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: 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.

Other People and their Terrible Habit of Differing Opinions

Other people eh? What are they like! Everything would be so much easier if everybody else shared my worldview – aka ‘common sense’ – and just stopped being daft. I’m afraid I’m guilty of having this thought, usually when watching the evening news, and it’s pretty typical human behaviour. We surround ourselves with people who think the same way and share similar attitudes and values. Rather than ‘live and let live’, the further someone’s worldview is from our own, the harder we find it to bridge the distance. The gulf of understanding that can exist between people is probably most keenly felt on the subjects of politics and religion, which explains why it’s considered good manners to avoid both in polite conversation. Unfortunately, such a rift can turn into a ‘who can shout the loudest?’ competition, and you don’t have to look far at the moment to see a global epidemic of divisive ‘with us or against us’ thinking. It’s all a bit bloody annoying really.

Is it really so awful to encounter viewpoints that differ from our own? Apparently it is. A recent article in Pacific Standard Magazine, ‘Why We Shut Ourselves Off From Opposing Viewpoints’, shares findings from the University of Winnipeg that liberals and conservatives are ‘similarly motivated to avoid exposure to one another’s opinions’. The research team led an ingenious experiment that gave participants the option to either:

  1. a) read statements that supported their position on same-sex marriage and then answer simple questions to confirm an understanding of the arguments. On completion, participants would then enter a draw to win $7.00, or;
  2. b) read statements that opposed their position on same sex marriage, and then answer simple questions to confirm their understanding and be entered into a draw to win $10.00.

The result? 64% of same-sex marriage supporters went for option a), and 61% of those who oppose it also went for a) – both would rather miss out on cold hard cash than read opposing viewpoints. It’s not just the big issues either; research has also demonstrated the same effect when discussing beverages (Coke vs. Pepsi), airplane seats (aisle or window), and even seasons (spring vs. autumn). Personally, I’ve never had much time for pepsi-drinking, window-sitting, autumn-loving weirdos, and now I know why. It shocks me that we are so petty as a species, and that the need to have our opinions validated is so deeply rooted.

The motivations behind this behaviour are twofold: participants who chose option a) wanted to maintain ‘a shared reality with the speaker’; and avoid cognitive dissonance, ‘the psychological discomfort that arises from simultaneously holding two opposing beliefs’. I have written previously about comfort being the enemy of innovative thinking (Are You Sitting Uncomfortably?) and how group dynamics, including the pressure to conform, can shut down creativity (Groupthink: The Evil Twin of Collaboration). When I think about the homogenity of museum professionals, and museum educators as a subset within that group, we have a particularly high mountain to climb if we are to genuinely meet audience needs and interests.

If I imagine a quasi ‘Logan’s Run’ scenario, where all thirty-something brunette women with MAs in art history/museum studies just disappeared off the face of the Earth, our museum learning departments would be decimated. But as a small sample of the museum-going public, audience demographics wouldn’t be much changed. In other words, it’s very easy for us to avoid conflicting worldviews because we are surrounded by people who are very similar, and yet we are not a representative sample of the public we serve. It is exactly this reassuring familiarity that needs to be disrupted if we want to be innovative in our programming and engage a broad and diverse audience.

The good news is that although the majority chose to stick with their fellow same-thinkers, a healthy 36% and 39% of participants chose option b). These individuals were more receptive to alternative worldviews (or maybe they just wanted that extra $3.00). I will always prefer The Guardian to The Telegraph or The Sun – not much of a surprise there – but this does nothing to challenge or extend my understanding of other people and their motivations. It doesn’t take much to step off the beaten path and increase one’s exposure to different worldviews, it’s just a case of doing it.

