Awe – and then some

I have a lot of time for awe. It’s one of those grand, old-fashioned emotions that seems to span millennia. Ennui and apathy strike me as far more contemporary emotions, but awe goes right back to the beginning. The ‘big three’ awe-inspirers are nature, religion and art. In their presence, we are humbled and the experience is overwhelming and uplifting. Over time, the power of awe has been devalued and an ‘awesome’ experience today could be just about anything. Comedian Eddie Izzard does a wonderful routine about the difference between the original use of the adjective and what it has become, when even hotdogs are described as awesome. So for the purposes of this post, let’s put the hotdogs to one side and focus on the fire-and-brimstone, breath-taking, transformative version of awe.

Like cathedrals before them, museums are designed to inspire awe. Traditionally, they’re big (which by comparison makes us small ), imposing and solid, built to last well beyond a human lifespan. The feeling of awe that I experience in large cathedrals and museums is more about the volume of space than the actual bricks and mortar. Liverpool Cathedral, for example, is quite plain compared with the standard gothic/baroque models, and yet it still inspires awe because it is just so unbelievably gigantic. I always marvel at how much space is contained within its walls. The Victorians were particularly good at awe-inspiring museum architecture – the Natural History Museum and the V&A, neighbours in South Kensington, are both immense structures that impress even before you’ve had the chance to discover all the treasures inside.

When I think about the sort of museum experiences that I want for audiences, I often talk or write about engagement, excitement, enjoyment, entitlement (so many e’s), curiosity, inspiration and – perhaps – wonder, but I can’t remember the last time I promoted awe. I don’t know why not, because I’ve seen countless people experience awe when confronted by an amazing painting, sculpture or gallery. The eyes widen, the jaw falls, and the whole face lights up. If they say anything, it’s usually a quiet ‘…woah…’ I love those moments, they are total catnip for museum educators. So why don’t we talk about awe more? Perhaps the religious connotations are too strong? Is it too worthy? Or does it feel presumptuous to proclaim ourselves awe-providers? (Although it doesn’t seem to stop us laying claim to being inspiration-providers.)

The University of California, Berkeley, has been conducting research into awe, looking at its evolutionary function and how it’s expressed in different cultures. Dacher Keltner is a psychology professor at Berkeley and has done extensive work in this field. His talk, ‘Why Awe is Such an Important Emotion’ and article, ‘Why Do We Feel Awe?’, are both fascinating. Keltner defines awe as the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world”. Perhaps not surprisingly, when we experience awe, our creative thinking opens up too. Berkeley studies have shown that “simply watching short videos of expansive images of the Earth leads people to come up with more original examples when asked to name items from a certain category (e.g., ‘furniture’), to find greater interest in abstract paintings, and to persist longer on difficult puzzles when compared with appropriate control conditions”.

What I hadn’t previously appreciated about awe is that it is a socially bonding experience. When we are in a state of awe, our self-interest is superseded by an interest in others, we become more altruistic, and the division between ‘us and them’ is lessened. Surely we could be making more of this attribute in museums. I have experienced this effect at music festivals and performances, but I haven’t felt particularly part of a collective experience with everyone else in the same museum. Perhaps that is because standard museum engagement is either alone, in pairs, or small groups. I looked after a yoga session in the V&A’s Raphael Gallery a couple of weeks ago and that was a pretty special experience. Perhaps it is through large-scale events at museums, where many people are all engaged in the same experience, that the effect takes hold?

The other thing I took from Keltner’s introduction was that awe can be a regular part of life. It’s not just about sunsets on mountaintops, it can also be about noticing the fall of light while walking through a park, or admiring a friend who has just accomplished a major challenge. According to their studies, on average we experience awe 2.5 times a week. (I wonder what half an awe looks like – a highly-anticipated sandwich that turns out to be a little bit disappointing perhaps?) In Keltner’s presentation, he draws attention to the differences between US and Chinese awe-inspiring moments. Ten percent of the US subjects’ experiences of awe were ABOUT THEMSELVES! This rate is 20% higher than their Chinese equivalents. It turns out that many moments of awe come from our admiration of others – their courage, generosity, wisdom and strength. This makes sense when I think about the collective awe that had the UK in its grip during the 2012 Olympics.

To finish, I want to share this short TED talk by Rob Legato, titled, The Art of Creating Awe. Legato shares some of the behind-the-scenes stories of creating the special effects for Apollo 13, Titanic and Hugo. He is also very funny.

IMAGE SOURCE: http://waitbutwhy.com/2013/08/creepy-kids-in-creepy-vintage-ads.html

Fewer Horsemen of Mediocrity, More Data Analytics

The Familiar, the Usual, and the Expected are the three mundane horsemen of mediocrity. Dressed head-to-toe in beige and taupe, these horrifying spectres have sensible haircuts, early bedtimes, and identical opinions. If it was up to them, nothing new or interesting would ever happen – it just isn’t worth the risk. Their counterpoints, on the other hand, bring the fun. The Unfamiliar, the Unusual and the Unexpected can be chaotic and destabilising – never leave them in charge of your home, your pets, or your plants. They are also highly energising and inventive, smashing ideas together like atoms and sparking fantastic creativity. Exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure, it’s never boring in their company. They are the gate-keepers to every great idea you want to have.

The importance of venturing ‘outside my comfort zone’ is a cliched truth that I know, then forget about, then remember again, in a seemingly endless cycle. I get sucked into the habits of routine without even noticing, overpowered by the horsemen of mediocrity and their paint-dryingly dull tales of commuter timetables and putting the bins out. Just before slipping into a tedium-induced coma, I either deliberately or accidentally shake up my routine, shake off the horsemen, and welcome in the excitement of doing something differently. Travel is the best way to do this, ideally to a country where I don’t speak the language. Absolutely everything in that situation, from the belief systems to the bus tickets, is compelling. I also like the strangeness of getting back to the UK and seeing my home through changed eyes. What felt like a pokey ex-council flat on my departure can feel like a mansion on my return. And then everyday life re-establishes itself, and that exciting window into otherness closes again.

I wish that the solution to stultifying routine could always be ‘go to South America’, but this isn’t practical on an arts sector salary. There are countless smaller ways to embrace the unfamiliar, unusual and unexpected, and the easiest place to start is by breaking routine (the web can provide you with plenty of ‘brain-training’ and ‘neurobic’ suggestions). It was with this aim in mind that I attended Nesta’s free, one-day event, City Data Analytics: The Art of the Possible. On arrival, I scanned the room, recognised no-one, and was handed a small orange booklet titled, Using data in government and public services: a practical guide. ‘Perfect’, I thought to myself, ‘this is just the experience I’m looking for’. It was a fascinating day, and not least because so much of it was new to me. I left feeling really inspired – my head was buzzing with the potential of applying this ‘data analytics’ thinking to museums, galleries, and arts education.

