The Agile museum
Douglas Hegley, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, USA, Meaghan Tongen, Minneapolis Institute of Art, USA, Andrew David, Minneapolis Institute of Art, USA
AbstractOrganizations across sectors are succeeding by adopting new leadership practices, described variously as Lean, Agile, Radical, and Open. Using specific examples, the authors present the thinking and practice of these new approaches to leadership in the cultural heritage sector, using applied lessons from the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia). An Agile work environment in a museum setting leads to success for the organization, its staff, and ultimately its audiences. This paper focuses on two essential points: (1) changes across the world today in the area of leadership can be applied effectively in the museum sector, and (2) implementing Agile practices, by redefining project management and seeing leadership as a service, drives success. The authors explore the day-to-day realities of making sweeping changes to the way that teams work and the subsequent impact on morale, productivity, and recruiting. Based on the work and writing of influential thinkers/authors such as Eric Ries, Stephen Denning, and Jim Whitehurst, this paper addresses the underlying need for change in the practice of management, describes the basics of Agile/Lean methods, highlights the advantages of self-organizing teams, shares real-world examples of hurdles and missteps along the way, and lists the results that come from adopting this new way of working.
Keywords: Leadership, Agile, Lean, Radical, Strategy, Methods
Organizations across many sectors are achieving success by adopting new leadership practices described variously as Lean, Agile, Radical, and Open. These practices represent a paradigm shift, moving organizations away from traditional command-and-control structures (Spolsky, 2006) to transparent and collaborative models. These approaches embrace an entrepreneurial spirit and have the ability to succeed quickly and at far less upfront investment than before, with offerings that attract customers quickly. Furthermore, in a knowledge economy, these approaches improve employee performance and satisfaction. The promise and excitement of the new approaches leads to the question: could the cultural heritage sector benefit from adopting similar models? In response, it is perhaps obvious to ask: why change the museum leadership model if it’s been working for over one hundred years?!
This paper will argue that an Agile work environment in a museum setting can lead to success for the organization and its staff, and ultimately benefit its audiences. To support that argument, we will examine the promise and practice of new leadership approaches, defining terms along the way and exploring applications in the cultural heritage sector, using applied lessons from the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia).
2. Leadership with a capital L
The influential author Peter Drucker has published on the need to transform organizational leadership in an era where most employees are knowledge workers. “One does not ‘manage’ people. The task is to lead people. And the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of every individual” (Drucker, 1999). The traditional model of leader as manager stands in sharp contrast to the new conceptualization of Leader with a capital L (see Table 1).
|Leader as manager||Leader with a capital L|
|Responsible for||Organization or system||People|
|Needs to||Make assignments||Define purpose|
|Seeks||Compliant subordinates||Followers (a voluntary choice)|
|Daily||Demands performance||Shares and inspires|
|Motivates by||Carrot or stick||Enabling and empowering|
|People||Need to be controlled||Need to be trusted and unleashed|
|Focus||Rules – stay the course||Vision – changes are coming|
|Risks||Are to be minimized||Are natural part of the process|
|Asks||How? When?||What? Why?|
|In essence||Does things right||Does the right thing|
Table 1: comparing leadership models
New leadership models: Why?
Why change leadership models? Many museums in the United States are over one hundred years old. Given this longevity, it would seem that museums have a solid business model, so why tinker with it?
In essence, the world has changed. After many decades of relative stability, we have moved into an era defined by VUCA, a US military acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (Stiehm & Townsend, 2002). The following examples, both real and hypothetical, illustrate how VUCA shapes museum practices:
- Volatility: In 2008, investment funds for museum endowments took a major downward turn, with some funds even going underwater. Would they recover? When?
- Uncertainty: The local shopping mall announces, to much fanfare, the coming of a for-profit exhibition (such as “The Discovery of King Tut”), and the dates happen to coincide with your museum’s next featured special exhibition.
- Complexity: Museum attendance has been dropping for four consecutive months, and several departments present facts that seem to support widely differing conclusions as to the cause. How do you sort out what’s really going on?
- Ambiguity: The museum’s leadership announces an ambitious new project to increase earned income by using education staff and resources to provide professional development training to corporate clients, but neither a market analysis nor a business plan has been completed.