PS – The Pacific Standard Magazine article that I have drawn on for my post includes a link to a 2009 article by the same author, Tom Jacobs, titled Morals Authority. It is an absolutely fascinating summary of research into why liberals and conservatives have seemingly insurmountable differences, originating from very different moral and ethical starting points. Well worth a look.
IMAGE SOURCE: http://www.mustardweb.org/michaelpalin/

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

 

Bodysnatchers: getting physical in museums

When I saw Frederick Wiseman’s film, The National Gallery (2014), I was shocked to discover that when many people look at paintings, they don’t look like they’re having a good time. They are stock still and staring, then shuffling a bit, then still and staring again. No wonder people who don’t go to galleries assume it’s all a bit dull and boring. How it looks from the outside is absolutely no measure of how it feels. When I’m wandering around a gallery, I am really, genuinely, properly happy. It’s thrilling to discover an artwork that I’ve only previously seen in reproduction; I love works that make me laugh out loud or shed a tear; my skin creeps and I feel a bit unwell when I see grisly or gruesome subject matter; and some artworks are so beautiful it pains me to leave them. Galleries evoke (and provoke) a whole gamut of emotions and sensations, the experience is not just one of mental stimulation and knowledge acquisition, it’s physical too.

The ol’ mind vs body argument goes back a long way (Plato’s Phaedo) and there are plenty of fabulous words – such as ‘somatic’ (relating to the body rather than the mind) and ‘corporeal’ (relating to the body rather than the spirit) – that reinforce the distinction. Dualism also exerts an influence over how we engage audiences with museums and galleries. I can think of plenty of examples of programming that feed the mind – talks, tours, lectures, courses, discussions and film-screenings – and there are plenty more that are tactile/kinaesthetic and improve fine-motor skills and dexterity – practical workshops, handling sessions and drop-in making activities to name a few. Programmes involving the whole body are thinner on the ground and tend to be dominated by cross-disciplinary practice, where dance and theatre practitioners are responding to the museum context. This is an observation rather than a complaint – there’s a lot to be learnt from other artforms that are more attuned to the body, movement and temporality. I’d love to see more programming that heightens visitors’ awareness of the physical experience of looking at art and moving through a museum – it exerts such a quiet but powerful influence over our engagement.

When I think back on artworks that have been memorable as physical experiences, only a handful come to mind. Carsten Holler’s slides at Tate Modern in 2007 (‘Test Site’) proved to be so popular that the experience was as much about queuing as it was about sliding. Because I’m a lily-livered wuss, I only managed the little slide in the Turbine Hall and that was plenty; it definitely raised my pulse. In 2000 and again in 2006, Ikon Gallery in Birmingham displayed ‘Observation Deck’ by Patrick Killoran. To experience the artwork, viewers were required, one at a time, to lie on their backs on a sliding shelf and get gently rolled out of a window, head-first, on the horizontal and at a right angle to the building. I can’t remember how much of me was poking outside, it felt like from the waist up, but was probably more like head and shoulders. It was the most thrilling experience to just stare up at passing clouds and the architectural detail and ponder my possibly imminent demise as the window was a couple of storeys above street level. These two examples probably say quite a bit about me; as someone who gets vertigo, anything involving heights is more likely to stick in my memory than experiences played out closer to the ground.

Thinking about museum learning programming that prioritises the physical, there are some interesting examples (and I’d love to hear more please). Yoga in museums is a growing trend, and the Dancing Museums project is a wonderful European partnership (enjoy those while they last, thanks again Brexit!) that explores new forms of engagement with artworks through movement. While I was researching the Dallas Museum of Art for my Churchill Fellowship, I stumbled across a blogpost about their ‘sensory sacks’, also known as ‘spatial socks’. As the name suggests, the sack/sock is a stretchy fabric tube – a gigantic pillowcase that’s large enough to fit a person. The sensory sack was created to improve spatial awareness and for use in therapy, supporting those with a sensory processing disorder and/or autism. In the museum, participants re-create the form of sculptures in the collection by posing inside the sensory sack. I love the idea of understanding sculpture from the inside out – through the use of the sensory sack, participants transition from being outside the sculpture, understanding the form visually, to being inside the sculpture, pushing up under its skin and understanding the form physically. It’s so simple and elegant, and the experience must generate such different memories from the standard looky-talky model.

While I was noodling around the web looking for examples of museum learning programming that are more physical, I skimmed across all sorts of theories, ideas and approaches that span visual and performing arts, such as somatic theory, affect theory, performative and participatory practice, and the sensory museum. A useful review, in the Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies, of Helen Rees Leahy’s book, Museum Bodies: The Politics and Practices of Visiting and Viewing (2012), shares lots of interesting concepts and provides links for further reading. If you know of any other great examples, please drop me a line.

