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Risk and Reward: Enabling a Culture of Innovation

24 June 16 -- Anonymous
Risk and Reward photo of the day

The need for cultural organisations to be entrepreneurial is a subject we are passionate about at the Oxford University Museums Partnership. Adaptability in the face of change and the ability to think outside the box on a range of issues from fundraising to organisational structure can help the sector to evolve in a fast-changing environment.

Risk and Reward: Enabling a Culture of Innovation, the latest in our Oxford Cultural Leaders series of events, was designed to encourage participants to think about all the ways they can encourage innovation in their organisations. On 10th June, more than 35 colleagues from the sector joined us at the Pitt Rivers Museum to share and discuss the different ways their organisations have sought to embrace risk.

Paul Smith, the Director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, opened the day by saying that being innovative is not  about taking risks at all – it’s about understanding where the boundaries of acceptable risk lie. 

Using case studies of the museum’s award-winning Dodo Roadshow and recent exhibitions including Biosense, Handwritten in Stone, Bees (and the odd wasp) in my Bonnet and Microsculpture, Paul emphasised the benefits of collaboration with colleagues across disciplines to achieve truly innovative results. These case studies emphasised the idea that museums should be dynamic and fun places not only for visitors but for staff as well.  By empowering staff, who are already engaged and invested in the organisation’s work to put forward their ideas, the whole team can contribute to new thinking, ideas and ways of working. 

“If you value innovation, create headroom by top slicing your budgets. Although it will be painful it will reap great rewards.” Paul Smith, Director, Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Liz Hide, Museums Officer at the University of Cambridge, drew on examples from their work, demonstrating that by building on existing ideas, such as Twilight at the Museum, they were able to mitigate the level of risk involved. The concept of starting small and building up to larger projects as an effective way to manage risk-taking and sustain innovation was touched on by several of our speakers throughout the day. Like Paul, Liz was keen to emphasise the importance of engaging staff in developing inventive programming and that by using a cross-disciplinary approach museums are better able to appeal to more diverse audiences.

Oliver Cox, Knowledge Exchange Fellow, TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities) and Alice Purkiss, Knowledge Transfer Partnership Associate, TORCH and the National Trust, began their session by asking participants the question: what stops you and your organisation from commissioning or undertaking research? 

After quickly drawing up a long list Oliver discussed his work on the Thames Valley Country House Partnerships and how by bringing in different types of expertise these partners are working towards a culture of collaboration.

“Great collaboration starts at the personal level and by learning the language of the organisation.” Dr Oliver Cox, Knowledge Exchange Fellow, TORCH

Alice explained how the Knowledge Transfer Partnership is creating connections across the country between the National Trust’s landscapes and properties and how they hope to soon expand these connections to people and collections. The use of crowdsourcing within the academic community to develop these connections has allowed for flexibility in the project which in turn has opened up training opportunities for staff. Alice finished her presentation with a key challenge for participants to take away with them and apply to their own projects: how can we tangibly measure impact in a way that does not rely solely on financial benchmarks?

After lunch Traci Dix-Williams, Director of Operations at Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, spoke about Ironbridge’s approach to involve its staff in creative engagement with developing its offer such as its Communication Days. Here staff members come together to share ideas and feedback their thoughts on how the organisation is performing and where it should be heading. Traci explained that the action itself doesn’t have to be innovative but the act of taking action can be; finding the time in busy schedules to take a step away and think outside the box is always challenging.

Customer service is Ironbridge’s top KPI and to keep this in the minds of the team they hold a Customer Service Week which is designed to highlight excellent work by staff. Traci feels strongly that staff members are the route to success and gave us one of the best quotes of the day,

“If you want creative people, let them play,” Traci Dix- Williams, Director of Operations, Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust

Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service launched The Training Museum, a workforce transformation programme, in 2015. Rachel MacFarlane, Projects Development Officer, Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service was joined by some of the trainees from the programme and we were lucky to be able to hear from Scott Collins about his experience of the programme. Scott gave a great presentation on life as a trainee and explained what he felt were the benefits of being able to join different areas of the service almost daily. Take a few minutes to watch their video.

Rachel explained how the trainee programme has been beneficial to the trainees and the museum which has been able to make the most of young and dynamic additions to the team. The desire to diversify the workforce has led to the idea of the trainees revisiting their old schools to encourage the younger children to consider a career in cultural heritage. Rachel pointed out that more work needs to be done to educate young people about career choices in the sector. How will they know what roles are available if they never see them in action?

Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe, Director of Heritec Limited came to speak to us on behalf of the Creative Museum Project. The project works with partners all over the world including Croatia, Finland, France, Italy, Ireland, Norway and the UK. It aims to use new open-source technologies to form and strengthen connections between cultural organisations and to use these technologies to promote greater public engagement. This project encourages its partners to take innovative risks and to experiment. The benefits of partnership working means all the partners get to share in the learning outcomes from these experiments as well as developing methodologies and resources. Jo-Anne wanted delegates to consider how each new innovation relates to their organisation’s core purpose as without a solid understanding of why you are taking on a new challenge the chances of success are reduced. Jo-Anne supported this with the idea that, although it can be difficult, it is ok to fail as long as we can learn from the experience for next time.

A quick break followed Jo-Anne’s presentation and Lucy Marder, Cultural Partnerships Officer for the South East Museum Development Programme opened the last session of the day. Lucy was keen for the participants to learn one handy innovation tool and practice using it to generate ideas using the fictional Bugsley Museum as an interactive case study. In a session structured as a game with a chocolate prize, we experienced how creating a sense of playfulness and fun in the workplace can help leaders to nurture a culture of innovation. The creative matrix Lucy gave to our delegates helped them to consider different forms of real innovation. Lucy encouraged everyone to have a go at creating their own matrix and to visit the South East Museum Development Programme website for more resources You can also see Lucy’s blog about the day here

To close the day, Elvin Turner, Director of Organisational and People Innovation at DPA, shared the example of how Sony Music implemented a global innovation culture programme to enable its leaders to create and sustain a culture of disruptive innovation. Elvin recommended the book, The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries for ideas on how to invest a little to learn a lot. Listen to Eric talk about the key ideas in his book.

Elvin’s point that ideas are laden with assumptions about why it will succeed linked back to Rachel MacFarlane’s comment that it is important to identify why you are embarking on a project, and what those assumptions are that matter the most, and to focus on these as the project is taken forward. The value of data was another key point in Elvin’s talk. Data builds confidence and reduces the fear of failure helping you to adapt your idea as necessary to achieve success. He asked delegates to consider what the smallest thing they can do is to validate if their idea is good and to take these little steps towards building something that can have real impact on their organisation.

We were very lucky to have such a wonderful range of speakers with us at the conference and would like to thank each of them for sharing their time and expertise. We came away with a host of new ideas and hope that our delegates did too. We’ll be holding the next event in our Oxford Cultural Leaders series in October. Keep an eye on the events page for more details.