Tag Archives: Bruce Wyman

Looking for leadership is a wicked problem

Identifying the kinds of leaders who will push the museum sector into new kinds of technologically mediated experiences is not a technology problem, it’s a cultural problem – a wicked problem – that can’t be planned away, or addressed by a white paper. The way to address it is to make new kinds of museum experiences, with new people at the table, along with current practitioners and museum leaders. And the people who will make them will have something bigger to say than just “We should use these new digital technologies! They’re great!” Their vision and message will naturally encompass these tools, and older, more traditional ones.

Looking for leaders who “get” new technologies is what social scientists call a “wicked problem.” I first ran into the term at the New Media Consortium retreat, and it has stayed in my brain, and not just because it sounds mellifluous to my New England ears. It is a useful way to look at a lot of things going on in the field.

Aussies asking questions

As examples; Seb Chan recently posted a pithy little provocation on museums making the shift to digital collecting. I suggest you check it out, particularly the comments. I don’t know how much I agree with it, but it’s thought-provoking, particularly since he sees the problem of digital technology adoption not as a technology problem, but as a cultural problem. Integrating the digital is a messy problem, with lots of issues intertwined with it. I especially liked his construction of the ‘buildings & exhibitions vs platforms & media’ continuum, as a way to think about ways forward.

This is to me, related to Suse Cairns musings on technologists, the state of museum leadership, and what the next generation of museum leaders needs to know. Now there’s a thorny problem. I lived through the whole “We need museums to act more like businesses” era, with its attendant rush to turn directors into CEOs and rash of executives with “real-world” experience brought in to fix our systemic problems. I certainly don’t want us to do that again, only this time with technologists, whatever that term means. So how do we untangle this wicked problem? [extra credit if you can explain why the museum space is so full of interesting Australian thinkers.]

Wicked problems require different kinds of solutions

It’s worth looking at how wicked problems are dealt with. Janet Carding from ROM tweeted a link to a piece Jon Kolko wrote for the Stanford Social Innovation Review called “Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving” that defines wicked problems nicely. In short,

“A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.”

What is particularly useful to this discussion is his conception of how one deals with these problems,

“These problems can be mitigated through the process of design, which is an intellectual approach that emphasizes empathy, abductive reasoning (otherwise known as guesswork), and rapid prototyping.”

This is a design problem, not an intellectual exercise, or a philosophical debate. How do we create something that results in leaders who “get” digital technologies? Note Kolko doesn’t say one can solve wicked problems like this, rather, they are “mitigated”. When it comes to leadership and innovation, I’m not sure one can ever expect to find leaders who know everything and are up to speed on whatever the new thing is.

Empathy, guesswork, and rapid prototyping. Not a bunch of usual suspects in a conference room. Not an outside expert. Not another plan. One of my favorite moments of the NMC retreat was Larry Johnson’s line, “Our strategic planning is based on a world that no longer exists.” Amen, brother. This may be why I still quote Ted Forbes’ mantra, “Do it now. Do the best you can. Do it better tomorrow.” And now that Max Anderson and Rob Stein have joined him at the Dallas Museum of Art, I can’t wait to see what “better” looks like.

You need new people around to generate really new ideas

Mia Ridge posted a great round up from last year’s MCN conference that included a gem from Bruce Wyman, “current visitors most frequently give *incremental* ideas. You need different folk to take those great leaps forward. That’s us.” Another way of saying it I’ve often used is, “If Henry Ford had asked his customers what they wanted, none of them would’ve said ‘An automobile!’ They ask for a better horse, because that’s what they knew.” Substitute “visitors” for “customers” and you can get a sense of hard it makes it to bring digital experiences in from the cold if you treat them as a normal kind of problem.

But if you were instead to treat this lack of understanding like a wicked problem and look at other ways of addressing it? One candidate might be something like a co-creation process, a process that brings unusual suspects together with museum teams.

Be in it together

At the Museum of Science, we’re currently developing a new permanent exhibition on the nature of technology, and trying to figure out a co-creation model that will get us the kind of exhibition we wouldn’t be able to/willing to/comfortable with making by ourselves. Designing the design process is incredibly hard work, and fraught with all kinds of peril that we can all clearly see. Just the learning curve involved in getting outside parties to understand what we do could be a full-time job, but the benefits, if we get it right, should allow us to do something both new, and more connected to communities who believe in the museum.

