Becoming an Agent of Change at your Organization


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A presentation about doing things that inspire personal and institutional creativity in the aim of making museums and libraries more relevant, sustainable and capable of changing the world in ways we are uniquely suited to do.

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  • Thank you for having me here today. This is actually a journey that began three years ago at a conference called Webwise. I met Anne in a Super Shuttle on the way to the airport and she, after hearing me present at the conference, asked if I'd consider presenting at ILEADU. In doing so, I created this talk. "Becoming an Agent of Change for your Organization" and as the next year approached, she asked me to come back and give it again. So I did, re-writing it for what I'd evolved to consider what was required to nurture change in oneself and in one's organization. And so, it has changed a lot again this year, when she asked me again to come back and to speak about my work. This opportunity to speak about my work in this venue, with such enthusiastic and supportive audience members, has been a highlight in my life these last three years. It is always a challenge to reassess where you are, and why you're there, and how that might apply to others, but it is also always a challenge worth taking.
  • Originally presented on March 13, 2012 at On the Front Lines, University of Illinois, Springfield by Beck Tench, Director for Innovation and Digital Engagement Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC
  • The talk was previously centered around "Five Things You Should Do Even If They Make You Uncomfortable" and while those things are represented in the talk today, they are really distilled into two things -- Thing 1: Is to trust yourself; and Thing 2: Is to trust others. Before I get too far down the path and you think I'm some sort of zen inspirational speaker, I'd like to articulate to what end these things are very important. As I'm sure you know, they affect all areas of a life.For what I'm here to speak of today, they are required to nurture creativity in your work life; to inspire creativity in your colleagues; and to, ultimately, use that creativity to make our institutions sustainable, relevant in our community's lives, and to help make the world a better place where we are uniquely able to do so.
  • But first, I must warn you. Because I am asking you to do things that are against the status quo and perhaps unprecedented in your work life, there are shark-filled waters ahead.
  • Sharks like "I'm not good/creative/smart enough." "I don't know what I'm doing." and "I will fail and be ridiculed." I know these sharks well. I am swimming among them now.
  • The shark of “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
  • The shark “I am not smart, creative, or insightful enough.”
  • The shark “If I fail, I will be ridiculed.”
  • But what I've learned time and time again is that these sharks are all of my own volition. I'm the one that's creating them and because of that I'm the one most capable of denying them power. As I stand here now and risk your judgment, I invite you to do the same and see what you learn about yourself -- the shark and the swimmer -- when you proceed despite your fears.
  • In fact, I'm going to ask you to proceed despite your fears right now. Let's take a poll, how many folks in the audience feels like they can draw. Okay, take a look around, so you see the drawers.Now, let me ask another question. How many folks in the audience was once, at any point ever in their life, five years old?Keep 'em raised. Take a look around.
  • That's right. If you were once five years old, you could draw. And you can draw now.
  • In fact, drawing is a visual vocabulary just like our alphabet is a visual vocabulary.
  • Just like with these 26 letters, you can communicate anything in the English language, with these dozen shapes, you can draw anything, ever, at all.
  • I would like to invite you all, now, to spend the remainder of my talk drawing. I want you each to take this risk. And to top it off, I want your drawing to be collaborative. So here's what I want you to do...
  • Take a blank sheet of paper or pick the back of a piece of paper you're okay not having anymore and draw a squiggle on it. Now, pass that paper to someone else. Everyone have a squiggle that isn't there's? Great. Now, turn that squiggle into a robot. That's your assignment for the rest of this talk. When we're done, I want you to give the robot to someone else. And if you're concerned that you won't be able to take in the rest of this talk, fear not. Studies have shown that we actually retain more information when we Doodle while listening. And I will happily share all of these slides on slideshare so that you can reference them in the future.Drawing is a skill to cultivate in your creative life because it gives you a canvas to fill when these shapes, the alphabet, won't do. I believe if we are to be creative individuals, we need many canvases and many ways with which to fill them. The best way to become competent at filling those canvases is to practice and get to know them well.
  • Another thing I'm asking you to do that requires trusting yourself is to write. Specifically, to write without purpose. To write to exhaust your logical mind. For years, now, I have depended on an exercise called "Morning Pages" to gain clarity and creative vision. Has anyone heard of morning pages?
  • Morning pages are simply three blank sheets of paper that you fill before you begin to work, before you check email, but (for me at least), not before you drink coffee.
