative and creative while staying safely within the limits of their current activity – what he calls the ‘risk envelope’.

“Museums have a typical range of activity, the things that they always do, but outside of that circle there is empty activity space, what we might call creative space. The further you go away from the typical activity, the more risky one might say it becomes because you might begin to engage in activity that, if it fails, could have, for example, financial implications.

“But if you know the landscape in which you operate, which means knowing your data, financial, visitor figures, non-attenders and so on, which you would collect anyway, then it’s possible to know the boundaries of the risk envelope. And then you know how close up to the edge of that envelope you can push without taking any risks at all.”

Museums can go further from their typical activity in some directions than others before encountering real risk, he says, and has created a diagram to illustrate his theory.

In one direction, you hit the boundary quite quickly. In the other, you can go a long way creatively without taking any risk at all.

“That’s where you have the most freedom to operate and you can do a huge amount in that space and, I would argue, that that’s where we have been operating without taking a single risk – with the objects, the finances or the institution’s reputation,” he says.

“It’s decoupling risk-taking from innovation, that’s the thing that allows one to have the most creative freedom. The two are not synonymous.”

Kaizen – small but continuous improvement

Consultant Hilary Barnard, who with Ruth Lesirge runs leadership training for AIM, agrees that the notion of innovation as largely disruptive is unhelpful. He points to success stories like the Team GB cycling squads whose 2012 and 2016 Olympic triumphs have been built on marginal gains – small focused improvements which, cumulatively, produce the winning performance.

The approach is inspired by Kaizen, the Japanese concept of small but continuous improvement which helped the country to rebuild its car industry after World War II, and it has lessons for museum leaders in how to improve without enforcing dramatic change.

“A lot of the voices around innovation are powerful advocates for radical innovation,” says Barnard. “And radical innovation, by which we understand something brand new or a new way of delivering something like services, has its place but in percentage terms the amount of innovation which will fall in that category is actually quite small.

“Kaizen is about taking small steps of improvement. The notion that you take a small step then breathe a huge sigh because you won’t now have to do anything for a long time is not what we are talking about with incremental. It is the ability to be continually moving things on.”

The small improvements may not be an end in themselves either but can enable an institution or organisation to build the essential resilience, over time, to ride the waves of change, he adds.

Bringing staff on board

Change on any scale is notoriously difficult and near impossible without the commitment of staff but because innovation is linked to risk in people’s minds, it can sound daunting and provoke resistance, subtle if not open.

A good tactic is to identify potential innovators early on, says Paul Smith. And banish any notion that senior staff have the monopoly on good ideas.

“There is an equal probability of good ideas coming from any member and your job as a leader is to see and steer those ideas and be flexible as well. When I arrived here I sat down with every staff member and tried to get a feel of what makes them tick, as every leader would do. The trick then was giving staff the space to operate and letting them know that they were operating in that space with my encouragement and authority so that they were empowered

“It is about creating the atmosphere that people are free to come up with good ideas and making clear it’s very likely that we’ll just run with it if we get a good idea.”

Don’t let impoverished skillsets be a terminator of innovation, he adds. “Make sure that all staff for whom it is relevant are fully skilled up in terms of digital delivery so they can embrace new technology. Experiment but don’t be afraid to drop it either – don’t be an early adopter for the sake of it. Evaluate rigorously.”

Exploiting existing resources

At Gilbert White’s House and the Oates Collections in Selborne, Hampshire, housed in the family home of the celebrated naturalist and author of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, director Steve Green and his wife and co-director Judith Bowles have introduced major changes, including developing the site as a wedding venue, turning a horse-box into a mobile catering van and staging dog shows. But one of their most significant innovations bears out the theory that innovation is entirely possible within your existing sphere of activity and with existing resources.

“We were stunned to find that hardly any naturalists come here,” says Green, who took over in 2015. “I know experts who can quote from White’s book but didn’t know the place existed, so we have started an annual Nature Day to celebrate his pioneering work and look at research being done in conservation now.”

The event is a collaboration with a range of conservation NGOs, including local heritage organisations, the RSPB, South Downs National Park, and the Natural History Museum, some of whom have been brought on board thanks to the museum’s previously under-used trustees.

“Here, as elsewhere, people are stretched and doing something new requires a lot of work,” says Green. “The trustees and their networks are effectively additional resources we can use to give people here the support at the level that they need it.”

Green, like Smith, talks about the need to empower people as key to nurturing innovation, especially if they have become set in a role and struggle to think how to introduce new ideas or find new ways to tackle old problems.

“We try to liberate people to think differently and give them the ability to make mistakes,” he says. “So we agree a plan or project with managers and a budget target, then let them get on and do it and let us know if there are problems. We make them feel we are here to help them and not to make their lives difficult.”

None of this rules out the possibility of the big idea or transformational change – some institutions benefit from being shaken up, for good reasons. But it does indicate that museums can gain just as much from looking closely at what’s going on inside the box as they can from thinking outside it.