Stefan Stern wrote a great piece in the Harvard Business Review about co-creation and how it differs from other ways of developing new things. “Co-creators look for the rejecters, the extreme users, the hackers, and the bloggers. If they have a design or marketing background, all the better.” The article profiles one UK-based company’s methods for co-creating that are business-focused, but worth looking at. They include:

  • Have an open mind, and be creative about whom you bring in as a possible co-creator.
  • Co-creation works best when you build a strong community.
  • When you’re running co-creation workshops, don’t expect a big “a-ha” moment when the clouds part and somebody blurts out The Next Big Thing. The real art is in synthesizing all the ideas afterwards and understanding the big, unlooked-for themes that underpin them.
  • Get your top people involved in the workshops.
  • Prototype, prototype, prototype. Make your ideas real. Then break them and make them again.

The part that resonated for me personally was the importance of having top people involved. How many directors do you know who use social media tools? I can only think of three: Max Anderson, Nina Simon, and Janet Carding, and I know at least two of them used them before they were directors. How many museum directors, or even assistant/deputy/associate directors have you ever seen at a tech-themed gathering like MCN, Museums and the Web, or even tech-oriented sessions at AAM or other mainstream conferences?

This “preaching to the choir” lament is a constant refrain at conferences, but how many of us currently interested in these issues have ever invited or even discussed the issues with a leader, or said, “You should really go to ____. It’s a great conference and you’ll learn a ton.” I know have been guilty of that. The appeal of flying below the radar is tactically unquestionable, but I think in the long run it may be strategically untenable.

Have something to say

I’ve been writing a lot about vision recently, so I’ll refrain from repeating myself too much, other than to end with another provocation and a question. Alain de Botton recently had an editorial posted on the (UK) Museums Association site called, “Art museums have become pointless: they should learn from Christianity.” He doesn’t mean that museums should become mouthpieces for Christianity. Rather, he thinks museums have forgotten their message about what’s important, which is what religion excels at. He is speaking specifically about art museums, but I think his point applies to the whole sector.

“Try to imagine what would happen if modern secular museums took the example of churches more seriously. What if they too decided that art had a specific purpose – to make us a bit more sane, or slightly good or once in a while or a little wiser and kinder – and tried to use the art in their possession to prompt us to be so?”

“The challenge is to rewrite the agendas for our art museums so that collections can begin to serve the needs of psychology as effectively as, for centuries, they served those of theology. Curators should attempt to put aside their deep-seated fears of instrumentalism and once in a while co-opt works of art to an ambition of helping us to get through life.”

Part of that new agenda and ambition could be written in new ways with new technologies, but the technologies themselves aren’t much use as communication media without something worth communicating. Those leaders with something to communicate will find ways to get their message out using every channel at their disposal. I’ve written already about vision and desire, but ambition is a better word. Finding them and holding them up is the hard part, the heart of the wicked problem.

So another thing that seems like a technology issue turns into a people issue. That may be another theme for 2012. And the only thing I can see that might help unwinding some of the threads of this wicked problem is to do more open projects, do them with unusual folks, do them in broad daylight, and make sure your directors can see you, maybe even be part of the process.

Related Links:

Seb Chan – Museums making the shift to digital collecting

Suse Cairns – Can a technologist get ahead in museums?

Mia Ridge – Report from ‘What’s the point of a museum website’ at MCN2011

Stefan Stern – A Co-creation Primer

Alain de Botton – Museums Association

[3/13/2012 - made minor edits for clarity and to sound a little less self-important.]

UPDATE: Rob Stein’s Museums and the Web 2012 paper is also a good read on tech and admin. Get it here.


UPDATE 3/22/12: Danny Birchall posted a great example of how co-creation can look in his description of developing the Wellcome Collection’s “Axon” game with neuroscientists, museum professionals and game designers.

Replies to “Dealing with your cognitive load” – Part four of four

This is the last of four posts summarizing replies to the question I posed about how people cope with the vast amounts of information coming at them.  In the first part, I described some strategies people use for managing information intake. The second post looked at how people store information. The third covered separating inspiration from information.

Thanks to the generosity of you all, I was able to share all kinds of strategies that you can use to think about how you manage the information coming at you via the Internet. However, none of them have any value if you never have time to use them. So this last post is going to be about personal professional development and how vital it is to museum professionals in this newish century.

Make is part of the schedule

calendar from Flickr user Jeremy Toeman

The best way I’ve found to make time to learn is to not treat it like a nice thing to do if you’ve got time.  It’s important, so put it on your calendar. Kate Tinsworth says, “I do set aside every other Tues morning from 9-11 for my whole team to read. Read whatever—I read blogs and articles online, but the others read more traditional evaluation journals, mostly. That time being designated helps a lot.” At my museum, Christine Reich has the Research and Evaluation department hold regular monthly professional development meetings, and everybody in the department is in charge of running one meeting.