So here are some of the things I learned…

Data is not just about numbers; it can be utilised as a means of problem-solving, making the case for change, working across services more efficiently and effectively, and preventing problems before they arise (especially around crime and healthcare). For Nesta, ‘information – based on data – can be applied towards two primary goals… making better decisions… [and] enabling better actions.’ The private sector is all over data and uses it to powerful effect, by instilling a need in the customer and then providing the solution, at a cost of course. The public sector is playing catch up, and is currently  investing heavily in using data to improve services. However, there is still some way to go in building trust between services – some authorities feel self-conscious about the uneven and patchy quality of their existing data, and there are also sensitivities around consent and privacy when handling personal information. The point was also made that data doesn’t solve every problem – the first task is to establish whether it is the most appropriate tactic for addressing the issue at hand. It also isn’t necessary to centralise data when sharing across providers. Rather than merge everything into one lump, it seems to be more about making connections and layering different datasets to reveal hidden patterns. There are changes coming to General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) in 2018, the full impact of which I didn’t grasp, but it involves consent and the right to be forgotten (ie. to have one’s digital history erased). The ‘privacy impact assessment’ is a useful tool for checking that data usage remains on the right side of the law.

A particularly memorable example was shared by Pye Nyunt, Corporate Insight Hub Manager, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. There are 47 betting shops in the borough, and Pye walks past several of them every day in his commute between the train station and the town hall. Nyunt undertook a mapping exercise, layering the location of the betting shops, secondary schools (as children are a potential future market), the homes of adults with mental health issues, and a range of other categories to get a better understanding of their impact on the area. The bit about ‘kernel density proximations’ went over my head, but I tuned back in when Nyunt was talking about being able to identify hot spots in the borough and the knock-on effect for the community. He concluded that the council had an annual rental income of £300,000 from these betting shops, but the annual cost of addressing the negative consequences of gambling was closer to £800,000. In the words of another speaker at the event, data analytics move the conversation on from ‘I think this is a problem’ to ‘I know this is a problem’.

Katherine Rooney, City Innovation Project Manager for Open Data, Bristol City Council, shared wonderful examples of projects that are directly meeting community needs. Through consultation, it became clear that damp was a big issue across the city’s rental accommodation. To capture and understand the extent of the problem, and then identify a solution, tenants were given devices to record damp levels, with all of the information going back to Open Data for analysis. In an interesting twist, the devices were shaped like small green frogs. Using a friendly frog, instead of a personality-free black box, was a great way to get community buy-in (and the frogs generated possibly most questions at the event). Because this initiative was bottom-up instead of top-down, the level of take-up and community commitment was high. Rooney also shared the great example of Playable Cities, a community-driven initiative that turns Bristol into an enormous playground. Following a suggestion by a member of the public, one of the city’s steepest streets was turned into a huge water slide for the day.

Local authority councils across the country are investing serious resources into utilising data better. They take different names in different places – Office of Data Analytics, Insight Hub, Intelligence Approach, Open Data, Smart Cities – but the aim is the same. I don’t know which rock I’ve been perched on while all this has been happening. Perhaps I’m the last one to the party, but I haven’t heard of this growing asset being used in museums and galleries. Just think how that wealth of data could shape opinions on the value of the arts in the National Curriculum, or how it could help us prioritise communities for arts engagement, or even – the holy grail – measure the impact of local arts initiatives. (Do please get in touch if you have any examples.) If you want to dip your toe into a big dataset, check out the RSA’s Heritage Index, mapping heritage sites across the UK. Their 2016 update includes shipwrecks (!), ancient trees and war memorials, so there’s something for everyone.

As you can tell, I took a lot away from City Data Analytics: The Art of the Possible. It has given me an appetite for attending more events that have an oblique, rather than direct, connection with my work in art museum learning. The creative challenge of making links from their sector to mine was possibly the most mentally stimulating part of the day, and a whole world of new collaborations and ways of working has opened up. It should keep the horsemen at bay for a while…

 

Image from: http://www.myvintagelife.co.uk/sirdar-mans-classic-cardigan-knitting-pattern-2332b-1960s-4675-p.asp

Creative Ways of Exploring the Creative Process: Interview Two

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been sharing my experience of working with ImaginationLancaster to develop interview formats and associated tools, devised with the aim of better understanding the creative process of museum educators.  The first interview focussed on the individual and their personal approach to creativity; the second interview, which I’ll explore in more detail here, was all about collaboration and group dynamics, and how we nurture ideas from that initial spark to a fully-fledged programme.

No museum educator is an island – not even the ones working as solo learning specialists in their organisations. All new ideas must get bounced around like pinballs, ricocheting off colleagues, funders, partners, artists, and stakeholders, before being launched into the world. This process can go two ways – for better or worse. Some ideas end up subject to ‘mission drift’ by trying to be too many things to too many people. The result? All a bit soggy and no real impact.  However, when it goes well, the opposite occurs. Ideas can gain depth and richness through the input of other people’s perspectives. My best ideas have all started in pale sepia tones and only transitioned to full-blown technicolour after much discussion with many others.

In many ways, interview two was easier to conduct than interview one. In the first interview, museum educators were being asked to reflect on and articulate a process that is very personal and isn’t usually voiced. However, for the second interview, the same individuals were being asked to talk about their programmes and how they worked with others. These kind of questions are often asked of museum educators, whether for marketing, reporting or practice-sharing purposes, so the responses were, generally speaking, more readily available.

To start, I asked interviewees to bring to mind four examples of programming that they had a key role in shaping. I requested two examples of programmes that they felt to be ‘tried and tested’ (well established, popular and work well) and two examples that they considered ‘innovative’ (reflecting new approaches). One of the aims of my Churchill Fellowship was to identify innovations in learning programming, and I was curious to know how practitioners recognised this in their own work. In order to identify what made their innovative programmes distinctive or special, it was very useful to have the counterpoint of the ‘tried and tested’. Interestingly, some of the ‘tried and tested’ examples had started life as innovative programmes and, over time, had become a reliable staple as the museum educators gained confidence in, and familiarity with, how to deliver the programmes successfully. At this stage in the interview, I just wanted a nuts-and-bolts summary of each example, and asked interviewees not to offer any analysis of the creative aspects, because that bit was going to come later.

Next, I introduced the Project Mapping tool. This tool was a modified version of something that came from a previous piece of work with ImaginationLancaster. In 2015, I commissioned them to run a half-day workshop with my then team, Schools, Families and Young People (SFYP) in the Learning Department at the V&A. During our discussions around working practices and how we developed new ideas and programmes, one of the workshop facilitators observed two recurring dynamics – high vs. low risk, and reactive vs. proactive. Inspired by this, we marked out a matrix on a large sheet of paper, using these dynamics as X and Y axes, and then positioned our programmes in the relevant quadrants. It turns out that we perceive our work as being higher risk and more proactive than I realised, which was a reassuring discovery.

Project matrix image

When I was working with ImaginationLancaster the following year, we felt there was potential to use the matrix format again. I was very keen to keep risk on one of the axes, because it comes up so often when talking about innovation, creativity and change. I also wanted to have one consistent measure so that I could collect several different responses to risk in relation to programming. The X axis we kept blank to see what other dynamics would come up. We also wanted the matrix to have a degree of personalisation, so that the mapping would better reflect the circumstances of that particular organisation.  

When the Project Mapping Tool was introduced, the first task was to define what high and low risk meant to the interviewee, to make sure we were both talking about the same thing, and then to label the second axis. Once that was done, we numbered their four examples (1 & 2 = tried and tested, 3 & 4 = innovative) and then each one was positioned on the matrix. It was at this point that we reflected on the creative process and how it related to the chosen coordinates of each example. To read more about my findings from this part of the interview, please refer to my earlier post, Risky Business (12 Dec 2016).