  • The express purpose of this writing is to give voice to the logical part of your brain that gets in the way of creative thinking. The part that's thinking and worrying about life. Morning pages gives this brain voice to the point that by the third page, it's not cluttering your thoughts and can be rested.Another thing that's great about morning pages is that they always end at three pages. You never write four pages because you have that much to write. In a world where much of our knowledge work is on-going, it is nice to have something so doable, with a clear ending.I'm far too narcissitic to throw the pages away, but that's the idea. To write for an express purpose and then move on. Instead of throwing my pages away, I seal them in an envelope, date it and haven't yet revisited any of them.
  • Twyla Tharp’s ritual.
  • Beck’s ritual.
  • The last thing I'm going to ask you to do is to value solitude and create spaces for it in your life. These days, in both school and work, and of course our social lives, extroversion and collaboration are highly valued. We work and play in teams and think that two heads are better than one. While I'm not qualified to completely dismiss that notion, and while I have certainly experienced the insights of a group of thinkers thinking together, I think solitude plays a very important part in everyone's creative life and it's something we need to cultivate in work (and also our personal) life.I've done this in two ways that I recommend. The first is to work some of your day in a space where you are alone. Not in a place where you are away from co-workers, but maybe near family or strangers at a coffee house, but rather a plaace where you are completely alone. I have gone so far as to be alone at home, with ear plugs in my ears. In fact, that's how I prepared this talk. You're after an environment with as little external distraction as possible. This is not to say that you cannot entertain whatever distractions come to you while you're alone. Sometimes clarity comes in moments we are following our nose in ways that feel unproductive. Again, trust yourself to spend time alone, and trust yourself while you're spending that time.
  • The second way I've created a space for solitude is that I've started to go on a personal retreat. I've only done one, but I am already scouting out my locale for the next and have committed to doing them, at least annually, from now on. My personal retreat, which was three days and three nights at a friend's lake cabin, was inspired by a friend of mine, Anton Zuiker, also known as MisterSuger, who did something similar a few years ago, when he was reassessing his career decisions. Before I left on my retreat, I asked Anton to share any advice he had, and he shared the following instruction, which I practiced on my retreat and it was open and bounded enough to be both very doable and very rewarding.
  • His advice was to rest, exercise and diet, plus read, write and reflect. Specifically to seek a balance of body, health and mind and to recall all the people and experiences that have made you who you are and to look ahead to all that's to come.
  • So that's thing one: trust yourself. But before we go to thing two: trust others, I want to mention a couple things that I think are really important. The first is mise en place. This is the first step in cooking, most especially french cooking, which requires you to not cook, but rather to think and prepare. All of these things -- drawing, writing, solitude, they not only require mise en place, they are mise en place for the creation of new ideas. Consider them an important part of the process of doing real work.
  • The second is an encouragement to explore analog tools for these activities. Use pen and paper to draw, to write. Use honest-to-goodness solitude (as opposed to noise cancelling headphones and a closed door. There are affordances we have to gain with the unencumbered tools that technology has not mimicked and, dare I say it, may never. Perhaps we will evolve right along with it, but you and me aren't evolved there yet, and have a lot to gain from enjoying low-barrier if non-existent user interfaces.
  • Okay, onto Thing 2: trusting others.
  • At this point, I'd like you to stop sketching and hand your drawing back to the person who gave you the original squiggle. Your assignment for the rest of the talk, now, is to "finish it."
  • So, when I was hired at my museum, I was given the very fortunate role of "Change Agent." My science museum had been given a grant by the IMLS to answer the question, "What happens when a science museum hires someone they normally wouldn't hire to do something they normally wouldn't do." The person was me, a decidedly non-scientist, non-educator. And the thing was to take technological risks. In my work with institutional change, I have created strategies to get people taking risks with technology, and I have seen whether or not they worked. With that in mind, I'm going to share some things I believe to be truths about any institution that needs to change.
  • The first is that in order for there to be a risk-taker, there needs to be a space-maker. I was lucky enough to have a space-maker from the start. In fact, I was told that if I didn't fail, he would be disappointed in me.
  • But what I quickly learned, was that as a risk-taker, it was my job to make space for others in my organization.
  • My philosophy began, when early on in my museum career, I met a man named Paul Martin, who is a very accomplished exhibit developer and now leader, at the Science Museum of Minnesota, the largest science museum in the world.Paul's philosophy behind building exhibits where people learn is to create spaces for them to feel safe and smart. I sort of fell in love with that idea and began to use that approach with my colleagues. That if I wanted them to take technological risks, I needed to help them feel safe and smart around technology.
