The power of attention

Frites, mayo & beer. It's that good!

Frites, mayo & beer. It’s that good!

I’ve recently returned from a week in the Netherlands, filming for Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen. We (the curator, our manager of AV production, and me) went over with a long list of video footage we needed to capture, and capture it we did. It was amazing. Interviewing Theo and shadowing him around was a real thrill. Holland in the Spring? ‘nuf said. Subsisting largely on cheese, butter, and beer and frites for a week? Yum… But what is rising up in me as one of the real benefits of travelling thousands of miles was the freedom it gave me to focus on one thing, to pay deep attention.

With layovers and hanging around in airport times, I had almost half a work week to do with as I pleased. Certainly some of that time was spent logisitically, worrying about schedules, playing around with interview questions, weighing options in case Plan A didn’t pan out. But that still left hours and hours to just think about the project, and doodle, storyboard, and imagine in a way that I often find it hard to do at work. And with the time difference, real-time communication with home wasn’t really practical. I had the gift of being undistracted by all the other priorities that fill workdays.

It was also a great bonding experience for those of us on the trip because we got to spend all day, every day, talking about the project, and riffing off each other’s ideas and observations. And the filming we did gave us hours and hours of time with the artist, listening to him describe his process, point of view, and outlook on life. By the end, we’d had hours of conversation about the pieces we’d come to shoot video for, and about the exhibition. I can see it now, in much more detail than I could before. I’ve written before about the way one refines one’s mental picture of a project as it progresses, and this trip was very crystallizing. And ultimately useful to the whole project team. We have both broadened and deepened our shared vision of what the show can be. And that took time.

Chip and I spent a lot of time on opposite sides of the camera.

Chip and I spent a lot of time on opposite sides of the camera.

Were we agile?

When something goes really well, I’m always interested in trying to analyze it and find things I can apply more broadly. I’ve also been reading about Agile software development, and I started to see commonalities between what worked in the Netherlands and Agile methods. I’ve long stood on the sidelines about translating methodoliges designed for software development and transplanting them in different arenas. The Agile methodology is the posterchild for this. I imagine you’ll hear it many time on the museum tech conference circuit if you haven’t already. I’m a hype skeptic, and I’m OK with that. Ask me about gamiification (ack!) if you need an example. But behind hype there is usually a kernel of truth, and Agile’s kernel (I think) is that it makes you devote attention to one task. If you’re a complete Agile newbie, go check out the Wikipedia entry for a good intro. In a nutshell, Agile is supposed to privilege:

  • Individuals and interactions over Processes and tools
  • Working software over Comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over Contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over Following a plan

In looking back over the week, I am starting to see how Agile methodologies could be applied to non-software development projects. Our morning breakfasts were essentially daily stand-up meetings where we discussed yesterday, laid out today, and looked forward to tomorrow as best as we could see. We shot whatever we thought we might need or want, even if it wasn’t on our list of things we needed. Our written descriptions for what we were doing and why did not preclude us from altering course during a shoot when new ideas presented themselves, and the videos will be better for it. As opportunities arose, we took them. Our customer was an active participant throughout the process, as was the artist, and their contributions and continuous feedback were crucial. It all sounds kinda Agile… Go figure.

Looking back, I can see that my approach to product development has always been more adaptive than predictive. So maybe it’s time to really dig in a bit more and see what esle Agile holds that might be useful.

Anybody else out there using any Agile methodolgies in museum work, especially outside of software development?

5 responses to “The power of attention

  1. Enjoyed this post Eric. I looked into agile when I was at the Australian Museum: http://australianmuseum.net.au/blogpost/museullaneous/agile-development-for-museums
    We did some agile workshops for staff at my new workplace (ANMM) – the issue we all had with it that while the principles are worthwhile, the problem in using this approach to the nth degree (as our instructor insisted on!) is that it requires you to be on a single project – something that never happens in museums… Given that, the idea of Kanban boards were taken up by several staff who found them a good way to track projects (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanban_board).
    I also did a visualisation project with a company and we used Trello, an online agile tool which I found a good experience (https://trello.com/).
    PS. I’m on the road too and totally get the idea that being away gives you headspace to catch up on all that reading/blogging there never seems enough time for (that plus bad movies and copious TV series!).

  2. Thanks, Lynda!

    In subsequent conversations with my Scrum Master brother, he agrees that the kind of parallel processing we tend to do is an “anti pattern” for a successful Agile implementation. He also suggested Kanban as a process that would work well well in our kind of world, and provide a lot of skills and mindset necessary to transition to a more Agile workplace.

    Loads to look at!

  3. Pingback: What is the Museum full stack? | Thinking about museums

  4. Kathryn McCully

    Hi Ed, I am not familiar with Agile methodologies in particular but I liken aspects of this to my own research which is focused on the application of a creative practitioners approach to museum practice. If your interested here is a link to a short text I presented at the recent Museums Aotearoa conference (NZ)
    http://diypublicmuseumnz.blogspot.co.nz/2015/06/the-value-of-not-knowing-presented-at.html?spref=fb
    PS I really enjoy your posts

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