For the final part of the interview, I asked interviewees to select one each of their ‘tried and tested’ and ‘innovative’ examples, and then talk me through how they were developed: What was the original idea? What steps did they go through? Who did they work with? How did they work together? What was the result? For this, we used an existing ImaginationLancaster tool, hexagons, that had been developed as part of a previous project. As the name suggests, hexagons are hexagonal (natch) discs that have a simple linking mechanism around the edges so you can build up a interconnecting map of thoughts and ideas. They were created as an alternative to the ubiquitous post-it notes, and are useful when exploring topics that have an element of progression or development over time. We used colour to differentiate each example – blue hexagons for the ‘tried and tested’; and red for the ‘innovative’.

This task generated an interesting range of responses. For two of the seven interviewees, after mapping their ‘innovative’ example, they declined the request to map their ‘tried and tested’, because they felt there wouldn’t be much difference between the two. For others, the process for each was very different. When this was the case, I asked interviewees to arrange their hexagons in a way that would reflect this (ie – not just a long snake of one hexagon after the other, but a more complex, interlocking arrangement). A particular characteristic of the ‘innovative’ examples was the necessity to keep looping back to earlier stages in the process. As the new programme was finding its form: some components were presumed resolved, went pear-shaped, and then had to be returned to and reconsidered;  some components were extended and further fleshed out, whereas others were dropped; and some components were revisited as the result of input from others or externally-imposed considerations. It seemed to be a process that required closer attention, and more frequent, complex decision-making than when interviewees were working on ‘tried and tested’ programmes. I should note that not all examples were originated by the interviewee; some had inherited programmes and couldn’t talk about the genesis of the idea. I was also warned – and rightly so – that memory is highly unreliable. Was I getting an accurate record of how these programmes were created, or a tidied up, selective, oft-repeated narrative version of events? Ideally, I would have preferred it to be the former, but I think it’s more realistic to assume I collected a fair bit of the latter too.

With the example(s) mapped out in front of us, I then asked the interviewee to annotate, using green hexagons to show moments of surprise or insights, and ‘node’ hexagons (with a white dot in the middle) to show trigger moments where something shifted – ie. innovation. The answers this task generated could be loosely categorised as individual or interpersonal. For example, an individual surprise/insight was when the interviewee noticed a greater self-awareness around sensing boundaries and then pushing against them. In comparison, interpersonal surprises/insights came about through working with audience focus groups, brainstorming with the project team, and – shock horror – having a huge amount of fun and laughing like drains when testing beta versions of new programming with colleagues.

When conducting the interviews, I was always trying to delve deeper into the interviewees’ responses. Like that irritating child who keeps asking ‘why?’,  I didn’t want to accept face-value answers and I would have missed a lot of great material if I hadn’t pushed for more. This rather dogged approach came from a place of genuine interest and curiosity. Having said that, I was also very aware that the interviewees were demonstrating an enormous amount of trust and generosity by allowing me to poke around in their heads and careers. It was important to me to be respectful of their answers, both in the moment, and how I later shared my findings through reports and blogposts.

I had always assumed that the sort of people who are drawn to museum and gallery education are also inherently interested in other people – a Venn diagram to illustrate this would be like an eclipse, with one sphere perfectly overlapping the one behind it. So much of what I learned over the course of my Churchill Fellowship confirms this assumption. It may seem self-indulgent, but I strongly believe that there is a huge amount to be gained from turning that interest in others back onto ourselves. These interview formats are one way of exploring our own creative processes, but I’m sure there are also plenty of others that we could be putting to good use.

Creative Ways of Exploring the Creative Process: Interview One

I am fascinated by the creative process and what creative people think about their own approach to ideas generation and development. In last week’s post, I gave an overview of my work with ImaginationLancaster, and how we devised interview formats to explore this topic. This week and next, I’d like to go through each interview in some detail, explaining how I used it and sharing some of my findings from my trip to the US. Both interviews and related tools are appendices in my report, The Creative Process of Museum Educators and New Approaches to Museum Learning, available on the WCMT website.

The first interview focused on the individual rather than the group. Everyone has their own way of coming up with new ideas – consciously or otherwise – and I wanted to get a better understanding of how people think about their own creativity and how it shapes their work in art museums. So the emphasis of this interview was on self-awareness and personal definitions of creativity and the creative process. Because I was meeting people for the first time, I wanted to start by giving them space to talk generally about their roles. The actual question is: ‘In what ways do you bring value to your organisation – what qualities, skills, experience, and abilities do you have/use?’ This was daunting for some, so I often expanded on it and asked interviewees to speak about the many facets of their work and what they bring to it. We would spend about 20-30 minutes talking about their role, and then I would whip out my first interview tool.

my value image

The tool is in two parts – the first step is for the interviewee to select six key values that they bring to their organisation, and the second step is for them to place each value on a scale, from less to more creative, and then explain their rationale. I didn’t want people getting ahead of themselves and preempting step two, so I folded the page back so only step one was visible. The preceding conversation was a necessary warm-up to enable interviewees to list their top six values, and it was also useful for me to have a more rounded and in-depth understanding of their work before we arrived at these brief headlines. The six values were originally listed in no particular order by the interviewee.

I enjoyed that everyone interpreted this task in a different way and there was an interesting range of identified values. Some of the responses were task-oriented, such as ‘grant-writing’, ‘evaluation’, and ‘management’, and other responses reflected personal attributes, such as ‘process-oriented’, ‘vulnerability and willingness to admit failure’, and ‘pushing boundaries’. A sensitivity to others came up several times (‘listening’, ‘connector’, ‘collaboration’, ‘working with others’). Two of the seven people interviewed expressly stated ‘creativity’ as one of their six key values to the organisation, and a further two made reference to highly creative processes (‘rapid ideas generation’ and ‘vision’).

The next step was to then place each value on a scale. When I was testing the interview format on colleagues in the UK, I asked interviewees to rank each value from 1-10, with 1 = not creative and 10 = highly creative. However, when working on the final template with the ImaginationLancaster team, we wanted to give a bit more flexibility so we created a small grid, with ‘less’ at one end and ‘more’ at the other. As hoped, this resulted in many different responses, such as: a vertical line at the appropriate point on the grid; shaded bar graphs; little pictograms to illustrate each point; and even an arc, using the grid as a measure of time passing and mapping how the creative aspects peak and dip depending on where they were in the cycle of programming.

While the grid didn’t have an explicit scale of 1-10, there were 10 columns so, where possible, I could turn each response into a number and then see how they compared with each other. Two interviewees went full Spinal Tap and ranked their top value 11 out of 10 (for ‘persistent questioning’ and ‘storytelling’). Only one value was ranked 1/10 – ‘high expectations of myself and others’, everything else was 3/10 and above. ‘Listening’ was an interesting value, as it was ranked by different interviewees across the scale (9, 4, and 3). For the interviewee who ranked it highest, listening was felt to be a fundamental and generative part of the creative process, whereas those who ranked it lower felt listening to be more of a character trait, something they did instinctively, and while creative work was linked to listening, it wasn’t creative in and of itself. I found the conversations around their rationales were some of the richest parts of the interview. Having to think about and articulate what makes key aspects of one’s role creative (or not) really puts the squeeze on personal definitions of creativity and gave us plenty of food for thought.

