100 days as Head of Transformation

Saturday 11th April 2015 marks 100 days since I started my new role as Head of Transformation for the Bristol Museum Service and therefore, a good time to reflect on the journey to date.

I’ll begin by saying that it is very much the challenge I expected and I’m loving it. I used to say my old job was spinning a 1000 plates and this role is no different, except the stakes are higher and more people are watching. Nobody said it was going to be easy, which is fine by me, as it’s a privilege to be helping a place to thrive (that I grew up visiting) and that was here long before me and will be here long after me.

Although my new position is an internal move and I haven’t left the museum, it immediately felt like a completely new place to be working! Since 2013 when I began working for the service, I’ve had no trouble making myself “responsible”. Ed Catmull, President of Pixar says in Creativity, Inc “you don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility” which is a career tip nugget. Also since I began working for the Bristol service, we are now on our third Director, have been restructured, won Arts Council England MPM funding and expanded our service remit to include the arts and events teams along with the Bristol Film Office, making us now ‘Bristol Culture’ and no longer Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives, so we have witnessed a fair number of changes!

If I dive for a moment into a few things I’ve done since my start in January it’s clear that my value often isn’t a tangible production line output:

  • Introduced Trello to the wider service AND management team so that no task is left behind
  • Given staff across BCC a discount in our retail shops to encourage buying from within
  • Passed all sorts of decision making to more people to help flatten our structure (to varying success)
  • Put into motion audiences and data front and centre for all
  • Been more visible than ever in the city’s wider culture community
  • Helped Laura ensure management are as transparent as possible by sharing plans and that data and decisions are made available
  • Kept up my weekly blogging
  • Introduced a framework for my team managers to use which includes using Trello, monthly budget kpi reviews, staff meetings and 1:1s
  • Began to identify patterns in our internal behaviour to contribute to our 10 year mission

In addition to my new gig I also got a new boss, scratch that we got a new “leader” – most people don’t need a manager/boss they need leadership. Before Laura had even started she came to our end of year/era wider management team session and laid a lovely straight line that stopped at her feet pointing to the new leader. Since this first meeting Laura has really been a fantastic leader for me personally and stepped up to steering the new Bristol Culture service. ┬áIn return, I offer loyality on top the stuff I’ve been mentioning here! What’s been great about working with Laura? Here’s a few of my observations so far:

  • Having clear leadership means I can have the confidence that Laura will fully support me and give me the direction I need
  • Laura hasn’t always agreed with my point of view. I’m not always right so this gives me the safety net of Laura catching mistakes and I recognize Laura is ultimately responsible so I dig that I feel safe in saying my piece then getting a decision I’ll happily stick to – I worry if I only ever get YES as I’m not that good but I feel listened to.
  • We work in similar fashion which is paperless where possible, inbox zero, clarity over waffle, with the same ethos – audience needs which leads to business needs not the other way around etc
  • I recognize I can learn more about running teams and working with wider stakeholders from Laura and I’ve been paying attention.

I genuinely look forward to helping Laura drive our service into the next chapter and transformation is at the heart of a lot of this.

Great leadership? Yes. Support? Yes. Phew! So what of the new role and remit? My task is to ensure we are both enterprising and able to be flexible in how we work to deliver what our audiences need. Since I’ve started I have said ‘yes’ to many things to help empower staff get things done and probably said ‘no’ to as many things that I don’t feel should continue unchecked.

What does he actually do?

The higher up the chain of command you climb the harder it can be to describe what you actually do as it’s often your team who “deliver”. I would hazard a guess that after 100 days even members of the transformation wing may be thinking this as I’ve had much less contact with them than my direct reports. Thus a large part of my job is hidden. So let me bring to the fore some of the detail that is actually pretty instrumental to service delivery even if you can’t see my tool marks. I help us craft vision and then action it.