VUCA sets the stage for challenges we face in managing and leading (Bennet & Lemoine, 2014) and can either confound decisions or sharpen the capacity to plan and act. “Museums are not immune to the challenge of operating in a VUCA world and are just as affected by the confusion and global uncertainties in the world around us” (Feldman, 2015). In order to be effective, organizations must understand that responding and adapting will be “… a journey, and it’s not going to be linear or even predictable. In many ways, our task is to be capable of anticipating changes to the best of our abilities, responding quickly, and not being knocked off-course every time the river takes a new turn” (Feldman & Hegley, 2015).
Now is the time to adopt new leadership models that can thrive in a VUCA world. There is greater risk in being left behind, being forced to change from a position of weakness rather than making the choice to change, losing touch with the new demographics and psychographics of the twenty-first-century workforce, and making decisions by assumption (for instance, that tomorrow’s museum visitors will be exactly the same as today’s).
3. New models of leadership and organizational structure: Lean/Agile/Radical/Open
Putting the models and methods described in this paper into practice is still relatively new in the business world; the concepts are likely to be even less familiar within the cultural heritage sector. All four models have similarities and overlap, although each has a specific focus when it comes to implementation. What follows is an overview of each approach.
The primary tenet of a Lean organization is to achieve maximum value with minimum waste. Practically speaking, this creates an organization that is fully committed to experimentation, works in rapid iterations, and focuses on validated learning (also called build-measure-learn). Lean organizations depend on strong bottom-up processes. They have few—if any—senior managers. Such a structure is less predictable than the familiar top-down management methodology, but is still manageable because of the discipline of constant learning from feedback. For example, at Mia we redesigned the Collections website by first surveying users to understand motivations. We were a bit surprised to find that nearly 40 percent were planning a visit, rather than searching for content. The site continues to evolve through multiple iterations based on feedback from users. As long as the decisions made by staff in a lean organization can be tested quickly and efficiently, then the quality of those decisions is determined by customer response rather than by the approval of authority. Lean organizations reduce dependency on outside funding, do not rely on complicated plans based on multiple assumptions, and have no expectations of perfection prior to the launch of any new product.
The primary philosophy of Agile could be summed up as “quick to respond,” whether to changing marketplace conditions, the sudden appearance of competitors, or changes in customer preferences. However, an Agile workplace does not simply work fast; Agile is an entirely different way of working. For example, at Mia we have adopted a practice of having more frequent (often daily), but much shorter (15-minute) meetings—often standing up—to ensure communication and clear alignment. To be Agile, an organization puts four core values and principles into practice, which together enable high-performing teams (Beck et al., 2001):
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working product over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
Additionally, an Agile workplace typically includes the following characteristics:
- Active collaboration with stakeholders and customers.
- The team makes decisions about how work is done.
- Requirements are defined and prioritized according to value.
- Focus on the minimum viable product (see figure 1) at each stage of the process. Start small and iterate incrementally.
- Test early and often for continuous improvement.
- Apply the 80/20 rule, which “… describes causality and results. It posits that roughly 80% of output is a direct result of about 20% of the input” (Kiremire, 2011).
Figure 1: with the minimum viable product approach, each step in the process results in a completed goal. Iterations then build and improve upon the previous accomplishments. (Source: http://www.startupolic.com/launching-your-service-think-about-ux/)
Stephen Denning (2010) puts forth Radical Leadership as an antidote to the widespread management malfunctions seen across multiple sectors where older, top-down, command-and-control models are still being used. He argues that the workplace must be reinvented by “… fundamentally restructuring work and generating a true partnership … draining the swamp of non transparency in which most managers and employees currently swim and exposing the rocks for what they are, so that firms can get rid of them and become more productive.” For example, at Mia the entire organization has access to the institutional scorecard, so that museum-wide priorities are clear to all. The primary factors of Radical Leadership are (1) focus all work on delighting the customer, and (2) be totally open about impediments to improvement. Ironically, most organizations will lay claim to doing both, while in actuality work is all too often focused on internal politics and power, and being totally open is likely to be the quickest path to termination!
A Radical Leader will demonstrate:
- Open communication
- Open-ended discussions with deep listening
Under Radical Leadership, no one hoards power jealously, and no one treats others as things to be manipulated.