Design Ventura Summit Adventures

Last week, the Design Museum hosted a one-day event as part of their Design Ventura (DV) programme, a ‘design and enterprise challenge for students in years 9, 10 and 11, supported by industry professionals’. The museum invited ‘DV stakeholders’ to participate in a series of talks and workshops exploring the following topic: ‘Design: the problem and the solution (and the imperative for 21C design education)’. It was a fascinating day, not least because a large majority of the audience didn’t work in museums or galleries. The delegates were predominantly teachers and designers, and we talked a lot about how their worlds intersect. The subjects we covered included: improving the relationship between education and industry; access to tech training for teachers;  the rising trend of ‘design entrepreneurship’; and the skills that young people need for future employment. For this post, I’ve compiled some of my favourite interesting bits from the day – not an easy task as the whole day was made up of interesting bits – if the Design Ventura Summit had been a chocolate-chip cookie, it would have been made entirely of chocolate.

The Summit was particularly timely too. The day before, the new Chair of Arts Council England, Nick Serota, announced a new commission that will identify how young people benefit from an arts education and strategies for improving current provision. Hopefully, they will build on the myriad of existing reports on the subject, not least ImagiNation: the value of cultural learning, commissioned by the Cultural Learning Alliance and published only a few months ago. The Summit also coincided with the day that the UK Government triggered Article 50, marking the official beginning of divorce proceedings from the European Union. This particular cloud cast quite a long shadow over the event, and the potential negative impact of Brexit on the creative industries was raised a few times. And finally, as I was eating my breakfast earlier that morning and listening to the radio, I heard the news that UK schools are working with ever-diminishing budgets which will result in £3 billion cuts by 2019/20. My first thoughts were with teachers and how grim the work of head teachers will be to balance the books. My second thoughts were, naturally, concerned with museum and gallery education. I suspect school trips will be the first item cut from school budgets (who can blame them?) and this will leave our current model of schools’ provision, focussed on site visits, high and dry. It doesn’t matter how great our museum learning programmes are, they ain’t worth much if schools can’t afford to get to us.

With all of these issues swirling around in the background, it was useful to take a design perspective on the confluence of education, policy, and the creative industries. NESTA have been very active in this area and have produced a number of useful reports, including:

  • The Fusion Effect (2016): this is NESTA’s take on the STEAM agenda, looking at how the arts and sciences can work together more effectively;
  • Creativity Vs Robots (2015): how can anyone resist a title like that? This report looks at the future of jobs and what aspects of work are likely to become automated. A recent Guardian article, ‘Science classes won’t future-proof our children. But dance might’, made reference to PricewaterhouseCooper’s prediction that 30% of British jobs will be lost to automation by the 2030s. Fortunately, artificial intelligence still can’t compete with our human creative capacity, so we’ll remain one step ahead of C3PO for a bit longer.
  • Solved! Making the Case for Collaborative Problem-Solving (2017): another title that speaks for itself. ‘Problem-solving’ was definitely one of the day’s key words: it was used as a shorthand definition of design; and it was also name-checked as a 21st century core competency, an attribute valued by employers across a range of industries.

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Brexit and the EBacc – a pairing that sounds more like a novelty music act from the 1970s than a confluence of misfortunes – were subjects that couldn’t be avoided. The Government’s Industrial Strategy Green Paper came up in discussion a few times. Published in January, it sets out planning for the UK’s economic future once we have left the EU. Organised around 10 pillars, the ‘developing skills’ priority was considered pertinent to design education and its value to the economy. One speaker also mentioned Brexit Design Manifesto, produced by Dezeen magazine, which is worth a look.

The sharp decline in pupils studying Design and Technology at GCSE level was a particular cause for concern during discussions. The Design and Technology Association (DATA) spearheaded a campaign last year to raise the profile of the subject. Their short film What is Design & Technology – and why do we need it?, made a connection between the investment in D&T in the 1990s and the pay-off over the following decades as those pupils then thrived and built careers in the creative industries. We risk cutting off the pipeline of new talent when design (either through D&T or Art & Design) is cut from a child’s education.

