To Innovate, You Must Cultivate Brilliance

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few” Shunryu Suzuki

“Dragonfly” by quilt artist Danny Amazonas

The National Quilt Museum has a program called Block of the Month.  Every month a guest ‘celebrity’ quilter designs a quilt block and leads a group of quilters in making it.  In a little more than a year, this group has grown to over 12,000 members and continues to grow.  In an average month, over 4,000 members a day log-in to the groups Facebook page.  Over 50,000 times per month members interact by ‘liking’ or ‘commenting’ on a post.  The idea for the group came from a 19-year-old front of house employee.

How many of you have a culture in which a 19-year-old employee’s idea would get approved and be given resources to launch into a program?  More to the point, if you were to quantify the total intellectual capacity of your staff, on a 1 to 100 scale, what percentage of this capacity is regularly informing decisions? It’s easy to fall into expertise traps in which a few influential staff members suffocate the flow of good ideas.

This issue is common in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. It’s one of the reasons that major industry disruptions typically are driven by upstart organizations.  They aren’t hampered by historic organizational knowledge or perception of expertise.  In the museum industry, we have limited resources in a world that is changing faster than ever.  We need to bring the best every staff member has to offer to the table to innovate, remain relevant, and ultimately sustain and grow.

Why is this so hard to do?  First, the museum industry is weighted down by history at a higher degree than many other sectors.  As we go through years doing things a certain we give historic decisions credibility simply because things have been that way for a long time.  We often assume things must be this way for a reason when often it has not been thought through for some time, and the original reason it was done that way is no longer relevant.  Second, much of what limits the effectiveness of decision making comes down to our primal desire to protect our worth and identity.  Often veteran management still at the museum made the original decision, and they have attached their perception of their worth as an employee of the museum to the positive result that occurred even if returns from that original decision have been diminishing.  They think that if they admit it’s time to do new things, they are devaluing themselves.  This is one of the most common traits that limit the ability for genuine collaboration in many museums and other organizations.  Making things even more complicated, often they have attached their identity to their expertise and see all ideas from other people in the organization (especially less experienced people) as a personal attack.

Lastly, at a more subconscious level, we are often fooled by our perception of the value of our experience.  In a 2015 Harvard Business Journal article by  Emre Soyer and Robin M. Hogarth entitled “Fooled by experience,” the authors explain, “The problem is that we view the past through numerous filters that distort our perceptions. As a result, our interpretations of experience are biased, and the judgments and decisions we base on those interpretations can be misguided.” What often happens is that we see every new idea from the prism of our current understandings.  We can’t see the value in what’s presented because we are filtering it through outdated or narrow assumptions.

I have two challenges for you to create more productive discussions with your museum.  First, embrace the Zen concept called Shoshin.  In English, we translate this as “Beginners Mind.” To truly make the most of the intellectual abilities in any meeting room, everyone needs to enter the room with a beginners mind.  Have an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions.  Act like you are a brand new museum considering each item without any historical knowledge.

Second, you must be willing to see new information from many different perceptions.  Consider how the dragonfly sees the world.  The dragonfly’s eyes have over 1500 photoreceptors.  As such, it can see things from an endless number of perceptions.  Challenge yourself to try to consider new ideas on their merit unattached from historical assumptions.  Trust me, some of these ideas are gold; they are simply outside of your current perceptions.

Embrace the beginner’s mind in your museum and let ideas from all sources rise to the surface.

Article by Frank Bennett,

Picture is the quilt “Dragonfly” by artist Danny Amazonas. 

Soyer, Emre.  Hogarth, Robin M. “Fooled by Experience.” Harvard Business Review.  May 2015