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Adapting to a Hybrid Reality: Accelerating a Digital Methodology and Mindset at Your Institution

Category: Technology
A rendering of a laptop open to a page on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website titled "Art at Home"
Virtual and hybrid programming have exploded since the start of the pandemic, but museums and galleries are still learning how to structure digital work. Here is advice from two experienced practitioners. Photo credit: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Physical closures and capacity reductions due to COVID-19 forced museums and galleries to find new ways to showcase content and programming to a greater audience, accelerating the shift towards digital. While articles abound about the qualities that make hybrid programs successful, less has been written about how cultural workers have changed the way they work in order to make these programs possible. In this article, we highlight the cross-functional methods necessary for the rapid and innovative adoption of all things digital. Collaboration, iteration, and the application of working methods championed by the tech industry are key, as is a shift in mindset. Now, more than ever, teams must work differently, across functions and regardless of hierarchy. Below we provide a simple rulebook for managing this change.

Over the past year, hybrid programming has become ubiquitous across museums and galleries, including our own. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s digital expansion is evident in virtual programming in its many iterations, new close-looking features on the web, 360-degree videos, an enhanced editorial platform, partner collaborations, and an increased commitment to digital overall. David Zwirner has similarly expanded the breadth, depth, and quantity of its online exhibitions and viewing rooms. The gallery has developed digital functionalities that allow online users to zoom in on artwork details, expanded its video offerings, and broadcast an exhibition live online. Missing the buzz of art fairs this past year, it livestreamed fair events and hosted fair-related live chat forums. Beyond The Met and David Zwirner, the growth of all things digital is palpable. From the popular Cocktails with a Curator series by The Frick to the recent launch of the Hammer Channel, it’s hard to remember a time when museums weren’t actively serving their content and programs online. In fact, the second most searched term on Google for virtual experiences in 2020 was “virtual museum tours,” ranking well above “virtual NBA fans,” “virtual marriage,” and more. But how are institutions reaching this new promised land?

Many museums and galleries have looked to the tech sector, which favors iteration and flexibility, to answer this question. However, a one-to-one adoption of an agile project management approach developed for software doesn’t always fit the complex and custom structures of museums and galleries. Instead, we propose that they adopt a mix of traditional waterfall and agile methodologies—a marriage of a more traditional sequential, linear approach with the iterative and cyclical approach championed by tech. Put plainly, this would mean that teams work in “sprints,” a set and repeatable timeframe for completing specific tasks (often two to four weeks). While teams still work with a final timeline in mind, many of the tools—and, most importantly, the mindset—of agile are at the heart of this approach. The simple model we propose eliminates complex training and intimidating jargon and seeks to bring a wider set of participants on board from across teams.

Below are our guiding principles for fostering a more hybrid-friendly, cross-functional work culture at your organization.

Assemble the right team.

To chart new territories for your institution, you will need to assemble a team that is cross-functional, capable, and empowered. Start by mapping out the necessary departments or roles needed, and then consider the most equipped representatives, regardless of their position within the institutional hierarchy. Select staff who are curious, eager to learn, and can contribute knowledge that will elevate your project. For example, content-based team members can benefit from those with more technical backgrounds, and vice versa.

You may be familiar with the two-pizza rule for teams: try to limit the members in your working group to a number that could comfortably finish two pizzas. In other words, aim for five to seven members max—a golden number for agile projects as well. Depending on your role, be sure to check in with managers and department heads before reaching out to colleagues who may not be in your department. In addition to the core project team, define project sponsors and stakeholders: who needs to sign off on key decisions and be informed throughout the course of the project?

Start with the “why.”

When scoping a new project, always start with the “why.” This may seem obvious in theory, but in practice our eagerness to see new projects and initiatives off the ground often tempts us to dive right into project work. However, setting time aside for the group to consider the larger picture is not just beneficial but crucial.