So far, so sadly familiar – the drop in D&T has been a topic of discussion for some time now. What I found more interesting was hearing another perspective on the issue. Holly Donagh from A New Direction framed the EBacc discussion in relation to inclusion agendas. Pupils who graduate with at least five GCSEs will go on to have greater social mobility and more career opportunities than those who don’t. The aim of the EBacc is to get 90% of pupils achieving five GCSEs; whereas the current figure is closer to 35-40%. Living in my leftie echo-chamber, I only ever hear about how awful the EBacc is. Of course it makes sense that those on the other side of the fence also want a high quality education for the next generation – we just have very different views on the role of art and design in achieving that (I should add that Holly was presenting another perspective for the purposes of a group discussion, rather than arguing against design education). Both sides in this debate are deeply entrenched and Holly’s comments made me realise that a greater insight into each other’s rationale would surely help find some middle ground.

And finally, there was plenty of discussion around career pathways for young people. It’s one thing to be at school, and it’s another thing to be established in a career – but getting from A to B is incredibly daunting when you’re 16 and don’t know what you want to do with your life. A huge range of jobs rely on creative skills, and the creative industries are stuffed with a variety of careers, but these opportunities are not well-known. If young people (and their parents) were better informed about what was possible and available, the value of design education would be better understood. The Sorrell Foundation has created the online resource, Creative Journeys, to meet just that purpose. And I should also mention Creative Quarter and Making It are two large careers’ festivals for young people that the V&A’s Learning department run each year.

Another of NESTA’s projects involves sifting through a mountain of online job advertisements to identify the careers that require creative skills. They have sifted through 33 million online ads (promoting UK jobs, dating from 2011-16) and identified 12,000 unique skills. From this data, they have arranged creative skills into five broad categories –  Tech, Support, Selling, Creating & Designing, and Teaching. The final resource is still being tested, but it will ultimately provide an online facility whereby a young person can identify their skills and interests and match them to a range of possible career options.

The jobs-market isn’t what it used to be. My own career pathway – from administrator to assistant education officer to education officer to management – feels very old-fashioned when I read the CVs of twenty-somethings, dominated by internships, volunteering, placements and short-term contracts. A patchwork of experience now seems to be the norm. Perhaps not surprisingly, initiative and drive are key attributes in this working climate, and the top buzzword of the day – entrepreneurship – is becoming increasingly important.

Julio Terra from Kickstarter gave one of the keynotes and offered great insights into this new world of work. He recommended designer Craighton Berman and his interest in ‘design entrepreneurship’, championing how designers can work more independently and sustainably. Julio also mentioned ‘D2C’, the designer-to-consumer model, made possible through digital technologies that cut out the middlemen of distribution. And of course Kickstarter itself is changing the game for how new products are backed and launched. I can’t quite believe the company was founded as recently as 2009 – it feels like it’s always been there. In this model, storytelling and narrative have usurped conventional marketing. Young designers are attracting backers through engaging and personal short films to promote their work, made using readily available software.

This brave new world of employment has a rich assortment of pitfalls and opportunities, many of which  – for good and bad – are the result of new technologies and a splintered job market. While we need new thinking around education and training to keep abreast of these rapid changes, the path to success remains the same – find something you’re passionate about, word hard, network, and be good at what you do.

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.

Sizing Up the Competition

Last month, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) published Sponsored Museums Performance Indicators 2015/16’. It reported that visits to the 15 DCMS-funded museums, mostly London-based with some located in other parts of the country, have dropped for the first time in a decade. There were 1.4 million fewer visits this year compared with last year – 47.6 million, down from 49 million –  and it was tourists who were staying away. Surprisingly, overseas visitors made up about 47% of audiences to these museums, which Arts Professional reports as down from 49% in 2014/15. Arts Professional also makes the point that visits to the UK by overseas residents actually went up and were 5.1% higher in 2015 than the previous year. What all this adds up to is more people visiting the UK, and fewer of them visiting UK museums. So if they aren’t coming to us, where are they going?

