Getting into the experimental state of mind
I’m working with the Arts Marketing Association UK’s Audience Diversity Academy (#ADA) as a mentor for their pilot round (July 2016-January 2017). One of my responsibilities is blogging. Here’s a post I wrote. To access posts from all the fellows and mentors, click here.
I approach my work with an experimental state of mind and tend to forget, as we all do, that not everyone shares my world view. In a session with one of my academy fellows, I was reminded how intimidating the word “experiment” can be. That word alone was holding her it back. It was her kryptonite. Every time she heard “experiment” she thought “laborious and detailed,” “precise and sterile,” and “complicated, boring, and HARD TO DO AND NO ONE WILL WANT TO DO IT INCLUDING ME.”**
And it doesn’t matter if you pair “experiment” with terms like “agile” because the predominant narrative or implicit bias is the one around “experiment.”
So step one is to change the narrative; step two is to put yourself in the experimental state of mind.
CREATIVE (& FUN)
Picture a cartoon chemist in her lab. She’s wearing big owl-eyed glasses that hang from a beaded chain around her neck and a white lab coat. The light-filled lab is packed with colorful liquids in glass flasks connected by tubing. The chemist carefully pours solid-colored liquids from two different test tubes into a beaker and it yields–a rainbow colored result! And then explodes with sparkling smoke and leaves her hair all wackadoo. “That wasn’t what I expected,” she exclaims and makes notes on a pad. She’s smiling, because experimenting is creative and fun. It’s a creative and fun activity that’s designed to teach you something. This is the change in the narrative that my academy fellow needed to make first and foremost. Whenever you see, hear, or say “experiment” replace the word with “learn something in a creative and fun way.” “Creative and fun” is also the fundamental principle for the “experimental state of mind,” especially for all of us working in the arts. Why would we want it any other way?
(And “fun”? It’s a flexible term, obviously. But I’d wager we can agree that completing a written survey via email or paper with likert scale questions is neither fun nor creative.)
NO THING IS TOO SMALL
For the academy, the AMA created a great form called a “progress record” for the fellows to track their experiments. (Forms–not commonly considered creative or fun, but incredible handy none the less.) When shaping an experiment in the context of systemic change (like diversity) and asked to track progress, suddenly there’s an overwhelming feeling that the experiment needs to be long, interconnected series of events with a (positive) growth outcome. This is not the way to exist in an experimental state of mind. Get zen and think small. Remember that an experiment is a planned activity from which you hope to learn something. Any intentional divergence from the status quo could be considered an experiment. The way you facilitate one meeting could be an experiment. The types of questions you ask during that meeting could be an experiment. The method you collect answers can be an experiment. It can feel a bit silly when you’re working systemically and long term, thinking tactically and practically IS the experimental way.
When you adopt the experimental mindset and the emphasis is on what you’re taking away from each of your activities the emphasis is always on what you learned. You line up the experiments, one after another. What did I expect? What happened? What did I learn? What will I do differently next time? Then repeat! This means the emphasis is on the quality of the learning not the execution of the experiment. I believe that’s why experimenting in the arts is often labeled “working scrappy” and can bring about a little experimenter shame. Eff-that! Trying to be perfect is antithetical to the experimental state of mind. It means you already know the answer; it means people might mess up your experiment. Our experiments in the arts around audience and diversity all have people at the center and therefore must be inviting. (See point #1 about creative and fun.) More importantly, we should not ever expect to know what the answers will be. Experiments begin with a question or a hypothesis, and we should expect to–even be excited about–discovering our previous understanding was completely off base. That we were wrong. This means we were “failing.” Hooray! Now we can “fail forward,” learning from our experiment and, we hope, make improvements. Learning is winning.
To wrap up, the experimental state of mind is not for everyone. Some of us come from a fixed mindset rather than a growth one. Fixed mindset folks like established routines and avoid challenges; nothing wrong with that at all. Those of us who are looking for change could stand to adopt some experimental practices. Remembering to think small and look for opportunities to experiment everywhere, emphasize the learning no matter to outcome, and permit yourself to be creative and fun will flip the script of what creating experiments is all about. Now what are you waiting for–get to work!
** On the other hand: some will think that if you’re only doing an “experiment” it’s not real or valid work. That it can’t amount to anything, build a foundation, or propel your forward. Not so at all. It’s the foundation of a growth-mindset environment in which you are working responsively to the world around you.