While Radical Leadership is about how people behave within a leadership construct, the concept of Open is a way of structuring and running an entire organization, which depends on collaboration and shared ideas, rather than control of information and narrowly defined authority (Whitehurst, 2015).
In an Open organization, decision making is a shared responsibility. In order to facilitate the best solutions, such companies encourage and expect open, frank, and sometimes very passionate debate. To be effective, everyone involved in those discussions will need to be in the loop, so the organization must provide constant and transparent communication. In an Open organization, the best ideas rise to the top regardless of who provides them. Active discussion ensures that excellence—and not privilege or position—determines the outcome. For example, at Mia the strategic planning process includes every staff person, regardless of title or hierarchy, via all-staff meetings, smaller listening sessions, and surveys. Not everyone agrees, and that’s fine—we respect all points of view and work together to find common ground.
Colleagues in an Open workplace are seen as members of a community, and each has a voice in how the organization is run. This leads to a very high sense of engagement and ownership, and thus accountability. When “… you have an engaged workforce, it actually changes where and how you make decisions regarding what needs to get done. When you consider that thousands, if not millions, of decisions can be made within an organization every day, your ability to make faster and better decisions can have a massive impact on the competitiveness of your organization” (Whitehurst, 2015).
The new models of leadership, combined
To Sum up the four new models, it might be helpful to envision an entity that would be described as taking a Lean approach, applying Agile methods, while following a Radical leadership model within an Open organizational framework. In other words, an organization that:
- Works efficiently in rapid cycles that pay special attention to feedback
- Responds quickly and easily to change
- Empowers its staff and unleashes their talents
- Constantly reexamines itself in order to improve
- Shares information and decision making widely
But isn’t Agile just a way to make software?
The movement to new a leadership model may at first glance seem to be born from—and thus likely to apply only to—software development. In actuality, these approaches to business came first from the manufacturing world (Takeuchi & Tonaka, 1986). Later, and particularly at the turn of the twenty-first century, the models were applied with powerful impact to software development, leading to the creation of the Agile Manifesto (Beck et al., 2001). Organizations that applied the principles to software development experienced rapid success, which in turn drew the attention of other units of business. It did not take long for the ideas and methods to spread to management in general, particularly within the startup sector (Ries, 2011). Agile and the related models of Lean, Radical, and Open work well across different settings because these frameworks:
- Are adaptive: change is expected, embraced, and leveraged
- Use knowledge gained via hindsight sooner rather than later
- Do not require obedience to authority in order to be successful
- Are collaborative and empowering; most people enjoy working this way
- Quickly uncover obstacles and find ways to overcome them quickly
There is a tremendous opportunity for the cultural heritage sector to apply these new working methods and models to the way that we structure our organizations and accomplish our work. To learn more about how to do so, we will examine three key elements of these new approaches in more detail: self-organizing teams, radical transparency, and the servant leader model.
Members of self-organizing teams are accountable to themselves and to the team. They collaborate, communicate, and work together to succeed. They work closely with product owners to ensure that their work is on target. Self-organizing teams (Mittal, 2013):
- Don’t wait for a leader to assign work, which leads to a greater sense of ownership and commitment for each person on the team
- Manage their own work as a group
- Benefit from mentoring and coaching, but not from command-and-control
- Communicate most with each other, and make commitments to project teams rather than to “management” authority
- Ask all necessary questions
- Improve their own skills and suggest innovative ideas and improvements
- Trust in each other and in the process
Self-organizing teams must work closely with the primary stakeholder to understand what is being requested and deliver effective solutions. This is accomplished by ongoing and open communication between the team and the client, while also organizing the work into short, iterative cycles to deliver working solutions that may then evolve over time. Each iterative cycle is compared against what the primary stakeholder and the team have agreed is the definition of done, before moving on to the next prioritized task. For example, at Mia the software development team conducts a biweekly review with the product owner (defined below) to agree on completion and identify the next set of priorities.
When staff do not have access to sufficient information, they can waste effort working on the wrong things. There is evidence that “… everyone knowing everything could actually be a major driver of increased organizational performance … the biggest reason companies fail is because people lose focus and get off track” (Smith & Tabibnia, 2012).
