Innovation: it's defined by your org chart

So how can those of us working in museums begin to make this shift happen toward a more human-centered mindset?  In order to become social organizations that achieve positive impact in their communities, museums need to be rethinking their internal organization structures.  Most museums rely on deeply ingrained, top-down structures that rely on territorial thinking, defined protocols, and traditional reporting structures based on academic degrees, power, silos, division, and oppression.  In these traditional hierarchies, communication flows from the top to the bottom which means that “innovation stagnates, engagement suffers, and collaboration is virtually non-existent” (Jacob Morgan, “The 5 Types of Organizational Structures: Part 1, The Hierarchy,” Forbes, July 6, 2015).

Reading this fascinating article in Art Museum Teaching by Mike Murawski, I was reminded by something someone told me a while ago which always seemed to stick in my mind: brainstorming doesn’t work. What was significant about this was not just how entrenched the concept of brainstorming was in creative culture, but how to question it seemed almost out of sync with natural, logical progression. Surely the more minds the better, the more ideas the better?

I’ve lost count of the number of brainstorming sessions I’ve been through, but ever since this person told me that, I’ve noticed something: usually it’s one or two people, working together closely, who come up with the best ideas. And they are usually the ideas they began with, in some form or another. This isn’t too far away from the pejorative statement, “design by committee” or even, “too many cooks spoil the broth” (they inevitably do).

Just because everyone does something doesn’t mean they’re right. Actually challenging habits, traditions and the status quo can be extremely revealing – if you’re brave enough to follow through. So in Murawski’s article, questioning the hierarchies that museums have in place, and the excessive weight they and other cultural institutions put on protocol and process, makes sense to me. Top down structures and (what Murawski calls) territorial thinking is killing innovation, engagement and collaboration. Worse, it is stifling passion.

Humans are not perfect. Art arrives through imperfection, challenge, tension. Cultural organisations are resposible for empowering new ways of connecting with art, exploring the deeply human relationships with creativity. So the push for a more ‘human-centred’ mindset, as Murawski calls it in this article, I applaud. By being more ‘human-centric’, by risking, experimenting, and most importantly embracing challenging established ways of doing things, any organisation can become a petri-dish of ideas and innovation, and more importantly a breeding ground for talent.

Whilst I will always emphasise that change necessitates a strategy, I advocate anything that remains disruptive in forming that strategy – human failings, emotions, and passion included.

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