I spend the beginning of each work day scanning my social media feeds like Twitter and LinkedIn, and browsing my RSS feeds for interesting nuggets. Thanks to suggestions from Jasper Visser and Kate Haley Goldman, I’ve also gone back to actually looking more deeply at a very few sites I like that usually get me thinking.  I find that making it a regular part of my day helps me keep abreast of things and keep it from getting out of control. My undirected web surfing seems to have gone down since I started being more directed.  Thanks to Bruce Wyman for nudging me to give RSS another go.

This blog is also part of my regular professional development. Making myself step outside the the daily grind and trying to synthesize what I experience going on in my work and consulting projects has been a great way to keep my thinking fresh and to crystallize half-formed thoughts. It’s a blessing.

Get out and talk to people

from Flickr user elthenerd

You may recall that in Part One, Nancy Proctor surprised me by saying she prefers phone calls over email for anything substantive. Kate Haley Goldman remarked on how conversations stay with her longer than other kinds of communications. Kate Tinsworth seconded that idea, saying, “I find that much of what sticks for me still comes from those (human conversations) too… be it at a conference or other opportunities to actually meet up.” I was talking to Nina Simon about conferences recently, and when I expressed my reservations about AAM, she seemed surprised. “I love AAM, because everybody I want to talk to is there in one place. I can have breakfast with Elaine, lunch with Kathy…” After that, I started casting my mind around for other highly-efficient museum professionals (or dare I say it, “thought leaders.” No, I daren’t…) they all share that drive to have high-quality interactions.

It may seem like a no-brainer that voice communication, or even better, face to face communication, is the highest bandwidth medium we currently have, but it is surprising to me how often people (myself included) will opt for a lower-quality method of communication. Probably the best thing I’ve done in this regard has been to emcee a monthly meetup for techie museum folks in Greater Boston.  It’s a broad, open group. We get managers, developers, teachers, vendors, students.  It’s different every month thus far, and it’s like a little bit of conference-going on a Thursday night. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you can’t find one in your area, consider it an opportunity for you to step up and make some connections.

Save things for down times

Waiting at the station from Flickr user domesticat

Another way to make more time for yourself is to be more efficient about the time you already spend on routine tasks. I am great faffer.  Ask anybody who’s ever shared an office with me. But I’m trying to be better…

When I first started talking about this idea with Nancy Proctor, she scheduled our phone call during her walk to work. She also aggregates informational meetings with colleagues into regular 2-hour “meet-ups” instead of a zillion individual meetings. Somebody at Museums and the Web 2011 said the killer app for mobiles was that they were a way to “kill time while waiting for the bus.” I don’t know who said this, though I vaguely recall it being Seb Chan. (If you know, tell me. I hate misattributing quotes).  Kate Tinsworth downloads documents to read on her tablet when she’s not doing anything.  I’m excited to look at my schedule and see what undiscovered efficiencies are lurking out there.

Take charge of your professional development

Carpe Diem by Flickr user Darcy Moore

All of the strategies listed above have one thing in common. They don’t require anything aside from your own desire to learn.  As someone who has worked in a large institution for most of my professional career, it’s easy to succumb to the mindset of waiting for permission to do anything.  This is especially true of old-school “professional development.” There are forms to be completed, signatures to be garnered, and justifications to be gathered before any learning happens.  But in the current climate, waiting for anything seems like a recipe for getting left behind.  This is particularly true in exhibits, where new media and modalities (like mobiles) are promising to shake up the status quo. And when mobiles are old hat and everybody has augmented reality, there will be something else new.

One of my favorite parts of Rob Stein’s talk at the Tate Handheld conference last Fall was his use of the image of a bridge to symbolize how we deal with new technologies in museums. We have, in the past, tended to view new disruptive technologies as obstacles to overcome. There on the other side waits a land of peace and technological harmony. All we have to do to cross that bridge is… wait for Netscape and IE to duke it out, or wait for Java to save us, or  adopt HTML 5, or pick Android or iOS or web apps… The list never ends and Rob brilliantly  demonstrated the fallacy of the bridge metaphor. The reality is that we never reach the end. There is no place of stability where we can make a leisurely, fully-informed decision. So how do you keep abreast?

There’s a great post (actually several if you poke around) from Beth Kanter on personal professional development. You could also look at Harold Jarche’s model of networked learning for more technologically-oriented ways to think about your own learning.  I like them both, because they’re well-linked and can take you to a slew of other resources.  It’s worth being serious about.  I’m on the Advisory Board for this year’s Horizon Report, Museums Edition, and of all the technologies being considered, I don’t think a single one existed when I was in college.  And even if I’d graduated five years ago, I’d still have missed a healthy proportion of them.  So even if you’re fresh out of school, your expertise is aging pretty fast. And nowadays you have to contend with a yearly crop of freshly-minted museum studies MAs, with newer skills and lower salary requirements than you. The greatest benefit I find to taking responsibility for your own development is that it gives focus to your thinking.  I find a topic I’m interested in, and suddenly I see connections to it all over the place.  It focuses my information consumption and acts like a filter to help decide what *not* to consume.  And isn’t that a relief? Yes, it is.