To combat this potential pitfall, companies may use radical transparency, defined here as the commitment and actions of an organization to provide all of its employees with ready access to abundant information, including previously confidential organizational data and insights into the decision-making processes.
Radical transparency demonstrates trust across all organizational units. It also helps to replace rumor with fact and make expectations clear to everyone, and it enables each person to see how his or her work contributes to overall organizational success. For example, at Mia many divisions involve all staff in creating department-level scorecards that roll up to the institutional scorecard, making clear connections between all work tasks and overall strategy.
Servant leader model
The origins of the servant leader model appeared first in ancient China, but the modern application to business practice is credited to Robert Greenleaf in an essay he first published in 1970 (Greenleaf, 1991). A servant leader:
- Puts others first
- Shares authority
- Unleashes talented colleagues
- Mentors and supports—coaches but does not control
- Gives credit freely and honestly
Servant leaders care as much about others’ needs as their own and see leadership as an act of service. They engender trust and high levels of engagement among their colleagues. For example, at Mia senior leadership empowers cross-departmental teams to complete projects with relative autonomy, by making their own decisions based on an understanding of the overall strategy. One specific example of this approach is The Digital Experience project at Mia (see Hegley et al., 2015). Servant leaders treat employees with respect and honor, and in turn those employees treat each other and customers extremely well, which builds loyalty in both groups. In theory, servant leadership has a strong potential to influence society in a positive way.
4. Organizational structures
What does an Open and Agile environment look like? In contrast with the traditional pyramid structure that is typical in a command-and-control approach, organizations under the new models are more like networks: systems of interconnected parts that change and evolve over time. These so-called “small-world networks” are seen as the next step in business evolution (Satell, 2015). To be successful as business structures, what matters most for such networks are two factors: (1) clustering—small groups of individuals working together closely and focused on a goal, and (2) path length—the distance, or number of links, between clusters. Shorter path length increases communication and enables alignment and productivity.
It would be difficult to transition immediately from a pyramid structure to small-world networks. A foundation needs to be established, and—like Agile methodologies—multiple iterative steps are the best way to move forward. At Mia, we believe that such an approach begins with workplace culture, and (most likely) the first iteration of these approaches will happen within software development teams, then spread to the rest of the organization. Let’s explore culture and implementation, then re-visit how to build a new organizational structure in a cultural heritage setting.
A common business adage that has been attributed to Peter Drucker (although he never published the phrase) is: culture eats strategy for breakfast. In other words, an organization may have a brilliant business plan and an ideal strategy, but if the workplace culture is not aligned, that organization will struggle to succeed. Imagine a racing boat equipped with the latest in sail technology, but still dragging its anchors along the ocean floor.
Understanding the importance of workplace culture, Mia spent several months developing a culture plan before making other changes to management approaches. That process involved all levels of staff, who contributed ideas—via large meetings, smaller focus groups, and an ongoing email call—about the current and the ideal culture. Several iterations were tested with the staff, with feedback collected, analyzed, and incorporated by a core team. In the end, Mia came up with five key components:
- Generosity: you consider time spent on others to be time well spent
- Agility: you can think on your feet and can turn on a dime
- Emotional Intelligence: you leave the drama in the artwork
- Positive Energy: your smile is infectious
- Drive Results: you keep your eye on the ball by setting goals and achieving them
These components have become integral to the museum’s hiring process and are reflected in each employee’s ongoing performance evaluation. Mia is striving for excellence in a very competitive landscape, and the first order of business was to pull up the anchors so that the boat could sail freely.
As mentioned above, the implementation of new leadership models often starts with software development teams, and this has been true at Mia. The team sought strong methodology, and after exploring options it chose to adopt an Agile approach. After learning the Agile fundamentals, the team self-organized and agreed to practice Scrum for all software development work. Scrum is an Agile framework for completing complex projects, as it helps to more clearly define ownership, empower team members, and encourage frequent and precise communication. This approach redefines “project management,” moving away from strict timelines and fixed deliverables in favor of iteration. Instead of the traditional project manager, a servant leader is focused on removing impediments and barriers, enabling cooperation and continuous improvement, and shielding the team from distractions or interruptions. To this end, a staff member stepped into the role of scrum master: a neutral facilitator who supports the team and supports communication between product owners and the team. This individual was trained in Scrum and was given the opportunity to put the role into practice. There were some issues at the outset, as the team learned not to conflate the roles of product owner (see below) and scrum master.
