Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Are Charettes Part of Your Creative Toolbox?

I'll be jetting off to San Diego and Miami soon for some exhibition charettes, so I thought now would an opportune time to post this "encore" post on the topic.

Working with other people can be tricky.  Group dynamics often degenerate into a pat way of thinking about other people (Oh, there's crazy George talking about visitor numbers again ...) or other departments (Those marketing folks don't have any idea of what it takes to put an exhibit together ...)

Unfortunately, in a constantly shifting marketplace that practically demands that museums are continually innovating and evolving, falling into boring operational patterns or getting locked into interpersonal cul-de-sacs is not great for business.  It also makes working with other people a lot less fun.

So how can you break the mold of past practice (or even get past the goofy term "best practice") and shake your museum working groups up in a fun and positive way?

I'd offer one suggestion:  The Charette.

A little history first from Wikipedia: The term "charette" was thought to originate from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 19th century, the word charrette is from the French for "cart" or "chariot." It was not unusual for student architects to continue working furiously in teams at the end of the allotted term, up until a deadline, when a charrette would be wheeled among the students to pick up their work for review while they, each working furiously to apply the finishing touches, were said to be working en charrette, in the cart. Émile Zola depicted such a scene of feverish activity in L'Œuvre (serialized 1885, published 1886), his fictionalized account of his friendship with Paul Cézanne. Hence, the term metamorphosed into the current design-related usage in conjunction with working right up to a deadline.)

Bringing together a small group of folks, including some from outside your organization, to bash around ideas for a fixed chunk of time, can bring incredible results.  The best charettes are not just  random brainstorming sessions, but rather concentrated bursts of activity surrounding a fixed topic (or topics) leading toward some conclusions about a particular aspect of a project by the time you're finished.

These past few months I've been whizzing around the country, helping to organize, or be part of, exhibit charettes.  I am always heartened and gratified by the large amount of high-quality thinking that can come out of a charette process that puts people into a room without the normal work-day distractions of phone calls, emails, and memos.  The charette process really compels people to bring their "A Game" to the table and contribute their best thoughts and ideas.

We so often complain about the lack of time in the museum business, so it's great to find a process that has a goal of producing tangible, actionable results in a short time.

So pick two or three specific thorny problems your organization has been struggling with, block out a day, and bring in some outsiders to shake things up a bit.  Who knows what sorts of ideas you can fill your "chariot" with?

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