The next part of the interview asks, ‘Describe a way of finding out about the creative process of a museum educator, from before the idea is created and up to the point where the programme is confirmed and advertised’. In my best-laid plans, the interviewee would dream up an approach – and I was open to a broad interpretation of the question. We would then carry out their idea, whether it was a tool or a question or a process, and reflect on what it told us about their creativity. This question would allow me to see their own creativity in action, and it would also give me another perspective on their understanding of the creative process. All fine and good, I thought… However, some of the interviews had to be cut short to fit the available time slots, and this question often faced the chop.  When it was included, some interesting solutions came up; some interviewees suggested a combination of observing programmes in action, and then conducting interviews/discussions to unpack how they had been created, which was a good idea but not something we could try out immediately. Over a longer period of time, I would have liked to follow this question through and play out their ideas.

I was able to explore this question more thoroughly during the testing phase in the UK. I had more time with interviewees and their solutions were things we could try out quite easily. One interviewee came up with a lovely structure, summarised as ‘What, How Why’:

  • Step 1: Ask the interviewee to list their target audiences and five things that they consider USPs (unique selling points) for meeting those audience needs. Further unpack each USP to identify underpinning principles. So, for example, a USP might be that audiences ‘feel heard’ and the associated principle is ‘dialogical enquiry; everyone brings their own knowledge and experience’
  • Step 2: With these USPs and principles in mind, ask the interviewee to map the process of delivering a project. Create a diagram or journey of this process, and think closely about how the starting and ending points are defined. Notate with small icons or keywords, for example, a little twisted knot for those difficult or anxious moments
  • Step 3: Using the diagram/map, continue the discussion to generate clear statements around why the process is carried out in that way. This is the trickiest bit to drill down to, but when we tried it a lot of rich ideas surfaced, such as ‘constant questioning: keep re-visiting and challenging ideas during the project, and always know why a decision has been taken’.

I also really liked the approach of another UK interviewee, who, as a dancer, brought a different perspective to the task. Her solution was to take a sheet of paper and ask, ‘if this was your creative process, how would you play with it?’ When I pulled the ol’ switcheroo and asked her to do her own task, she immediately started tearing the page, working carefully and allowing different shapes to emerge. She then twisted and curved each piece, and fairly rapidly created a small sculpture. It was important to the interviewee that we then didn’t try to explain it and add words to the word-free experience of making, but – and this was my favourite bit – she observed ‘I could dance that’, referring to her paper sculpture, and then demonstrated how the form could be translated into movement. It was so spontaneous and immediate and true to her practice.

6 images of cone

I think the best way to conduct this Leapfrog interview is to use the format and questions as a loose framework and allow the interviewee plenty of space to roam with their thinking and responses. The more informal and casual the setting, the more comfortable the interviewee. I wanted the process to feel like a really stimulating chat, but with one person (ie. not me, for a change) doing most of the talking.

Creative Ways of Exploring the Creative Process: working with ImaginationLancaster

Now that my Churchill Fellowship report is completed, I’d like to revisit some aspects of the process that I only touched on lightly when writing up my findings. The interview format, developed with the help of ImaginationLancaster, had a huge influence on how I conducted my research. As an appendix to my report, I included the interview questions and the three interview tools I used to better understand the creative process of museum educators. I would love these questions and tools to be of use to others, and in order to make that happen, I think a bit more context is required. So this week I’d like to tell the story of how the ImaginationLancaster team turned my initial podgy thinking into a lean, mean researching machine (the classic ‘before’ and ‘after’ photo scenario), and over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be looking at the interview format and tools in more detail, discussing how I used them and sharing some key findings. If this sort of thing is up your street, you’re in for a treat; if not, please come back in a month’s time when it’s all over.

I met staff from ImaginationLancaster at a co-design conference a few years ago and really liked their approach to working with communities; they have such a genuine interest in the audience ‘voice’ and ensuring that the end-user has a hand in shaping whatever service or facilities are being designed for them. In 2015, I invited ImaginationLancaster to devise and deliver a workshop for my then team, Schools, Families and Young People, at the V&A. We used tools to explore: how to generate new ideas for programmes; how to think about our own creative process; and what steps we could take to make our office environment and team-working more conducive to ideas development and programme planning. These themes and concerns – the creative process, ideas generation and development – continued to knock around my head and became the focus of my Churchill Fellowship the following year.

In developing my approach to the Fellowship, I was very aware that the creative process is a tricky thing to pin down. It lives in the shadows and doesn’t ever really let you look it in the eye. I wanted to find a way to sneak up on it, and I knew I’d need help to devise the necessary interview tactics. So I sidled up to Leon Cruickshank, Professor of Design and Creative Exchange at ImaginationLancaster, with this challenge. As luck would have, his team had recently embarked on a new cluster of AHRC-funded co-design projects called Leapfrog, and Leon thought my query would be a good fit for one of the smaller strands. Happy days! So I ended up visiting Lancaster for three full-day workshops in total; once in May 2016 to clarify my research questions and brainstorm interview tools; again in July to refine and confirm the final interview format; and then finally in November, after my month in the US, to go through the information I had gathered, reflect on how the tools had been used, and come up with some data-crunching strategies.

I gained so much more from this process than just the interview format and tools. I was particularly fascinated by how Leon and his colleagues improve ideas and clarify thinking. It brought into sharp relief the difference between the ‘show and tell’ approach that dominates discussions of museum education practice and the analytical poking and prodding of academia. I arrived for my first workshop, with Leon and researchers Laura Wareing and Hayley Alter, thinking I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do. However, at that point none of my ideas had been tested or critiqued. To prepare for the first workshop, Leon asked me to bring my research questions – what exactly did I want to find out? Even this seemingly basic task took quite a bit of thought, not least because I knew these questions would be my touchstone for the whole process, and an important outcome of the Fellowship would be my ability to provide some answers. I ended up with the following: how can museum educators better understand their creative process, and how can that greater understanding inform and improve programming?

Taking my questions as the starting point, we then discussed each one in some detail and ended up with eight further questions, teasing out various lines of inquiry. These questions became design challenges, and we did a series of ‘sprints’, coming up with possible ways of answering each one. This was followed by further reflection, questioning and refining. By the end of the day I was buzzing, knackered, and happily heading home with a much better understanding of what I wanted to do and how I was going to do it (for more detail on this workshop, please see my post on the Leapfrog blog). What I enjoyed most about the workshop was being challenged. Leon, Laura and Hayley asked lots of great questions, the sorts of questions that you can’t wriggle out of or sidestep. They offered different perspectives and would also challenge each other to further explain or clarify their own thinking. Their workshop spaces have wonderful large whiteboards and pinboards that can be wheeled around, and we covered about half a dozen of them with our thoughts – it was very useful to see everything mapped out.

Workshopping ideas at Lancaster May16
Laura and Hayley, surrounded by our ideas

Leon also did a fantastic job of keeping us on track. My brain likes wandering down the side-streets and back-alleys of related anecdotes and amusing asides, as well as indulging in ‘but what does it all mean?’ navel-gazing. Leon was having none of this. Several times, he kindly but firmly steered us back by asking, ‘is this addressing the research questions?’ The invariable reply of ‘no’ brought us back into the fold and refocused attention. Consequently, we achieved a lot over a relatively short period of time. Again, I couldn’t help but compare the loose and freewheeling approach of so many museum education meetings/discussions I’d attended with the focus and discipline that ImaginationLancaster employs to get things done. Both approaches are creative and inspiring, but I particularly enjoyed the additional sleek efficiency of a design-minded way of working.