A considerable hurdle in adopting Scrum at Mia was defining and identifying product owners. These colleagues, typically from other departments, set the vision and prioritize features for any project and its outcomes. The product owner is the liaison between the team and stakeholders, and has the knowledge, authority, and availability to actively participate in the process. At Mia, it was important not only to identify a product owner for each effort, but also to educate senior executives in the practice of empowerment so that decisions could be made without waiting for traditional, hierarchical approval chains.
An additional hurdle was the process of staff adaptation. Training sped up the process, but there has been staff turnover, primarily because the practice of Agile requires active debate and a willingness to adapt quickly. Some individuals find this difficult and are more apt to defend their personal point of view instead of openly accept suggestions.
One might ask, “How does this work at a busy museum, when multiple projects are happening at once?” One of the most valuable elements of this approach is the ordered list. There can only be one priority at a time, so it is crucial for the team to collaborate with the product owners and stakeholders, asking for their help to identify the most pressing need. When focusing on the minimum viable product, the team is better able to deliver something of value at each step. The focus may shift from one phase to the next, but the goal is always to deliver the most important features in a way that is measurable and encourages feedback.
The team has been practicing Agile with Scrum for over two years, and the key word is “practicing.” This is an approach that must be practiced every day. Both the deliverables and the process are iterative, and the team must remain flexible to changing requirements. Since adopting Agile, the software development team at Mia has been more productive and more collaborative, and has delivered projects and products in shorter cycles. It’s a work in progress, but it is certainly moving in the right direction.
5. Applying twenty-first-century leadership models within the cultural heritage sector
The cultural heritage sector is steeped in traditional management practices, which have been effective for a very long time. However, the time has come to make adjustments and adapt models for the reasons outlined above. This kind of sweeping organizational change will not happen easily or quickly. There will be hurdles and stumbles along the way, and a need to overcome resistance, both overt and unconscious. We recommend using the very methods described as the working framework for making these changes. Agile is a different way to work, so you can rely on its strengths to help with the implementation, especially transparency and communication (e.g., place the scrum boards—see figures 2 and 3—in a shared space). Move in small iterations, listen intently and respectfully, and gather and apply feedback along the way.
Figure 2: scrum board – The product backlog
Figure 3: scrum board – the current sprint
One likely bias in the cultural heritage sector that will need to be overcome is a tendency to view technology departments as service bureaus rather than strategic partners. This can lead to an inherent bias: technologists can’t lead, right? While there is no easy way to overcome this barrier, any approach must include patience, persistence, and enthusiasm/passion. Selling any idea takes time and convincing, but providing evidence that a new method works is usually effective.
Museum staff are likely to embrace these new models more quickly than management. That is because staff feel empowered, and the ability to make decisions without waiting for approval will generate excitement. How does management ensure that those decisions are correct? At Mia, we developed a basic matrix that any employee can use to guide decisions (figure 4).
Figure 4: decision-making matrix
It is important to understand that “It isn’t possible for a leader to ‘empower’ someone to be accountable and make good decisions. People have to empower themselves. Your role [as a leader] is to encourage and support the decision-making environment, and to give employees the tools and knowledge they need to make and act upon their own decisions. By doing this, you help your employees reach an empowered state” (Goldsmith, 2010).
Additional methods to speed adoption of new leadership methods include:
- A cross-functional team approach, combining staff from multiple departments with responsibility and authority to get an important task completed
- Training—especially from experts who help organizations adopt the new methods
- Demonstrating success with the audience: museum workers may forget that they are not the target audience; it’s the public that matters
- So-called thick skin training, so that staff understand that the purpose of museum work is to delight audiences, not win workplace debates
As an organization adopts these new models, the organization chart tends to flatten out. There is less need for middle management, because employees on small teams no longer need careful supervision—they know what to accomplish, they decide how to do that, and they self-correct along the way with short iterative cycles.