Thanks for sticking it out this long. The next post will be a much shorter (I promise!) one listing the changes I’ve made to my routine based on this and a recap of what tools people use and how. It should be interesting.

Replies to “Dealing with your cognitive load” – Part two of four

This is the second of four posts summarizing replies to the question I posed about how people cope with the vast amounts of information coming at them.  In the first part, I described some strategies people use for managing information intake. This post will look at how people store information. The last two posts will cover separating inspiration from information, and the importance of making time to learn.

Storing stuff

The reason to go looking for information is so that you find information. Once you’ve found it, though, how do you keep track of it, store it, or tag it so that you can retrieve it later when you want it? As a digital Cro Magnon, I can’t help feeling that I don’t really have it, unless it’s on my drive in some form, where I can access it whenever, regardless of connectivity.  Call me old-fashioned… This leads to some strange behaviors on my part.

Storing PDFs

Reference collections from OSU Archives

I do a lot of research and often find things online that might be useful someday, but not immediately.  And the Web being a fickle medium, you can’t always rely on that article or review still being where it was six months or a year ago.  So PDFs get downloaded and sucked into my Mendeley reference manager. It’s a fabulous way to organize your documents, and generate bibliographies. And it’s got some great social features I keep meaning to use but never do… For webpages, I tend to capture local copies using Readability to strip out all the chaff and leave me the content. That then gets turned into a PDF and goes into Mendeley with the original URL so I can get back to it if needed. Kate Haley-Goldman will put research or even researchy stuff in Zotero or Endnote. If it’s more personal she keeps it in Evernote. She keeps meaning to make better use of Mendeley, but…

Storing links

"A man checks Twitter on an iPhone" by Flickr user stevegarfield

What about links? Twitter provides me with the vast majority of leads to pertinent information. I tend to favorite links that look interesting so I can circle back to them when I have time and check them out.  I also use Tweestream to archive all my tweets and give them back to me as a spreadsheet. I’ve never actually opened that archive, but knowing it’s there makes me feel better.  Tweetstream also provides you with interesting metrics on your Twitter usage which I glance at, but rarely engage deeply with. If I was in business for myself, then knowing who’s retweeting my stuff most often might seem more urgent. Kate Haley Goldman marks things she finds interesting on Twitter and on rare occasions actually goes back and looks at batches of things she’s marked, bookmarking the pieces she’ll want to see again.

Nancy Proctor loves wikis. If you’ve looked at any of her work, you’ll wind up on one her wikis. She captures the #mtogo hashtag to the MuseumMobile wiki as her way of hanging onto information of interest.  Bruce Wyman uses a third party service that listens to his Twitter feed and automatically captures any of his tweets with a URL into del.icio.us, so he has a permanent record of the things that he found interesting. And in general, his take on storing links seems to be broadly shared.

“As for general URLs and link mgmt tools (including del.icio.us), I rarely actually use them. MY general assumption is that if I need something again that it’s likely I can re-Google for it and saving links creates a cleanup headache and categorization activity that I just don’t have time for.”

Storing files

"Stored documents" by Flickr user profkaren


Lori Phillips, obviously more of a digital native than me, keeps a separate Google Doc for each of her main areas of research interest, where she posts her thoughts, chunks from emails, and links to blogs and articles that relate to the concept. That way she can keep everything all in one place, and also direct co-workers to it when necessary.

Kathleen Tinworth uses Dropbox for most of her personal and consulting file storage and sharing.  It’s not the most secure place, but it’s darned convenient.  My lovely and talented wife also uses Dropbox a great deal with her school teacher colleagues, both a way to share documents effectively and to get around some of the shenanigans that public school IT departments make users go through in the name of “securityiness.” I’ve used both Dropbox and Box.net for consulting jobs and am sold on their utility, especially when there are big files, like floorplans or label proofs that need to be distributed. Being me, though, I of course download everything and maintain a separate copy of everything on my hard drive. Just in case. ;-)

from the Powerhouse Museum's Flickr collection

An interesting practice that Kathleen brought up was using dication software for capturing ideas when you can’t write them down.  When I first got my iPhone I used to take voice memos while I walked to and from work.  It was great at first, but the act of going back and listening and transcribing them got to be a drag.  Kathleen uses Dragon dictation. The free iPhone app is actually pretty decent and it’s a quick way to capture things in real-time.

Storing images

by Flickr user clickykbd

Flickr. ‘Nuff said. Everyone uses it, it seems.

Next up, separating inspiration from information, and then some thoughts about making time to learn. Thanks to all of you who responded. I’m adding things to my repertoire!