Between the first and second workshops, I tested out the draft interview format on a few colleagues and friends who work in the sector. The benefits of this were twofold: it enabled me to pinpoint which parts of the interview were working well and which parts needed further work; and it also gave me and the interviewees a genuine insight into their creative processes. The interview is in two parts – the first focuses on the individual (solitary, internal) and the second focuses on the group (social, collaborative). In total, it took 2-3 hours to complete both parts with one interviewee. That’s a long time to spend talking about yourself, what you do and how you do it.

More than one interviewee made the observation that they’d never previously had the chance to talk in-depth about their creative process, and they were surprised by what the interview revealed about themselves. I don’t think I would have achieved the same results with a self-assessment form; a lot of the value of the interview format comes from having someone listen, and listen closely. Just as Leon, Laura and Hayley listened to me to understand my ideas, I tried to do the same with the interviewees, giving them my full attention and asking for more details or elaboration if I felt something significant needed further fleshing out. I was given the good advice to always keep the focus on the interviewee – an interview isn’t a conversation, and the more talking I do, the less I learn about the other person.

The second workshop in July was a chance to reflect on how the interview format was working. I felt that some of the questions needed refining as they weren’t quite hitting the mark, and the draft, hand-sketched tools I was using needed to be turned into the final templates. Again, it was incredibly useful to think about what I wanted to achieve and then make sure that any improvements moved us closer to that goal. Laura and Hayley are InDesign wizards and created the lovely templates that I took with me to the US. As a group, we also devised an additional tool to be sent to interviewees in advance of my visit – the tool asked interviewees to select or create a postcard-sized image that serves as ‘a metaphor for my creative process’ and then explain why. Rather than arrive cold, I wanted to give them a quick activity that would encourage some reflection on the creative process before the actual interview. I sent the tool to everyone I was going to meet; the take-up was fairly low, but I didn’t insist it was used and was happy to give interviewees the choice to opt in or out of completing it.

And then September happened, and I had the time of my life travelling across the US, meeting so many inspiring practitioners and learning about their work. I interviewed a total of 23 museum and gallery professionals, of which seven were in-depth Leapfrog interviews; the others were briefer and more general interviews about innovations in programming, the role of museum educators, and organisational context.  I was acutely aware that I would soon be leaving my contented Fellowship bubble and I wanted to capture as much of my learning as possible before being spat back out into real life. Before leaving the US, I started a list of the similarities and recurring themes that I had noticed come up in interviews, for example: get inspiration from outside the sector; make connections across disparate subject matter; create a culture of experimentation; don’t shy away from disputes and differences of opinion, etc. On my return to the UK, I transferred my findings from the Leapfrog tools into a series of Excel spreadsheets so that I could compare and contrast the range of answers to each question. I took all of the completed tools and my spreadsheets back up to Lancaster for our third workshop.

After so much preparation and planning, it was very satisfying to be able to share the data I had collected with the team. Even though we all knew the templates well, I hadn’t anticipated that the completed tools would be pretty impenetrable for the others to ‘read’. I had the memory and experience of the interviews to decode the tools, but it turned out that it wasn’t material you could browse without those memories and experiences. However, for the purposes of the workshop we were evaluating the interview process rather than the content, so this wasn’t a hindrance.

One of my biggest concerns in November was next steps – how on earth was I going to turn all of this raw information into an organised and coherent report? My answers were buried in there somewhere – how could I find them? Leon, Laura and Hayley helped me with this problem too. As well as keeping a list of similarities across the interviews, I also wanted to distinguish between the mindset or character traits of the museum educators, and their behaviour and actions. I felt the former was difficult to replicate – is empathy something you can learn? – whereas the latter could be fostered. With these factors in mind, the team suggested I create a table, with my list of observations down one side and then three columns across the top, divided into mindset, behaviours, and impact (ie. how the mindsets and behaviours were manifest in the programme/activity). This framework set me up nicely for the following couple of months – I transcribed the interviews and then copied relevant comments into the table, adding more rows as needed. In this way, I was able to follow what the data was telling me – some observations needed to be subdivided to capture further details, other observations fell by the wayside or were collapsed into larger categories. Slowly, natural groupings began to appear and a structure emerged. Populating the table was time-consuming and laborious, but it was also thrilling to discover not only what I was hoping to find, but all sorts of other stuff that I hadn’t anticipated. I had never used Excel to write an essay before, and found it an incredibly helpful tool for ordering my thinking and pushing ideas around. It also felt reassuring to know that my conclusions were reached through a systematic approach; I could write with confidence because I felt the foundations were secure.

So, as you can see, ImaginationLancaster played a substantial role in my Churchill Fellowship, and I can’t imagine how I would have done it without them. As well as being guided through a specific design process, I also benefited hugely from their critique and creative input. And the best bit? It was good fun. Working with people who are really good at what they do always makes me raise my game.

It’s Finally Here!

I have been looking forward to this moment for months and I can’t believe it’s arrived – I’m finally able to share my Churchill Fellowship Report with the world! On my return from the US last October, I started the lengthy process of transcribing interviews, wading through data, and creating spreadsheet after spreadsheet to organise my experiences into some sort of structure. I have crunched what I’ve learnt down into a report format that I hope is both interesting and entertaining to read. It was a labour of love, and I’m really happy with the results.

The two key aims of my research were to better understand the creative process of museum educators and share examples of innovative practice; my findings form the bulk of the report. I focussed on five cultural organisations: Dallas Museum of Art, MCA Denver, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Columbus Museum of Art, and Museum Hack. I made use of verbatim quotes as much as possible, because I believe that the stories of Learning’s successes are best told by those who made it happen. The report concludes with recommendations for putting some of the ideas discussed into practice. I also shared the interview tools I used, developed in collaboration with ImaginationLancaster. The full report is available to download from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust website. To give you a wee taster, I’ve included the executive summary below – I hope you like it.

 

The Creative Process of Museum Educators and New Approaches to Museum Learning

Executive Summary

It’s one thing to sit down and to make something and be creative, but it’s another thing to reflect on your experience, because it’s through that self-reflection that you really grow and come to new understandings.

Through my Churchill Fellowship, I aimed to better understand the creative process of museum educators and highlight examples of innovative programming. By its nature, museum education is collaborative, collective and collegiate. Audiences are central to the work, and extensive research is conducted to better understand and meet their needs, and ideally exceed their expectations. Ironically, museum educators are so adept at supporting the creativity of others that their own creative contribution often goes overlooked.

The majority of programming formats – talks, tours, workshops, projects and courses – are well-established and used by museum educators all over the world. Over time, however, programmes can harden into fixed orthodoxy, and path dependency can blinker museum educators to alternatives. This risk is particularly pertinent to the UK cultural sector, which is currently being buffeted by economic austerity, restricted arts provision in formal education, and shifting audience demands. In amongst this flux, museum educators need to be flexible in their thinking and experimental in their programming to keep pace with the rate of change.

