Looking for leadership is a wicked problem

Identifying the kinds of leaders who will push the museum sector into new kinds of technologically mediated experiences is not a technology problem, it’s a cultural problem – a wicked problem – that can’t be planned away, or addressed by a white paper. The way to address it is to make new kinds of museum experiences, with new people at the table, along with current practitioners and museum leaders. And the people who will make them will have something bigger to say than just “We should use these new digital technologies! They’re great!” Their vision and message will naturally encompass these tools, and older, more traditional ones.

Looking for leaders who “get” new technologies is what social scientists call a “wicked problem.” I first ran into the term at the New Media Consortium retreat, and it has stayed in my brain, and not just because it sounds mellifluous to my New England ears. It is a useful way to look at a lot of things going on in the field.

Aussies asking questions

As examples; Seb Chan recently posted a pithy little provocation on museums making the shift to digital collecting. I suggest you check it out, particularly the comments. I don’t know how much I agree with it, but it’s thought-provoking, particularly since he sees the problem of digital technology adoption not as a technology problem, but as a cultural problem. Integrating the digital is a messy problem, with lots of issues intertwined with it. I especially liked his construction of the ‘buildings & exhibitions vs platforms & media’ continuum, as a way to think about ways forward.

This is to me, related to Suse Cairns musings on technologists, the state of museum leadership, and what the next generation of museum leaders needs to know. Now there’s a thorny problem. I lived through the whole “We need museums to act more like businesses” era, with its attendant rush to turn directors into CEOs and rash of executives with “real-world” experience brought in to fix our systemic problems. I certainly don’t want us to do that again, only this time with technologists, whatever that term means. So how do we untangle this wicked problem? [extra credit if you can explain why the museum space is so full of interesting Australian thinkers.]

Wicked problems require different kinds of solutions

It’s worth looking at how wicked problems are dealt with. Janet Carding from ROM tweeted a link to a piece Jon Kolko wrote for the Stanford Social Innovation Review called “Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving” that defines wicked problems nicely. In short,

“A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.”

What is particularly useful to this discussion is his conception of how one deals with these problems,

“These problems can be mitigated through the process of design, which is an intellectual approach that emphasizes empathy, abductive reasoning (otherwise known as guesswork), and rapid prototyping.”

This is a design problem, not an intellectual exercise, or a philosophical debate. How do we create something that results in leaders who “get” digital technologies? Note Kolko doesn’t say one can solve wicked problems like this, rather, they are “mitigated”. When it comes to leadership and innovation, I’m not sure one can ever expect to find leaders who know everything and are up to speed on whatever the new thing is.

Empathy, guesswork, and rapid prototyping. Not a bunch of usual suspects in a conference room. Not an outside expert. Not another plan. One of my favorite moments of the NMC retreat was Larry Johnson’s line, “Our strategic planning is based on a world that no longer exists.” Amen, brother. This may be why I still quote Ted Forbes’ mantra, “Do it now. Do the best you can. Do it better tomorrow.” And now that Max Anderson and Rob Stein have joined him at the Dallas Museum of Art, I can’t wait to see what “better” looks like.

You need new people around to generate really new ideas

Mia Ridge posted a great round up from last year’s MCN conference that included a gem from Bruce Wyman, “current visitors most frequently give *incremental* ideas. You need different folk to take those great leaps forward. That’s us.” Another way of saying it I’ve often used is, “If Henry Ford had asked his customers what they wanted, none of them would’ve said ‘An automobile!’ They ask for a better horse, because that’s what they knew.” Substitute “visitors” for “customers” and you can get a sense of hard it makes it to bring digital experiences in from the cold if you treat them as a normal kind of problem.

But if you were instead to treat this lack of understanding like a wicked problem and look at other ways of addressing it? One candidate might be something like a co-creation process, a process that brings unusual suspects together with museum teams.

Be in it together

At the Museum of Science, we’re currently developing a new permanent exhibition on the nature of technology, and trying to figure out a co-creation model that will get us the kind of exhibition we wouldn’t be able to/willing to/comfortable with making by ourselves. Designing the design process is incredibly hard work, and fraught with all kinds of peril that we can all clearly see. Just the learning curve involved in getting outside parties to understand what we do could be a full-time job, but the benefits, if we get it right, should allow us to do something both new, and more connected to communities who believe in the museum.

