Risky Business

Risk is a word that gets bandied around a lot when talking about organisational change and/or innovation. He who dares wins, and all that. Management Consultant, Peter Drucker, summed it up nicely when he wrote that to do something new, you have to stop doing something old. This naturally brings Tarzan to mind, swinging from vine to vine across the jungle. To grab the next vine he has to let go of the current one; there will be a brief moment when he is holding onto neither and it could end badly. In that moment, there is very little security and quite a bit of faith required that it will all turn out okay. Human nature being what it is, we want the new vine and strive for it, but at the same time, we don’t want to risk losing what we currently have. This is often expressed as, ‘I want things to be different, as long as I don’t have to change anything’. If Tarzan did this and doggedly stuck to one vine, his swinging momentum would gradually slow, each arc slightly smaller than the last, until eventually he’d just be a clingy bloke in a loincloth, stranded high above the ground. No-one wants that. Ironically, avoiding change is often riskier than chancing the unknown.

It’s also worth putting risk into perspective, as it means very different things in different fields. For many people in the world, getting basic needs met, such as finding food and shelter, is risky. In healthcare, the ability to assess risk can save or lose lives. In museums, the risk can range from a programme failing to find an audience, to damaging the brand and losing funding. When I was working in a previous role, and the office was getting stressy, a wonderful ex-colleague used to say, ‘Well, at least you’re not up a tree giving birth in a flood’. Can’t argue with that, and it always served to take the heat out of the moment. Our fears around risk must sound totally disproportionate to those outside the museum sector, which is worth remembering when we’re all disappearing into our own navels. Perceived risk is not the same thing as actual risk. Do the risks that we take in programming involve real jeopardy or are we just over-thinking it and getting in our own way?

 

To ensure consistency when I was collecting information during my research trip to the US, I worked with ImaginationLancaster to develop a set of interview questions and accompanying templates. One of these templates was a project-mapping matrix, where interviewees (museum educators/learning staff) identified two ‘tried and tested’ examples of programming and two ‘innovative’ examples of programming, and then plotted them on a graph. I left the X axis blank so that the interviewee could place their four projects along a spectrum that was of particular relevance to them. For the Y axis, however, I had a scale from low risk to high risk and asked each interviewee to define what that meant to them in relation to their programmes. The following factors were quoted as being high risk:

  • targeting new and unestablished audiences;
  • investing time and money in new approaches;
  • new partnerships with artists and practitioners;
  • doing something that hasn’t been done before;
  • being unable to predict the results and outcomes;
  • injury to a person or damage to an artwork;
  • reputational damage to the organisation, threatening funding;
  • challenging perceptions and being of public value.

Low risk, not surprisingly, was felt to be the opposite; working in familiar territory and delivering programmes that have been done before with existing audiences. There was a very clear division between the known quantity (the current vine) being low risk and the unknown potential (the next vine) being high risk. However, more than one interviewee thought of low risk as boring and ‘safe’ programming; it might be keeping the donors happy, but it’s not doing anything to move the programme forward. Consequently, this felt like a high risk position to be in, because the programme would become increasingly redundant and irrelevant. One interviewee observed that the risk tends to lie in the implementation of the programme, not the ideas themselves. A new idea isn’t necessarily risky, but there will be challenges in delivering it successfully.

project-mapping-image

I was struck by the interviewees’ highly skillful ability to make informed guesses and calculate risk. The unknown is embraced on a daily basis, but not recklessly. Planning, research and experience give their experimental programmes the best chance of success AND they work in organisational cultures that accept the occasional failure as a vital aspect of innovation (which also lowers the risk). These Tarzans aren’t swinging through the jungle blind-folded, but are highly attuned to their environment.

In case you were wondering, the X axes included the following:

  • From low tech to high tech;
  • From closely related to unrelated to the exhibition programme;
  • From simple to complex in execution;
  • From information driven (educational) to socially driven;
  • From ‘museum world’ to ‘rest of the world’;
  • From creative to not creative;
  • From ‘on brand’ to ‘off brand’.

And finally, if you’d like to show your support for my blog in the UK Blog Awards, you have until the 19th December to cast your vote – please go to http://blogawardsuk.co.uk/ukba2017/entries/kiwi-loose-museums  and thank you!

 

Header Image: http://classiccinemaimages.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Johnny-Weissmuller-as-Tarzan-in-Tarzan-the-Ape-Man-1932.jpg 

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