Often new project-asks come to us in the form of a request for a specific outcome, such as a new program or product. Asking “why” the institution wants to achieve this particular outcome at this time will quickly reveal the objective at the heart of the request. Conducting this exercise with a cross-functional team is an opportunity to reach alignment at a foundational level and to set expectations with stakeholders. Keeping institutional objectives in mind allows the team to consider the bigger picture and strengthen buy-in from the top. With remote work still the norm at many institutions, this alignment is as important as ever.

Map out the new.

Forced out of the galleries and into digital spaces, museums and galleries have had to update their expectations of what the user experience can and should be. What worked well in the galleries might not translate to a digital environment, and conversely, what were once digital-only experiences must now satisfy users unable to physically visit. For truly effective digital products, you need to create an entirely new experience suited to the context.

Getting the team and institution comfortable with this new user experience is a process. Map out your user journey—how a user will experience and interact with the new digital feature or program—to help identify the technical tools required to convert familiar in-person experiences into successful new hybrid models. Thinking through each step of the experience will help your team deliver programming best suited to a digital environment.

Borrow the best from agile and waterfall when planning your project.

For many institutions, a flexible but straightforward approach to project management is best. Unless you’re working on ongoing software and web development, most initiatives at museums and galleries have set deadlines and require clear approvals throughout. Start with your launch date and work backwards to create a timeline for your project, and add in cushion for the inevitable roadblocks.

Here’s a cheat sheet for managing your new process:

  1. Research & Discovery: Start with a clear problem statement to identify your goals. To solve, read up on the technical tools available and conduct benchmarking of similar work by related institutions, even those outside of your field. Explore the possibilities internally too. Schedule discovery sessions to hear from key stakeholders at your institution.
  2. Project Scoping: Next, develop your project roadmap and establish criteria. To do so, create a one-to-two-page project charter that includes the following elements: project description, project goals, project team and stakeholders, deliverables, exclusions, and a project timeline with key milestones, budget, and success metrics. This charter will serve as your bible for the project moving forward and should be shared with the project team and sponsors.
  3. Design & Development Phases: Map out the production and development needs in two-week sprints, with anticipated deliverables at the end of each. Clearly assign who will need to review and approve project progress at each stage, in addition to the core project team. This is where flexibility and iteration come into play. You may need to adjust your plan and deliverables as you go.
  4. Testing & Iteration: Carve out time for testing and feedback. During this quality assurance process, you may find that certain changes would benefit the final product. Make room for this exploration and for some additional tweaks.
  5. Review & Signoff: Don’t skip this critical phase. Make sure your project sponsors and leadership review and approve your project before launch. Their support is key to the project’s success.
  6. Launch & Promotion: It is common for members of your PR, marketing, social, and/or programming teams to be represented either on the core project team or as stakeholders. These teams will help you spread the news of your launch, so it is important to keep them informed throughout the process.
  7. Continued Maintenance & Analysis: The project is not over when you hit “publish.” Highly iterative processes and ever-changing technology mean that ongoing development is usually the rule rather than the exception. Commit to continued technical maintenance, data analysis, and future refinement.

Commit to ongoing learning and exploration.

All projects—hybrid or otherwise—benefit from perpetual refinement. A flexible mindset is key, and continued research and skilling is required. An institution that understands the importance of keeping pace with the ever-changing digital landscape will also understand the need to invest in the ongoing education of its workforce. Equipping teams to utilize new tools will ultimately improve user experience, ensure relevance, and ward off staleness. In the end, teams that expect and are prepared for change work smarter.

Ultimately, flexibility and agility are at the heart of digital work. Since new and improved technical tools become available every day, change is inevitable, and digital teams must continue to seek out opportunities to improve. As such, the primary benefit of digital working methods comes down to a shift in mindset, one in which change becomes exciting, collaboration reveals opportunity, and continued education is valued and supported. This past year has forced us to update the way we work. The steps outlined above—rooted in digital working methods, cultivated in real time, and adapted to our particular moment—can be utilized to help make this new work reality more approachable and feasible.

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