Stefan Stern wrote a great piece in the Harvard Business Review about co-creation and how it differs from other ways of developing new things. “Co-creators look for the rejecters, the extreme users, the hackers, and the bloggers. If they have a design or marketing background, all the better.” The article profiles one UK-based company’s methods for co-creating that are business-focused, but worth looking at. They include:

  • Have an open mind, and be creative about whom you bring in as a possible co-creator.
  • Co-creation works best when you build a strong community.
  • When you’re running co-creation workshops, don’t expect a big “a-ha” moment when the clouds part and somebody blurts out The Next Big Thing. The real art is in synthesizing all the ideas afterwards and understanding the big, unlooked-for themes that underpin them.
  • Get your top people involved in the workshops.
  • Prototype, prototype, prototype. Make your ideas real. Then break them and make them again.

The part that resonated for me personally was the importance of having top people involved. How many directors do you know who use social media tools? I can only think of three: Max Anderson, Nina Simon, and Janet Carding, and I know at least two of them used them before they were directors. How many museum directors, or even assistant/deputy/associate directors have you ever seen at a tech-themed gathering like MCN, Museums and the Web, or even tech-oriented sessions at AAM or other mainstream conferences?

This “preaching to the choir” lament is a constant refrain at conferences, but how many of us currently interested in these issues have ever invited or even discussed the issues with a leader, or said, “You should really go to ____. It’s a great conference and you’ll learn a ton.” I know have been guilty of that. The appeal of flying below the radar is tactically unquestionable, but I think in the long run it may be strategically untenable.

Have something to say

I’ve been writing a lot about vision recently, so I’ll refrain from repeating myself too much, other than to end with another provocation and a question. Alain de Botton recently had an editorial posted on the (UK) Museums Association site called, “Art museums have become pointless: they should learn from Christianity.” He doesn’t mean that museums should become mouthpieces for Christianity. Rather, he thinks museums have forgotten their message about what’s important, which is what religion excels at. He is speaking specifically about art museums, but I think his point applies to the whole sector.

“Try to imagine what would happen if modern secular museums took the example of churches more seriously. What if they too decided that art had a specific purpose – to make us a bit more sane, or slightly good or once in a while or a little wiser and kinder – and tried to use the art in their possession to prompt us to be so?”

“The challenge is to rewrite the agendas for our art museums so that collections can begin to serve the needs of psychology as effectively as, for centuries, they served those of theology. Curators should attempt to put aside their deep-seated fears of instrumentalism and once in a while co-opt works of art to an ambition of helping us to get through life.”

Part of that new agenda and ambition could be written in new ways with new technologies, but the technologies themselves aren’t much use as communication media without something worth communicating. Those leaders with something to communicate will find ways to get their message out using every channel at their disposal. I’ve written already about vision and desire, but ambition is a better word. Finding them and holding them up is the hard part, the heart of the wicked problem.

So another thing that seems like a technology issue turns into a people issue. That may be another theme for 2012. And the only thing I can see that might help unwinding some of the threads of this wicked problem is to do more open projects, do them with unusual folks, do them in broad daylight, and make sure your directors can see you, maybe even be part of the process.

Related Links:

Seb Chan – Museums making the shift to digital collecting

Suse Cairns – Can a technologist get ahead in museums?

Mia Ridge – Report from ‘What’s the point of a museum website’ at MCN2011

Stefan Stern – A Co-creation Primer

Alain de Botton – Museums Association

[3/13/2012 – made minor edits for clarity and to sound a little less self-important.]

UPDATE: Rob Stein’s Museums and the Web 2012 paper is also a good read on tech and admin. Get it here.


UPDATE 3/22/12: Danny Birchall posted a great example of how co-creation can look in his description of developing the Wellcome Collection’s “Axon” game with neuroscientists, museum professionals and game designers.


  1. Great post!
    Change is a tricky process, and we’ll need change experts to help us get through this alright. The real ivory tower is the belief we can do everything ourselves. Let’s reach out for help.
    (How many museum people do attend real world conferences on innovation?)
    Thanks Ed!


  2. It might be worth reading Elaine Gurian’s essay from 2010 “Wanting to be third on your block” (PDF). Elaine referred it to me in some recent discussions.

    It feels like a lot of previous museum generations have gone through this sort of feeling before.