To address my aims, I visited five US cultural institutions to interview staff and observe programmes. At each, I focussed on three priorities: the programmes (what makes them innovative); the Learning staff (how they generate and develop ideas); and the organisational context (the conditions that enable museum educators to do their best work). My findings are presented in two sections: the first deconstructs the creative process and identifies key characteristics of the individual, the organisation, ideas generation, and ideas development; the second presents examples of innovative practice and illustrates what is possible when the creative components converge.

I conclude that the creative process is intrinsic and vital to museum education; it underpins the practice and fuels innovation in programming. A heightened awareness of one’s own creative process, developed through self-reflection and peer-led critique, equips practitioners to further improve and develop their work. As museums become more deliberately social and audience-centric in their approach, the expertise and creativity of Learning staff increases in value. If museum educators broaden their horizons from the departmental to the institutional, and step up to the challenge of leading organisational change, they are well-placed to define the future of museum practice.

(*) Jessica Fuentes, DMA

 

Engage at Tate Exchange: a taster menu

Last week, I participated in a three-day course organised by engage, the National Association for Gallery Education in the UK. For the first two days, we were hosted by Tate Exchange in the new Switch House building. We enjoyed a backdrop of stunning views over the Thames and across East London as we shared practice through talks, workshops, demonstrations and discussions. On the final day, we went on a tour of South London arts venues to see their exhibitions and hear about their learning programmes. We went to 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning, South London & Maudsley (SLaM) NHS Foundation Trust, Peckham Platform and South London Gallery. I learnt a huge amount from my peers, spanning a diverse range of topics, and since then I’ve been happily following up on recommended reports and websites. For this post, I’ve compiled a taster menu of interesting reading collected over the three days; it falls into three broad categories: Reports (economic/education); Reports (museum and gallery learning); and Projects & Initiatives. Enjoy!

 

Reports (economic/education)

The Future of Jobs (World Economic Forum)

http://reports.weforum.org/future-of-jobs-2016/

  • This report summarises the ‘direction of travel’ for work in different industries from 2015-2020. It takes a global perspective and highlights inequalities in employment for women. To get your attention, the home page sets a vaguely apocalyptic tone: ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution is interacting with other socio-economic and demographic factors to create a perfect storm of business model change in all industries, resulting in major disruptions to labour markets’. Despite this alarmist introduction, the bulk of the information is presented more calmly, using plenty of infographics that are easy to read at a glance and perfect for browsing.

http://reports.weforum.org/future-of-jobs-2016/shareable-infographics/

  • The ‘shareable infographics’ section compares the top 10 skills required in 2015 and projected for 2020. It’s worth noting that all of them are key to museum education practice and reflect the benefits of arts education.
  • Top four skills in 2015: Complex Problem Solving, Coordinating with Others, People Management, and Critical Thinking.
  • Top four skills in 2020: Complex Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, Creativity, and People Management.

 

Creative Learning Plan (Education Scotland)

https://education.gov.scot/improvement/Pages/cre24_creativityinfographics.aspx

  • While schools in England are struggling with the lack of support for the arts in the national curriculum, it’s a different story in Scotland where creativity is promoted as an essential component of a balanced education. Education Scotland’s ‘3-18 Curriculum Impact Report on Creativity’  identifies four key creative skills – curiosity, open-mindedness, imagination and problem-solving. This report, as well as a selection of bright and engaging infographics on creativity, are available to download from the link above.
Shard from Tate Mar17
View of the Shard from the top of the Switch House

Reports (museum and gallery learning)

Creative Families (South London Gallery)

http://www.southlondongallery.org/page/creativefamilies

  • This intergenerational artist-led project worked with both parents (who are experiencing mental health difficulties) and their children. It aimed to explore the relationship between parenting and well-being, and was designed as an early-intervention programme in partnership between South London Gallery, Southwark’s Parental Mental Health Team and three local Children’s Centres: Grove, Crawford and Ann Bernadt.
  • The final report, Making It Together, is a thorough evaluative study of the project (download via link above). It goes into detail about the methodology and impacts, and places the work in a broader social context.

 

Step by Step: Arts Policy and Young People 1944-2014 (King’s College London)

https://www.kcl.ac.uk/cultural/culturalenquiries/youngpeople/Step-by-step.pdf

  • While I was noodling around looking for Making It Together, I found this report from a few years ago. It was commissioned to mark the 50th anniversary in 2015 of the first-ever UK government arts policy, authored by Jennie Lee. It pretty much does what it says on the tin, charting the history of post-war arts initiatives for young people in the UK over a 70-year period. This may sound a bit dry, but it’s fascinating to see how attitudes towards art education have shifted over time. The authors also make the point that new policy is often devised without an understanding of what has come before, resulting in the proverbial wheel being invented over and over again, a problem that I think we can relate to in museum and gallery education/learning.
St Pauls from Tate Mar17
View of St Paul’s Cathedral from the top of the Switch House

Projects and Initiatives

Youth Enterprise (198 Contemporary Arts and Learning)

http://www.198.org.uk/

  • 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning, previously known as 198 Gallery, is located on Railton Road, which was the epicentre of the Brixton rising/riots in 1981. The gallery was founded in 1988 and has always taken an active interest in supporting young people and their creativity. Staunch supporters of new talent, 198 can take credit for giving five of the 12 artists showing at the Diaspora Pavilion (Venice Biennale 2017) their first exhibition. Exciting youth-led social enterprises have also been fostered by 198, and look set to expand as the organisation extends its links with business and the creative industries.

http://hustlebucks.bigcartel.com/

  • Formed in 2010, Hustlebucks is a youth design agency. They predominantly work in fashion design and have recently collaborated with band, The xx, on a range of t-shirts.

http://www.198.org.uk/creative-learning/arts-factory

  • The Factory is a new venture for 198. It will provide studio space for creative start-ups and social enterprises that will work with local young people, offering training, mentoring and employment.

http://afhboston.org/

  • The Factory was inspired in part by Artists For Humanity (AFH), an amazing Boston-based initiative set up in the 1990s. AFH grew out of frustration at the lack of art experiences available in the Boston Public School System, and their aim is, ‘to bridge economic, racial, and social divisions by providing under-resourced urban youth with the keys to self-sufficiency through paid employment in art and design.’ They go on to say, ‘our mission is built on twin philosophies: engagement in the creative process is a powerful force for social change, and creative entrepreneurship is a productive and life-changing opportunity for young people and their communities.’

 

Generation Art: Young Artists on Tour (engage)

http://generationart.gallery/

  • A selection of 40 artworks by children and young people was selected for a national tour (2015-16) that went to Turner Contemporary, Margate, New Walk Museum and Gallery and Soft Touch Arts, Leicester, and Quay Arts, Isle of Wight. The project aimed to celebrate the creativity of young artists, raise the aspirations of adults about what young artists are capable of, and campaign for quality art, craft and design education. The attendance target – 90,000 – was smashed and an impressive 203,000 people saw the show, of which 42% were first time visitors to the host venues.

