I had the good fortune to join the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation in August 2015 as only the second director in its 20 year history. Arriving just as the Center opened a major exhibition called Places of Invention and re-opened Draper Spark!Lab, an invention space for children aged 6-12 and their parents and other caregivers, we undertook a strategic planning process. Like other organizations looking at a broad landscape of opportunities, we need to sort out priorities and have a basis for saying “yes,” and sometimes “no,” to interesting opportunities. Like other organizations, both for-profit and non-profit, we began to discuss a five-year timeline for our planning.
But isn’t it antithetical to the process of invention and innovation to write a five-year plan? Weren’t five-year-plans utterly discredited by the failure of Soviet-era economic planning?
Yes and no. A plan that specified projects in detail for the coming five-year period and pre-determined what research, programming, and exhibitions the Lemelson Center would undertake would not be very open to innovation. It would likely crush the group’s inventive spirit. But strategic planning can stimulate creative thinking and push people to work together and in new ways. It also can identify new program areas—underserved markets to use an analogy from for-profit firms—and lead to innovations in products and services.
Some of the principles of strategy that supported its rapid uptake in business—especially around competition and making decisions about which markets, products, and customers to focus on—led non-profit organizations to shun it as an approach to organizational discipline and planning. But in the past decade has it become common practice for museums, historical foundations, and educational and cultural organizations to engage in strategic planning. Organizations seeking to reach the “general public,” however, find it difficult to give preeminence to one subgroup over another, even as employees grow frustrated when trying to be all things to all people.
Strategic planning has a long history, with roots in the study of strategy by military leaders. Famous works by Sun Tzu (The Art of War) and Carl von Clausewitz (On War) provided not just advice on the choice of terrain and battle methods, but also outlined principles of organizational leadership and advocated for ways of avoiding direct conflict. Strategy broadened to areas of business planning and analysis in the 1950s and 1960s, and the field became an independent academic discipline and significant driver of revenue for consulting firms.
Alfred Chandler, Jr., author of several books on American enterprise, defined strategy as “the determination of the basic long-term goals and objectives of an enterprise and the adoption of courses of action and the allocation of resources to carry out these goals.”  By the mid-1970s, larger firms had established long-range planning departments, which would later become strategy units. Planning procedures started to link internal strengths to market opportunities, and managers sought to forecast market trends and anticipate what their competitors were planning.
As a result, the discussions that led up to our new plan focused on why we are engaged in the study of invention and innovation, why we create exhibits and museum-based educational programs, and in what way we want our work to change the world.
One of the greatest strengths of the Lemelson Center—the opportunity to create exhibitions, educational initiatives, and public programs that engage many of the 4.5 million people who visit the National Museum of American History annually—poses a tremendous challenge to identifying focused audiences for our programming. Likewise, the breadth of the terms “invention” and “innovation” opens opportunities for research and education, but the heavy use of both terms in marketing and public relations at present has weakened their cachet and raises the risk of sounding trite.
Our process for strategic planning started with a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis during which we identified where our internal strengths align to external opportunities. Several areas stood out: expanding the Spark!Lab National Network with new sites; attracting and engaging a growing retiree demographic interested in discussions, lectures, and other programs; partnering with community organizations to reach families in minority and under-represented communities to participate in the invention process; and carrying out research and programs in underexplored areas of invention and innovation that are overlooked in the media and hype surrounding many new technologies.
Next, we discussed our values, vision, and mission, which brought us to the point of writing a new vision statement and revising our mission. Our discussions quickly honed in on our role in public engagement, education, and empowerment. Broadly, we are contributing to a world in which everyone is inventive and inspired to contribute to innovation. More specifically, we undertake historical research, develop educational initiatives, create exhibitions, and host public programming to advance new perspectives on invention and innovation and to foster interactions between the public and inventors.
In a half-day retreat in late fall 2015, we addressed the purpose, audiences, and future activities that we then grouped under the areas of scholarship and archives, exhibitions, education, and public engagement programming. From there, we went through several drafts to arrive at a new plan.
We invite you to read our new plan and engage with us. In coming years, we will continue to develop two longstanding areas that consider the role of place in innovation and factors that lead people to become inventors and innovators. We also will initiate research, exhibitions, educational activities, and public engagement work in the new areas of innovation in sports and the role of risk and failure in invention and innovation.
 Alfred Chandler, Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the American Industrial Enterprise (MIT Press, 1962), 13.