It seems museums are facing some stiff competition for audiences. This would be consistent with anecdotal evidence I heard in the US. Museum staff in both Indianapolis and Denver spoke about the sector having to look beyond just other museums. We have to better understand how people choose to spend their leisure time and take into consideration the broad range of other available options. And it’s not just us having to do this; the power of social media has strong-armed many public-facing organisations into raising their customer experience game. A bad review on TripAdvisor or a pointed complaint on Twitter are seen by the world, making them far more effective tools for change than a letter to the director. Similarly, a glowing review on facebook or a positive photo on Instagram are marketing gold-dust. We have all become little emperors with mobile phones, giving the thumbs up or thumbs down as the mood takes us. In this climate, museums are looking to other types of venue for inspiration, and they are looking right back at us and doing the same.

For example, there is a great cafe in Cambridge called Stir. It has excellent coffee, lots of varied and comfortable seating, tasty food, friendly staff, lovely tiled walls, and large windows to watch the world go by. All of these elements come together to create a relaxed and welcoming ambience. On the back wall in the main room is a large blackboard; it’s covered with a calendar of activities, including weekly, morning, drop-in art workshops for young children. Now, if I had a toddler and was looking for a low-fi bit of creative entertainment that would suit the needs of both my child and me, I could potentially chose between a kids’ workshop at a local museum or a local cafe. The former has the advantage of original artworks, the latter has coffee and sofas. Museum staff might presume the lure of original artworks would trump all alternatives, but if I’d only had four hours’ sleep the night before and had been watching Igglepiggle on a loop since 5.30am, my money would be on coffee and sofas.

Places like Stir are the competition for museums looking to broaden the scope of their audiences. Increasingly, cafes are picking up museum tricks (like kids’ workshops) and museums are picking up cafe tricks (like coffee and sofas – although not near the artworks). Museums are also borrowing from cinemas, gardens, theatres, and bars to create new museum experiences and attract audiences who like those kinds of social offers. As the line between different forms of leisure activity blurs, it can be harder to distinguish the USP (unique selling point) of museums. Libraries have already gone through this process of reinvention. Books are now just one aspect of the library offer, which can include cafes, creches, job centres, and ubiquitous yoga classes. At Biggin Hill, the library was knocked down and replaced by a library and swimming pool on the same site. If such things are possible, I look forward to the first museum-jacuzzi experience.

With so much change in the air, I suspect museums are going through a bit of an identity crisis. We haven’t fully shaken off the ‘dry n dusty’ reputation of our past, and we haven’t fully embraced the ‘down with the kids’ potential of our venues either. Instead, we seem to be going through that awkward teenage phase, sometimes reverting back to what we were and sometimes reaching forward to what we might become. I see examples of incredible, innovative museum practice and think ‘at last!’, but then it only takes a couple of retrograde meetings to realise, ‘ah, maybe not quite yet’.

All of this competition also affects learning programming. Museums are just one of many places that an adult audiences can go for an interesting talk and a glass of wine, or that families can bring their children for an afternoon outing. How can we continue to set ourselves apart from the crowd and convince audiences that we are the best use of their free time? An obvious strength is our collections, exhibitions, and venues. Well, ‘obvious’ only if we make these assets relevant to audiences. Nina Simon’s latest book The Art of Relevance argues that this is a fundamental aspect of audience development.

Personally, I’m a fan of immersive experiences (taking a leaf out of theatre’s book) and anything multisensory or cross-disciplinary that draws on music, dance and performance – Punchdrunk’s work with the National Maritime Museum set the bar pretty high with their installation, Against Captain’s Orders in 2015. Having said that, I’m also keen on quiet, stripped-back experiences where visitors are encouraged to stop, be still and ponder. For example, the National Gallery runs programmes that invite participants to sit in silence and look at a single painting for five minutes. Called ‘Looking without Talking’, the sessions originated in 2013 to support the Vermeer and Music exhibition. The structure of these sessions has also been repeated under different titles, such as ‘Drawing Mindfully’ and ‘Draw Breath’. Similarly, The Photographers’ Gallery has a small gallery space devoted to just one image and encourages visitors to spend time with it and share their responses. I like these different approaches because they are creating experiences that feel special. Those who participate get to do something outside of the everyday and enjoy a sense of wonder – surely that is a competitive advantage.

Image: All About Eve (1950) https://mubi.com/films/all-about-eve

 

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/