Being valuable

As Liam Neeson’s character Simon says in TAKEN “I have a particular set of skills” which revolve around the rough edges of responsibility that others can’t or won’t do. Who wants to dig through kpi or visitor surveys seeking patterns and nuggets? I will! Then I’ll know the who, why, what, when and where which is very valuable when making choices on uniforms, programmes, partnerships etc. People buy into trust based on evidence not gut feelings. I like to ask Laura on a regular basis “is there anything I can do for you?”.

Setting standards

I expect and demand a relentless cycle of planning, doing and reviewing of processes. Feel the heat of pressure from your manager? That’s probably due to my input on something I saw that I feel should be changed. If I can see excellence,I want that process frozen for now so we can do it again. I want to know the detail and ask “why” constantly.

Finding constraints

The average member of the team won’t be keeping an eye on the budget, kpi or stakeholder needs but I am. I’ll shape the scope of the work to be done and pass this to your manager. I’ve banged on for years that constraints are everything and you need to know where the edges are.

Having a process

I’ve been told that the average length of service is 14 years which is plenty of time to develop your own ways of doing things! Yet things now aren’t what they were even a few years ago and we need to be constantly refining. This does not mean stopping what works well but ensuring there is a clear rationale aligned to our mission, values and service plan. You may only be one cog but we need the whole machine to work. So I find the grit that’s hampering us. Key to this is a unified process so that self forming team are talking along the same lines and we can identify the bits that work from the bits that don’t. Fading away is the idea you work for one manager in your area. I may need you to help out over in Engagement. These sutle changes in process have my mark on them. The 18 items of what I expect each manager to do with their teams has been designed purposefully to be uniform for all 30 or so staff. These items include having an annual business plan, fortnight reviews, an annual profit/loss sheet, staff development plans and such.

Picking our focus

We “can do anything” is unlikely to be a mission statement that anybody wants to get behind. I often hear folks saying the creativity is an essential ingredient in their role. Yet when I joined there wasn’t a clear focus, this made it very hard to start on any particular problem, giving me that all important creativity. So I chose to focus on helping people to use technology. Now we’re applying the same idea to give the service a focus by clearly developing our mission and values. This will naturally provide us with our overarching focus. Sign up or step off.

Solve hard problems

The easy problems have been solved. We’re now left with the hard stuff. I need to join our loosely connected dots. How should we price an exhibition? How can we measure success? Provide safe scaleable storage for physical and digital items? Work in real partnership with our local, national and international stakeholders? How can we further reduce our dependence on public funding? What are the patterns from all the raw data? One step forward at a time of course.

For example, staff development is a core strand of work we need to transform and I’ve actioned staff across the service to attend events that will keep our capabilities sharp. This needs to move into a more structured and formal programme of work but at least we’re moving forwards – I want to finally implement Open Badges for recognition of skills.
A number of projects are coming into fruition, coinciding with my first 100 days in post, these include wifi, new tablet devices for staff and digital TVs screens for the public and I’ve had lots of positive feedback from the staff about these changes.

What’s been difficult?

I have less time for individuals as my remit has increased which has been tricky. However I’ve been delegating more than ever and I want staff to see this is a positive oppotunity not me passing off work!

The job title is a gift and a curse. It’s good because it can mean many things so I can swap hats quickly to whomever I’m dealing with but it is far less obvious than the old “deputy director”. Apparently in the wider local authority the new title is typically associated with change management and shutting down of work, not a great vein to be aligned with.

I need to find more time to think. I can’t solve a really hard problem if I only have 10 minute windows in my day. From May I’m going back to my hiding places and getting stricter on email traffic. I also plan to choose a problem and commit one hour chunks to only think about that one area e.g. Pricing and patterns are two areas that need attention.

In no small part I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my old leader Vivienne Bennett for allowing me to ask so many questions last year and poke at decisions to help me gain the experience and sharpen my focus needed for this role. Onwards to the next 1000 days.

UPDATE: Laura Pye has written about her first 100 days