Thursday, March 21, 2013

Dreaming Big


When CFM launched in 2008, we were tasked by the Alliance board with being a "skunk works," idea lab and an incubator of possibilities. For someone such as myself, trained as a collections manager, schooled in the careful calculations of risk management, it took some re-tooling to adopt appropriate strategies. It was necessary to not only accept the possibility of failure, but realize that if I never fail, I'm not pushing the envelope far enough. That's scary territory, and I've kept my eyes open for fellow explorers mapping similar terrain. That's how I found today's guest blogger—Leah Melber, Senior Director of the newly launched Hurvis Center for Learning Innovation and Collaboration at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Dream big—throw limits out the window. That was the guidance my education colleagues and I were given during a recent planning retreat to determine our next frontier. The retreat ignited us to think long and hard about what niche we wanted to fill within the informal education field. Drawing from themes on innovation and risk taking as championed by the Center for the Future of Museums, it didn't take long to agree we wanted to launch a learning center using the zoo as a laboratory. We wanted to try program models that were unproven, but with the potential for great success. To make this risk-taking acceptable, we'd commit to robust evaluation and research that would prove our successes and make even failures valuable in the lessons they could teach.

When the news came we received a leadership gift of $3M from the Hurvis Charitable Foundation to make our vision a reality, we began to discuss a name for the center. It would need to articulate our commitment to innovation and the importance of partnerships with others. A very messy white board and several lists later, The Hurvis Center for Learning Innovation and Collaboration was born. I laugh now when I remember what a challenge I considered that process. Just months later, I know that was a piece of cake.

As with any new initiative, especially one committed to not following an established pathway, challenges are simply part of the territory. There are the kind that you leave at your desk at the end of the day and the kind that wake you up at 3 am. There are the kind you discuss with a trusted colleague in hushed voices and the kind you ask your team to brainstorm on during a department meeting. All of them keep my team and me on our toes.

For example, it wasn't long before my color-coded, carefully crafted, multi-year staffing plan went out the window. Things like unexpected maternity leave, relocation time for a new hire, and a sheer underestimation of the workload took us quickly from Plan A to Plan B. I’m already aware that Plan C is likely lurking just around the corner and I’ve learned not to get too attached to beautiful charts.

We worked incredibly hard to complete as our inaugural product a free iPad app that lets learners use technology to study animal behavior (ethology) just like a researcher would and in any location convenient to them. I was thrilled when Apple approved the Observe to Learn app and made it available in the App Store only days before a related presentation and training on the product. I was less thrilled 5 minutes later to hear a shout from down the hall "It's not WORKING!!" as I was tapping my self-congratulatory email announcement to our CEO. I quickly deleted THAT email and set to writing our app developers instead. A week later, an update was launched and the problem solved, not before the presentation, but well in time for the training.

For me, a key challenge is finding time for reflection so I can maintain a broad view of our field and the Center's commitment to innovation within it. Days can easily be eaten away by the tasks on our to-do lists. But it's the center’s commitment to working outside the box that reminds me I need to have the same expectations for myself. Reading that latest blog, pondering a journal article, or calling up a colleague to talk about their newest initiatives are not 'extras' to fit in when I have time. They are at the heart of what I need to do to move our center forward and keep us open to all possibilities, ready to detour at any step. For a natural planner, and list maker, this might be my biggest challenge of all.

I am wise enough to know the challenges will keep coming, some hitting harder than others. I am not however wise enough to always predict from which direction they will come. So rather than try and anticipate every possible challenge, I've chosen to remind myself that the very process of overcoming challenges IS a significant part of the what the center was established to explore. Our job is simply to meet them when they arrive and see them as the learning experiences they are.

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