Another powerful impact of adopting these models occurs with the museum audience. As audience members interact with the museum, they encounter staff who are energized, positive, and seeking honest opinions. Audiences respond positively to such an environment, returning more often and serving as advocates for the organization through their personal networks. For example, at Mia the sheer number of museum visits has increased from under 500,000 to over 800,000 per annum in the last four years. In addition, the evolving work culture and new management methods have enabled the museum staff to deliver more events, programs, and new features to bigger audiences. Visitor research focused on new in-gallery digital interpretation offerings at Mia (conducted in 2014 and 2015) discovered the following:
- Mia visitors engage deeply with technology in the galleries, discussing and reading aloud to one another.
- Technology in the galleries augments the visit. When visitors were leaving, the descriptions and highlights of their visit were almost exclusively about the art, and not about the technology.
- Evaluators noted that it is quite rare that a single digital interactive will change the path of a museum visitor’s experience, but some Mia visitors were so inspired by the digital stories they read that they went on to locate those objects and galleries: 27 percent explored new objects, 21 percent explored new galleries, and 48 percent used multiple digital interfaces.
- One-third of the visitors recalled specific stories up to several weeks after their visit, an unusually high percentage.
6. Resistance and conflict resolution
We argue that change is necessary in the way that organizations in the cultural heritage sector function. We are keenly aware that any change—and perhaps especially changes in the power structure of a longstanding institution—will be met with some degree of resistance.
One result of implementing these new leadership methods is that they will shine a light on problems and impediments, quickly and brightly. The process will empower teams, but be prepared for difficult conversations and challenging moments. The goal is continuous improvement, and that happens both within the project and within the team. If you serve in a senior leadership position, you’ve got to be active in fixing problems fast, or they will become the anchors that stop the entire ship from moving forward.
Given that conflict is likely, it bears mention that ignoring such conflict does not make it go away. Volumes have been written on methods for resolving conflict, a review of which is beyond the scope here. For a start, consider the following:
- Practice calm—never escalate
- Listen deeply in order to understand
- Find common ground
- State fact with tact
- Focus on the problem, never a person
- Don’t accuse—ask in order to investigate, not to interrogate
- Look ahead, not back
- Confidence matters (even if you fake it until you make it)
- Recognize step-wise successes
The new leadership approaches discussed here do not constitute a magical fix for every problem, nor for every organization. It is important to be wary of the Law of the Instrument, attributed to Kaplan (1964), which can be paraphrased as “To someone with a hammer, everything looks like it needs pounding.”
The authors are strong advocates for this approach to leadership, but things can go wrong. For example:
- Workplace culture is not in place (yet).
- Roles feel scrambled and chaotic, especially during early phases of adoption.
- Unfamiliarity and lack of practice with the methods could lead to applying them incorrectly.
- With less hierarchy, is there a path to promotion for the staff? If not, morale will rapidly shrink.
- Partial adoption may be worse than not adopting the models at all, especially when senior management only gives lip service to things like transparency and trust.
- A scrum master may find him or herself herding cats. Staff go in multiple directions at the same time. Self-organization takes skill and practice; it doesn’t just appear suddenly one day and work perfectly forever after.
8. What’s next?
The promise of the new Lean/Agile/Radical/Open leadership model is broad and includes an engaged staff closely aligned with strategy, faster delivery of audience delight, and flexibility to adapt quickly and successfully to change. Like any large-scale change in any type of business, adopting new leadership and working methods in the cultural heritage sector will neither be easy nor take place without resistance. However, the benefits far outweigh the risks. Successful leaders of cultural heritage organizations have a tremendous opportunity, and all it will take is a commitment to enable it to happen.
“Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.” —attributed to Peter Drucker
The authors would like to thank the following for the generous gifts of their passion, time, and thoughts on new models of leadership within a museum setting: Kaywin Feldman, Kjell Olsen, Jennifer Jurgens, Misty Havens, Tom Borger, Mike Mouw, Alex Bortolot, and Frances Lloyd-Baynes. In addition, Angela Johnson of the Collaborative Leadership Team has been an effective and appreciated mentor and guide. This paper builds on the session titled “The Agile Museum” presented at the mcn.edu conference in November 2015 by Douglas Hegley and Kaywin Feldman.
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