  • One of the ways I did this mirrors what I'm doing with you today. I invited them to draw with me. Specifically, I held "office hours" on Friday evenings at a local bar, The Pinhook, and invited people to join me. We created a game called "Napkin Tennis" based on the Photoshop game called "Layer Tennis" and would pass around a napkin and draw on it. That game evolved to a sketchbook and the drawings got more advanced as people felt safe and more competent drawing. Eventually the game turned into a game called "turn it into a puppy," which is similar to the game we're playing now. But I chose robots because I think they're more fun to draw.
  • This idea is now institutionalized, and my colleagues are invited to sketch exhibit and program ideas they have on an "Idea Board." Those napkins are pulled out of a hat and people pitch their ideas and I have a small pot of money to fund them.
  • So many of us work to convince our colleagues to rally behind good ideas, when another approach is to inspire their own creativity and once they've got a good idea, see what we can do to enable it. I think this is a true way to achieve organizational change, as opposed to creating a vulnerable organization that supports, but also hinges on the ideas and enthusiasm of one very enthusiastic and creative person.So creating a safe and smart environment for risk taking and creativity has led to ideas. But alas, not all of them were good ones. So I had to also develop a strategy for managing ideas. It is in three parts:
  • The first thing I do when someone comes to me with an idea is to find a future point in time where the shininess has worn off and I can see the idea as a creative outlet, instead of a duty, for the creator of it. If the idea is destined to be burndensome, it needs to change so that it will help my colleague fulfill her creative life.
  • A great example is seen in one of our animal keepers who blogs about keeping animals at the museum.
  • She wrote this in her personal blog about blogging for the museum and it lets me know that she feels safe and trusted and fulfilled by her blogging work.
  • For every idea that makes it past the first step and can be seen as a potential creative outlet for the creator, it then enters a period I call "Handhold, then Handoff." This is a variable amount of time, depending on how confident the creator feels in pulling off what's required (creatively, technologically, publically) of the idea.
  • For some staff, like our entomologist, Richard, he needed only a couple weeks to get the hang of posting and fielding comments about photos he took of our butterflies on Flickr.
  • For others, like our educator, Trish, I sat with her for nearly two years at a desk while we played Name That Zoom -- a game where we post a photo of something that's been zoomed in 200x to Flickr and ask our followers on Twitter to guess what it is. These games take about 60 minutes and have, in that span of time, about as many comments and questions that need to be fielded. Trish is a natural facilitator, but she had trouble with the technology. Ultimately, we moved the game from Twitter to Facebook where she felt more competent and now she handles the game on her own.
  • After a person feels ownership of the idea, then I am completely hands off and trust their judgment completely. There is no moderation of any staff person's ideas and no punishment if they fail. Just like with my boss, failure is encouraged because it means that you're learning something and you're also trying things that have never been done.
  • Our social media policy is 1) to use common sense; 2) if it gives you pause, pause; and 3) beck will have have your back. When a colleague missteps, I am given the opportunity to practice supporting them, and looking through the rubble to understand what we can learn.
  • My favorite definition of science is that it requires two fundamental attitudes: to be will to accept what you find and will to discover that you are wrong. As a person who wasn't very science-identified before I started working for a museum, these were new concepts to me. But I want to share a video that I just discovered last week that illustrates what it looks like to embrace this sort of approach. It's of a seven-year-old boy, Audri Clemmons, who happens to live in Durham and visit our museum.
  • Original Source:
  • What if we thought “only three failures?!” instead of be paralyzed by only one?
  • This brings this to the close of my talk, and to my last opportunity to inspire you to take bits of this and try it in your own lives. And I'm going to do that by trumping all the other things I've ever done in front of a large group of people -- the biggest shark of all. I'm going to introduce you to Becky.
  • Ever since February 3, 2003, I have realized that I am only one decision away from making monumental change. We are all one decision away from that in our personal and professional lives. Better starts now, if you let it.
  • This is me, 10 years ago. I weighed over 300 pounds and on February 3, 2003 decided that I was only one change away from changing my entire life. It was the biggest, smallest moment in my life. No real Damascus moment, I wasn't particularly inspired, I wasn't sure of myself, I had no plan. But I decided to try to eat better and exercise.And I changed, drastically. And for every change I made, there were new challenges. And for those challenges, there were new strategies. And I am no where near figuring it all out. But I am equipped with the two things that are most important of all: a commitment to trusting myself; and a commitment to trusting others.
  • Contact me at [email_address] or @10ch or
  • Becoming an Agent of Change at your Organization

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