 

Cultural Education Challenge (A New Direction)

https://www.anewdirection.org.uk/what-we-do/cultural-education-challenge

  • A New Direction works to ensure that all children and young people get the most out of London’s creative and cultural offer. One of their current programmes, the London Cultural Education Challenge, runs from 2015-18 and aims to improve cultural provision for young audiences, as well as creating sustainable partnership models that can continue beyond the lifespan of the funding.
  • There are six overarching themes for the Cultural Education Challenge, each of which has been presented as a handy infographic identifying specific needs. For example, ‘Equity and Geography’ provides data on the division between cultural provision in central London, the large percentage of pupils in outer London, and the gulf between the two – 40% of 11-25 year olds in London have not been to an art exhibition or music event in the past year.

I wish I could include everything we talked about over those three days; my selection is only a small indication of what was discussed. If you’d like to see more, check out #engagejourneys on Twitter for more links, tips and photos.

The Hundred Acre Wood Theory of Change

When I met with Ethan Angelica to discuss his work at Museum Hack, our conversation focussed on creativity and innovation, and also included change management and the importance of ‘bringing people with you’ when introducing new ideas. It turns out that both of our dads are management gurus – his is a management consultant specialising in non-profit organisations, and mine is a recently retired business management academic. Ethan told me about the fantastic ‘theory of change’ model developed by his Dad, Emil Angelica. It’s based on four of A.A. Milne’s characters who live in Hundred Acre Wood – Tigger, Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, and Eeyore. Ethan tells it brilliantly, so the following is a verbatim quote from our interview:

My Dad is one of my greatest role models. He has what he calls his ‘Hundred Acre Wood Theory of Change’… When something changes, you have the Tiggers, who are bouncing – they’re way out in front of everybody, they’re just like, can’t wait to change it. You’ve only got a couple of those, and you need to let them Tigger away. Keep an eye on them, make sure they don’t jump off a cliff or something, but let them Tigger. Then you have the Poohs, who will follow the honey pot. You give them their honey pot, and they’re like, ‘okay, cool, this is where we’re going, I got it, I got it, this is cool, I like what we’re doing here, it looks delicious, let’s just keep going’. So the Tiggers are bouncing and as long as Pooh has its honey pot, it’s going to be okay, Tigger doesn’t really bother him.

Piglet gets really scared of Tigger. The Piglets are like, ‘ohh, I don’t know, man, he’s crazy and that honey pot is not very interesting to me, what are we going to do?’ and so you have to gently guide Piglet there. And then you have Eeyores. And Eeyores are just like, ‘well, I don’t know, like I guess…’ and you’re just never going to win over the Eeyores. Eeyores are always going to be there, and you just have to be like, ‘you’re going to be fine, yes I know this is rough’. I find that distinctly in all of these organisations. Every time I go in and do a workshop, I always see a Tigger, I always see the person who I hand the Five Elements [of a Hack] to and they’re like, ‘ooh, this is pretty’, the Piglets who are like, ‘but, but I can’t say fuck’, and then Eeyores who are like, ‘everything you’re doing is horrible’.

When I asked Ethan if I could share this model, he kindly put me in contact with Emil via Skype so I could find out more. The Hundred Acre Wood theory came about when Emil was working with refugee and migrant communities in Minneapolis in the 1980s. Many in these communities were watching TV to help develop their English language skills, and the Disney cartoon of Winnie-the-Pooh was well known. Emil had been looking for a narrative framework to convey change management ideas, and Hundred Acre Wood was the perfect fit. He has used it regularly with many different groups since then, and it elicits an interesting range of responses. The majority get it very quickly, and then enjoy identifying which character they most relate to, or start attributing characters to their colleagues. And of course there are some who find it juvenile, because there will always be some who take their own adulthood very, very seriously.

In any group, the Tiggers and the Eeyores are the outliers at either end of the positive-negative spectrum. Emil makes the point that leaders often spend too much time focussing on these extremes – they like the Tiggers because they agree with them, and they fixate on the Eeyores as a challenge to be conquered. Time could be better spent, however, supporting the majority that fall in the middle – the Poohs and the Piglets.

Winnie-the-Pooh is motivated by his honey pot – something that is tangible and within his reach. When going through periods of change, the Poohs need short-term goals and quick successes to stay motivated – a long-term vision with positive results in five years’ time just isn’t going to cut it. Piglets, bless them, wants to know ‘will this hurt me?’ so they have to feel safe and protected through the change process. Tiggers need to be kept occupied so they don’t scare the daylights out of Piglets – delegating parts of a project to Tiggers is a great way to channel their enthusiasm. Eeyores can negatively influence both Poohs and Piglets so they need to be managed closely.

Emil also told me about two related change management models that support his own:

Michael Beer’s formula for change = (D*V*1st) < C

  • D = dissatisfaction with the present situation
  • V = vision of how things could be different
  • 1st = First step to bring about change
  • C = perceived cost of going through change must be seen as less than the cost of staying with the current situation, in order for change to happen.

William Bridges’s Transition Model

  • This model maps the transition that people go through over time as they come to accept change.
  • At first, there is a sense of loss, letting go and relinquishing the old way when something comes to an end.
  • A ‘neutral zone’ in the middle is characterised by confusion, direction finding and re-patterning.
  • New beginnings generate commitment and a new sense of purpose and energy.

Beer’s formula is particularly pertinent for the Piglets, who worry about the personal cost of any change and need to be very dissatisfied with their present situation to be open to doing things differently. Bridges’s transition model demonstrates that people’s points of view can change and the Hundred Acre Wood characters are not fixed positions – someone can be a Piglet on one project and a Tigger on another, or can even change characters over the course of a single project.

Emil boiled all of this down to two key headlines: when leaders want change, they need to ensure there is enough dissatisfaction to motivate the team (too much dissatisfaction = Eeyores; too little dissatisfaction = Piglets) and personal barriers to change need to be acknowledged and overcome – the pain of change needs to not be so great that change is too hard. This is such useful guidance for anyone wanting to do innovative work – museums are notoriously glacial in their pace of change and the more strategies that we have to chivvy the process along, the better.

Ethan’s work at Museum Hack is driven by a love of stories and storytelling. It was lovely to see that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, as Emil has exactly the same love of storytelling in his work. Stories are so essential to what it is to be human, and I love that this simple truth can be applied to areas as disparate as museum tours for millennials and change management for non-profit organisations. … So have you decided which character you are yet?

Image source: http://bibliodyssey.blogspot.co.uk/2008/11/original-winnie-pooh-drawings.html

Groupthink: The Evil Twin of Collaboration

In this age of ‘alternative facts’, George Orwell’s classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, no longer reads like a dystopian, nightmarish vision of the future, but a ‘how-to’ manual for the current US government administration. Some of the words that Orwell invented for the book – newspeak, doublethink –  have now become commonplace to describe manipulations of political power. These endocentric compounds inspired research psychologist, Irving Janis, to coin the phrase ‘groupthink’, which he described as follows:

…[it is] the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action. Groupthink is a term of the same order as the words in the newspeak vocabulary George Orwell used in his dismaying world of 1984. In that context, groupthink takes on an invidious connotation. Exactly such a connotation is intended, since the term refers to a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressures. (Note: I’ve taken this quote from the Wikipedia page on groupthink. The whole article is thorough and fascinating – worth a look for more detailed content.)

