SREE SREENIVASAN: When we look at any kind of project, it has to be cross-departmental. In our case, it involves our digital media team, the IT folks and various departments, including marketing, communications, finance and the membership team. We bring people to the table and ask, “Does this make sense for us? Does this fit in with the director’s strategy?”
As a nonprofit, we have a different set of priorities than a business that is focused only on the P&L [profit and loss]. What that means is it has to be the right technology at the right time applied in the right way with limited resources. We do not have a way in my department to sell an extra something of X to pay for Y.
We are very dependent on our funders. Unlike when you work for a for-profit company, the ability for us to pivot and shut down projects and start new ones on a dime is very difficult. Our work is in service of the arts. We have stakeholders — the curators, conservators and scientists — who really drive the work that we do. The planning has to be much further out because we have to fundraise for everything we do.
We have something we call an Innovation Council. It’s something I implemented at the end of January because a lot of vendors and partners want to work with us. A team of staff from the various departments gets together to analyze opportunities and say, “This is worth it,” or “This is not worth it,” and then they bring it to me and to others on my team, and we decide the best implementation path.
Some people have chosen not to deal with vendors. They think that they are not worth it and are a waste of time. But I believe the job of a chief digital officer is to be a chief listening officer and listen for good ideas. It’s also a way to get staff that typically may not have an opportunity to see all the cool, new things to have that opportunity.
Before, I could spend my entire day dealing with vendors because they have all these great ideas. We were hostage to my calendar and my whims of what sounded interesting. Now, we have more eyeballs on something. If you call yourself chief listening officer, you should have other people listening for you too.
SREENIVASAN: The main thing they are doing is to help us set priorities. In a museum like this, which is so big with so many diverse priorities, we have to make sure we are using the best possible use of our limited resources and time. We have to invest in technology and the team to make things work, but to do that, we have to be constantly trying new things — experiment and be flexible.
With the Innovation Council, people can each take meetings with vendors, then huddle and discuss it and come back with a plan, and then either float things up gently to us in senior leadership, or every month or two, they can have a two-hour meeting where they invite the companies they like to pitch to a larger group.
One thing we have to do is not be afraid to fail. Everything doesn’t have to be a home run. You could have a few singles, doubles and triples. Occasionally, you will strike out — that is perfectly reasonable. We have a Media Lab that we put together where a lot of experimentation takes place. We are looking at the future of the museum and the future of connecting people and art, and the ability to tell our story, and all of that is being done inside the Media Lab.
Unfortunately, when businesses sell us services, they are trying to make their quarterly numbers, and they don’t understand why we are not doing things at breakneck speeds. They have to understand that, in terms of our art, we don’t think in terms of quarters or years or decades, we are thinking centuries.
SREENIVASAN: What works well is something that is easily explainable to your boss. We can be really jazzed and pumped about something, and we can tell our boss, “We love this idea.” But we also have to justify it and explain how it fits with our priorities, that it fits with the strategic plan and that it takes us forward. And if you fit those criteria, you are golden.
We have to work closely with the finance and development people. They have to be involved in what we do.
What doesn’t work in the nonprofit world is a fast-track schedule. We have a slower, more deliberate and careful process. Businesses can jump on a new project in days if they are so motivated. We can’t do that. We have to convince our board of trustees that this is in the best interest of the museum for decades, not just a quarter.
SREENIVASAN: If there are eight departments involved in making the business case, we cannot design and execute by committee. We will have a core team that does the execution based on the agreed upon parameters. Then we meet once a month, have a stakeholder meeting where we show everybody everything, make them comfortable, and we move from there. Silence means consent. That means if I tell you X, Y and Z, and it won’t work for you, speak up now. If you don’t speak up, we presume you are OK with what we are doing.
SREENIVASAN: What we do is try to think about what is the fastest way to execute something and keep everyone involved, but have the most relevant people in the room at all times. Once you have that, you can trust that they will execute in the manner you want. You have to trust your people. That’s why you hire them. You make sure they are on the same page with you, and then you let them fly. Then they can circle back to you and say, “Here’s what we are up to,” or “This is an inflection point. We need your guidance.”
We test everything. We have super-dedicated fans of our work, both online and in person. And when you change one small thing, people react to it for better or for worse. You better make sure it works.
The other thing is to slowly introduce things instead of making a big announcement that you have this new giant product. We have people who can test things from around the world. We will also use consultants for things like accessibility testing, so folks who have hearing issues, for example, can use it as well.
SREENIVASAN: I would say, expect things to go wrong. And when they go wrong, you need a way of understanding why it went wrong, explaining to other people what happened, and course-correcting for it or fixing the problem. If you have those three things, you can succeed.
But also having lower expectations is important. Too many of us have too-high expectations on everything. That it will be immediately successful. Again, everything doesn’t have to be a home run. In many businesses, not only must it be a home run, it has to be a grand slam, meaning it will change everything. But not everything will change everything. In fact, another lesson might be that almost nothing will change everything. You have to accept incremental changes.
Sreenivasan was named one of the world’s most influential chief digital officers by the CDO Club. He was previously a professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he taught for 20 years.