    The tension between the “classicists” and the “inclusionists” has existed from almost the beginning of museums themselves and there have always been side-by- side contemporaneous developments of excellence by each “team” and in every age. The inclusionist museums tend to be numerically fewer and are often considered generally less powerful than their more traditional siblings. They are often found in categories (children’s museums, science centers, and culturally specific museums) that the classicists might not consider “real” museums. But the influence of these inclusionist institutions is huge, because they experiment with multiple strategies of interactivity that push the boundaries of their institution and of the genre as a whole. The techniques originated by these museums are the ones that slowly make their way into the mainstream, first by imitation by other inclusionist museums and then via adoption by the more flexible members of the classic category (where the change is sometimes heralded as being revolutionary). Thereafter there is an acceptance of this selfsame technique even by the most reticent using a process that I suggest be called “wanting to be the third on your block”. This comes only after many others have tried it, most especially after the supplest of the classic museums have incorporated it into their own program.


  3. Unfortunately, though, when you pull the lens way back out, you find that it’s not just a technology problem, but it’s a problem for museums in general–many leaders say they are going to push the museum in a new direction and it ends up being the same ol’ same ol all over again. Sometimes it’s worse than the original.


  4. Larry’s statement you quoted from the NMC retreat has stuck with me as well. At the heart of these wicked problems is power and access, two things leadership often has difficulty granting. It’s hard to approach problems in a new way and/or stimulate innovative thinking when the same “brains” are always present at the table. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why “inclusionists” are consistently kicking the “classicists” collective asses in terms of pushing the museum industry forward.


  5. There is a lot in this post that I respond to, Ed. I am particularly struck by your comments and experiences relating to the “we need museums to run like businesses” era. Although I did not go through it myself, I agree – the last thing that should happen in museums is a mass overhaul in a direction that might not suit the institution. I certain didn’t intend (in my post) to imply that all museums would be better with technologists (whatever that term means…) at the helm. It was more a response to the ideas that Seb is touching on – that if museum technology is not built into core museum business at an institutional level, then those working in that space might miss out on opportunities for leadership when they might otherwise be innately suitable. So in some ways, you are right to join those two ideas, and maybe it’s something I didn’t really do sufficiently in my own post.


    1. Hey Suse,

      I didn’t read any implicit desire to fill the ranks of directors with technologists. That reaction came straight from my memory. I read something stimulating, process it, mix it with my experiences and start writing. The act of writing forces me to order my thoughts, and I often don’t know where a piece is going until it gets there.


  6. Hi Ed, great post. Full disclosure I am NOT an expert in art nor in exhibits but I was mostly fascinated by the implications on leadership -on which I have some experience.
    So much to comment on!
    RE: Wicked problems. It seems a necessary approach, though the wicked problems per definition are never solved but only mitigated. So one way to go about it could be to have a definition of success in the first place, and then plan backwards from such definition.
    RE: Co-creation. I couldn’t agree more! And -not to add extra readings to your list- if you are into co-creation you might want to check what are the styles of conversation that are most suitable for a specific desired outcome. The best source I have found so far is through the community of practitioners “The Art of Hosting Meaningful Conversations”.
    Wishing you all the best,


    1. Hi Marco,
      Having a meaningful definition of success is crucial, and so under-appreciated, I think. Being able to start a project and say, “OK, what would success look like?” and have that conversation with the team, is a very empowering tool.
      I’m going to check out http://www.artofhosting.org/ and see what resonates! Thanks for the lead!


  7. I think there is a practical problem that makes attracting new talent outside of the museum bubble a challenge, and that’s financial concerns. The skills are there, and with the growth of groups like NYC’s ArtsTech Meetup (2300 members and going strong), it’s safe to say the interest is there as well. You’ve got a generation of changemakers excited about the future of museums and technology, but having a solid understanding of social media platforms, knowing how to build a simple webpage or to speak to developers even if you’re not one yourself, understanding how to run usability tests – these are skills that will put any 20something in demand, and if museums really want a piece of the action, they’re going to have to get more competitive in their salaries. Low salaries are not the only roadblock but they are one worth thinking about if we’re talking about bringing in outsiders and changing the guard. It may not be a new issue, but it’s one revisiting in this context. I wrote about it here: http://bit.ly/ID9TY8


    1. Thanks, Ximena!

      Your concern with skills is dead on as far as I’m concerned. Being digitally literate is already an essential skill, even for museum people not in tech ghetto jobs, so I think it’s bigger than an old guard/new guard issue. Plus, I don’t like the oppositional framing that “changing the guard” brings up for me. I’m much more interested in trying to bring as many people along who want to come, as opposed to marching the old out to make room for the new.

      But the money issue. ouch! The money issue is bigger than new media/digital media. Trawl the AAM job listings and see how many curator-track jobs “require” an advanced degree, experience, and pay next to nothing… The museum field as a whole is underresourced. How to address that is a wicked problem.


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