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The New Rules of Innovation

The New Rules of Innovation

Go back to the basics. That is the imperative of radical innovation: take a look at the underlying rules and principles that guide your organization and see what happens when you change them. This often means disrupting and unsettling rules that your company or industry has taken for granted as given for years. No rule is a timeless truth. With new environments, new technologies, new clients, so, too must come new rules. The challenge is having the courage to break old rules.

For one small Midwestern art museum, innovation was about not merely questioning the rules of the institution but also re-imagining the very definition of art itself.

This once-vibrant museum that had played a major role in the cultural and economic life of its community was quickly losing relevance and its building had fallen into disarray. The directors needed to find a way to both raise money to repair the building and to regain the institution’s artistic reputation.

At the center of this crisis was a large source of money that the museum couldn’t use: a giant trust that had been established by donors in the early-nineteenth-century, with the stipulation that these funds be used solely for the acquisition of new art. So the current museum directors simply weren’t allowed to tap into the trust to renovate the building or develop new education initiatives.

When the executive board of the museum brought me in to help come up with new ways of creating income, I saw that this was a deeply hierarchical institution. Everyone had their own designated responsibilities, which rarely overlapped, and only a very small group of people had a real influence when it came to change.

We put together cross-functional innovation teams that paired staff members with local volunteers and community leaders. The jumpstart sessions were energetic and empowering, generating many great ideas.

But when it came to actually carrying out these ideas, the curator–an old bowtie-wearing, Ivy League-educated man–shot everything down. “We can’t do that,” he said to nearly all of our plans. The similarly conservative Chairman of the Board sided with the curator. At this standstill, there wasn’t much we could do.

Then, something curious happened at the other side of the country. The news came out that a well-known, prestigious East Coast historical society was going under. Instead of selling a few of its valuable artifacts, the group chose to shut down its exhibition space and warehouse all its treasures because its directors believed that the central role of an historical society is to preserve art for studying and not to exhibit it to the hoi polloi.

Back in the Midwest, the curator took the position of the historical society directors. He thought that they did the right thing in closing their doors. He, too, thought that fine art was meant to be studied by trained scholars, not appreciated by an uninformed public.

This sparked a vibrant discussion among the museum directors about the fundamental role of art in the world. The deputy director–a younger man committed to making art accessible to as many people as possible–took a meeting with one of the most famous museums on the East Coast. He had the idea to organize a traveling exhibition of his own museum’s collection of the Dutch Masters. It just so happened that this small, underdog museum in the Midwest had one of the world’s top collections of seventeenth-century Dutch painters.

The curator didn’t want to see these paintings on the road. He claimed there was too much risk in protecting these works in transit, that it would cost too much money to insure them. Here was the deputy director’s way in: the giant nineteenth-century trust may not have provided funds for renovating the building, but it did make provisions for exhibitions. So the museum could use that money to insure the paintings.

The traveling exhibit was a major financial and cultural success. Soon, people from all over the globe came to this small Midwestern city to see these world-class masterpieces they couldn’t see anywhere else. With this new income, the museum re-established its relevance to the community, rebuilding its facilities and launching new education programs for underprivileged children.

The deputy director–the brains behind this breakthrough innovation–went on to take a position as the head of the major museum association, becoming a kind of cultural hero for small museums everywhere. The traveling exhibition is now a commonplace form of sharing work for a wider viewership and gaining aesthetic and fiscal capital for less-known institutions.

Sometimes, the solution to your innovation initiative is right in front of you–if you’re willing to break existing rules. In this case, the solution itself wasn’t hard. It just required a rethinking of the traditional boundaries of a museum.

The Old Guard is not your enemy. Here, the curator was not a bad person–he was merely attached to a pre-existing set of rules that needed to be updated. It wasn’t about antagonizing him. It was about navigating him through the changing world we shared.

Every generation has its avant-garde–the visionary artists and thinkers who are eager for revolution. But the same people who established the rules they want to throw away were once themselves the avant-garde. Instead of considering your predecessors the enemy, think of them as individuals to learn from and commune with, Old Masters whose techniques we can re-imagine in our own future.

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