Janis was writing about groupthink in the 1970s and 80s, and used “political fiascoes” such as the bombing of Pearl Harbour,  the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and Vietnam War as examples, illustrating how its negative consequences play out on an international scale.  Theories on group dynamics and decision-making have progressed since then and the ‘antecedent conditions’ Janis identified have been contested. Groupthink might make intuitive sense but it has been difficult to establish empirical evidence. Despite challenges to his work, Janis still seems to be held up as the gold standard, and subsequent generations of researchers have used the concept of groupthink as the springboard for their own theories.

What I find fascinating about groupthink is that I know so little about it. Collaboration and partnership-working, on the other hand, are woven deep into the fabric of museum and gallery education. We pride ourselves on our ability to bring disparate voices together and take inspiration from others, and there are plenty of articles and talks to be found online that celebrate ‘collective creativity’ (I included some examples in a previous post, Capturing the Stories of Kettle’s Yard). What I love about groupthink – the evil twin of collaboration – is that it yins the yang of working with others. It’s probably worth knowing more about how to eliminate the negative, instead of just accentuating the positive.

Janis was writing about global political scenarios and high-stakes consequences, so I appreciate that the dangers of groupthink don’t perfectly map to museum and gallery education. I assume most museum educators lack the guile of politicians and billionaires (and billionaire politicians), and we’re also fairly unlikely to rise up and invade Cuba. However, groupthink still has plenty to teach us about decision-making.

In homogeneous and tightly-knit group settings, the pressure to conform can suppress dissenting voices, encourage self-censorship, and reconfirm existing biases. Alternative options are dismissed too readily, and silence is interpreted as agreement. The group can develop a distorted sense of its own rightness, and this illusion of moral superiority and excessive confidence contributes to an inability to accurately mitigate against risk. If the group is insulated from other influences and experiences ‘deindividualisation’ whereby group cohesion is valued over independent self-expression, nothing good (or innovative) is going to come of it.

Thinking back over years of project-planning meetings and team workshops, I recognise shades of this scenario. Dissent is especially tricky when we are all – sometimes – a bit too nice and conciliatory. I can recall group planning situations where it would have felt impolite to disagree. Janis proposed several techniques to combat groupthink, one of which was to nominate a ‘devil’s advocate’; whereby the role is taken by a different person each time the group meets. I can see how this would lead to some interesting and constructive arguments and ultimately improve decision-making.

If groupthink whets your appetite, it would also be worth taking a look at a more recent model, General Group Problem Solving (GGPS). Devised by Sally Fuller and Ramon Aldag (see their article, The GGPS Model: Broadening the perspective on group problem-solving, 2001), GGPS builds on the strengths of groupthink theory, and proposes some alternatives to contested aspects.

And finally, reading about groupthink has introduced me to a fabulous lexicon of compound words. My two favourites are ‘groupshift’ and ‘mindguard’. The following definitions are from Wikipedia (I do read other things too BTW):

Groupshift is a phenomenon in which the initial positions of individual members of a group are exaggerated toward a more extreme position. When people are in groups, they make decisions about risk differently from when they are alone. In the group, they are likely to make riskier decisions, as the shared risk makes the individual risk less.

A mindguard is a member of a group who serves as an informational filter, providing limited information to the group and, consciously or subconsciously, utilising a variety of strategies to control dissent and to direct the decision-making process toward a specific, limited range of possibilities. Multiple mindguards are frequently present in groupthink situations.

The techniques utilised, consciously or subconsciously, by mindguards include:

 

  • time pressure in regard to decision-making
  • bandwagon effect/information cascades
  • reframing situations to increase pressure toward or away from a specific outcome
  • creating a sense that group cohesion will suffer if unanimity is lacking

 

The inventiveness of the English language makes me so happy; you could say – in the spirit of this post – that it’s a happymake. Group-working is predominantly, although not exclusively, verbal, so it’s a dynamic where words count for a lot. The power of words can’t, and shouldn’t, be under-estimated; they are seriously dangerous when used to distort and mislead – an ‘alternative fact’ is not an ‘alternative fact’; it is a lie. What we choose to say and how we choose to say it influences others’ perceptions of us and our ideas, and in group-working, our words can either open up or shut down new thinking.

Image: ‘Evil’ Maria, Metropolis (1927) from https://ufilmanalysisrobinson.wordpress.com/page/11/

Are You Sitting Uncomfortably?

I loathe physical discomfort in any form: pop socks pulled into the toe of my shoes; jersey sleeves bunched up into my armpits from a too-snug winter coat; scratchy shirt collars or labels; basically, anything that rides or slips or pulls or constricts makes me disproportionately grumpy. So it was disheartening to discover that discomfort goes hand-in-hand with innovative thinking. In order to come up with new ideas, your mind has to be wearing the mental equivalent of an itchy woollen hat. Your achievements, accomplishments and known abilities are like those flannel pyjamas you wore all Christmas – they might be comfortable and comforting, but you’ll never bring anything new into the world if your brain is contentedly sitting on the sofa, eating too much cheese and watching Poldark.

More than once during my Churchill trip to the US, the people I interviewed spoke about the unease that comes with new ways of working. It might be a new partnership, a new programme format, or a new audience, but without prior experience to fall back on, they have to feel their way ahead, and this produces some anxiety. Of course, the payoff comes when the partnership is established, the programme is delivered and the audience is developed – that knowledge is hard-won and should be acknowledged. It’s satisfying to know something now that you didn’t know before, but then what? Back on with the itchy woollen hat I’m afraid.

This realisation has changed how I think about my own accumulation of experiences. When I was in my first gallery job, I couldn’t learn fast enough; I was desperate to know ‘the way’ (wax on, wax off) as quickly as possible. With a few more years under my belt, I got quite cocky and thought I had it sorted. I had run enough projects, worked with enough artists, and delivered enough talks to know what I was doing, thank you very much. I thought I had mastered ‘the way’ and was now in a position to show others. I didn’t know it at the time, but by luxuriating in this sense of my own expertise, I was putting on those flannel pyjamas. What has become clear to me from my Churchill trip is that the work is never done, ‘the way’ must be constantly questioned and reformed, and satisfaction always has to lie slightly beyond reach. This is one of those annoying truths that they don’t tell you about as a kid.

I was watching David Bowie: The Last Five Years a couple of weeks ago, and he said pretty much the same thing, albeit classier: If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting. (c.52 mins)

So if we know where the good ideas live, why don’t we go there more often? I suspect it’s because self-doubt and fear of failure live there too (which would make for an interesting sitcom). Because we’re social animals, it’s uncomfortable to be separated from the pack and to vouch for an untested idea – What if it’s rubbish? What if it doesn’t work? What if I make a fool of myself? What if I’m humiliated? Self-defeating thoughts and vulnerability keep us from true innovation. David Jones would have stayed within his depth; David Bowie didn’t.

It’s useful to conduct a career health-check from time to time on one’s comfort levels. The areas of practice that feel most safe and assured are probably also the ones most in need of disruption. Fortunately, the pros of discomfort far outweigh the cons. Doing new things is mentally stimulating and exciting, and tackling fears will ultimately lead to increased confidence. My Churchill Fellowship has been one enormous itchy woollen hat. It was daunting enough to dive into twitter and blog my thoughts, let alone cross the Atlantic to interview strangers, but this experience has changed me, and for the better.

In conclusion: – be more Bowie and stay away from flannel pyjamas.

Image: https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/156077943313549143/