Tuesday, September 2, 2014

You Go First

"We're right on the edge but we need a little push 
Dancing on the tightrope wearing it thin 
Instead of closing our eyes and jumping in" 
--Jessica Andrews 

Sometime change is painful. Very painful. Giving up cherished traditions, abandoning the comforts of certitude, challenging assumptions about the way your life and career are going to play out—these things are not easy. That’s why in stable, comfortable times, only a small percentage of people, a minority who enjoy risk and change for their own sake, test radical disruptions of traditional business practices. And their innovations often fade away without a trace if their compatriots in the mainstream feel no impetus to adopt the methods they have pioneered.

But since we are living in a time of profound economic and social disruptions, many sectors are now paying close attention to the radical innovators in their fields. The alternative practices they are testing may turn out to be adaptations the field as a whole need to adopt in order to survive.

See, for example, libraries and journalism. The traditional library is being shaken up by e-books, internet search engines, cuts in government funding and economic stress on the communities in they serve. Print journalism saw its business model collapse with the rise of the internet, as advertising decamped to the web and more people look to social media for their news. Both libraries and newspapers have to experiment with new business practices, remaining true to their core functions (enhancing learning and ensuring access to information for all; investigative journalism) while questioning assumptions about traditional ways of achieving these goals.

That is why we see a new emphasis on library as a resource—bookless libraries, libraries with staff dedicated to serving the homeless, libraries providing co-working space. We see journalistic experiments like digital access by paid subscription (the New York Times), joint for-profit/nonprofit partnerships (Pierre Omidyar’s NewCo, the Guardian’s ProPublica), and Huffington Post’s strategy of exploiting free or low-paid labor and aggressive borrowing of content.

Here is another sector to watch for disruption and innovation: high-end dining. Restaurants have always been a high-risk sector marked by low profit margin and a high rate of failure. Recently it has been further challenged by everything from high-end food trucks (which can take advantage low overhead, low start-up costs and flexibility to test combinations of audience/cuisine/location) to quasi-legal, pop-up “supper clubs.” Two radical business innovations that entrepreneurial restaurateurs are experimenting with are:
  • Dining as a ticketed event. In 2011 Nick Kokonas opened “Next” restaurant in Chicago, eschewing a traditional reservation model in favor of presold tickets. If a patron doesn’t show up for the prefixe meal, they forfeit their money. You can even buy a season ticket –one seating each time the menu changes throughout the year—positioning the dining experience as more like attending the theater or a sporting event. This “restaurant ticket” model is spreading, modestly, as some high-end restaurants adopt this model, which transfers the financial risk of no-shows to the patron, facilitates responsive pricing (calibrated to the popularity of a given seating time) and, at least for now, generates buzz.
  • Participatory design of recipes. This weekend the New York Times covered Dinner Lab, a pop-up restaurant company that is premised around using intense, directed customer feedback to shape the menu for fine dining. Rather than the chef as impresario, implementing a focused, singular vision of excellence, Dinner Lab sees the chef as collaborator, soliciting the input of every diner in order to perfect their recipes. 

Museums can learn a lot by keeping an eye on other sectors, including libraries, journalism and restaurants. When I read about Dinner Lab, I hear echoes of the changing role of curators in museums, from expert teacher to moderator of exploration).  Dinner Lab also brings the chef out from behind the scene—putting him (or her) in the middle of the action, and making the chef’s “story” part of the dining experience.  This emphasis on process, and story, is also visible in museums as we create “open laboratories” and encourage curators to engage with the public via social media.

Sometimes watching others go through the difficult process of introspection and re-invention is a good way to ease into our own discomfort zone. And this gives you one more reason to read the food section in the newspaper—you might stumble across a recipe for business success, as well as tonight’s dinner.

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