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Research repeatedly highlights that the cultural sector has a capacity issue to address before it can fully realise the benefits of digital working, writes Ash Mann.

A Black man is standing in a workspace room, laughing with four other people who are sat down. They all have laptops and there are water bottles, mugs, and bags on the desk in front of them.

While the research is undoubtedly true, through work at Substrakt we have identified critical elements to digital projects which are achievable, even with limited resources. There are two parts to most successful digital projects: one is totally within your control and will have significant impact on the success of your digital activity. We call that ‘slow change’ (the other is ‘fast change’).

For the Digital Works podcast, I recently interviewed Seb Chan, who has done lots of interesting things at the intersection between digital and culture. In our conversation, we explored the importance of slow change in institutional transformation. Slow change in this context is change that involves intangibles and takes months or years for its impact to be felt or to be observable.

While the things that make up ‘fast change’ are also important, when you dig into why a digital project or initiative is successful it is usually because of the deeper, slower change work that has been done before and around it.

Fast change

Fast change is usually the stuff you can see and touch: hiring someone, delivering a new website, changes to signage, launching a new brand, implementing a new ticketing system. It is often the stuff that is easiest to make a case for and the stuff that you spend money on. You can see where it starts and ends, it has clear edges.

This stuff is important as it comprises the things that everyone uses. It is the stuff you can immediately see has happened and you can measure the change that has occurred within days/months rather than having to wait longer.

Fast change is easier (and probably has a more obvious price tag). This type of change will be something you can (and often should) pay someone external to do for you.

Slow change

Slow change is the stuff you feel, such as culture, mindsets, behaviours, attitudes, skills. It is harder to define, harder to put together a clear plan to make happen, and not something you can just spend money on to achieve.

It will not quickly be apparent whether change is happening over this axis and will take longer to achieve (months/years rather than days/weeks).

Slow change is what affects how deep and sustainable the impact of fast change work is, but slow change will often need fast change projects to catalyse it/give it a reason to happen. Slow change usually needs an external impetus to start. Slow change is more difficult.


These two layers of change are interdependent and symbiotic: for one to be effective, the other must be in place. People get obsessed with fast change projects, it feels rewarding and important to spend (often lots of) money on a solution to a problem.

But the reason that these fast change projects seem to happen so regularly (and with such wildly varying success) is because they are rarely accompanied by the slow change thinking and work required for their impact to be felt, and to stick.

And slow change, while difficult, is often possible without any specific outside support, it just needs thought, time and attention.

Empathy and mess

In so many of the conversations I have, folks who lead or are involved in the most effective and impactful work cite the importance of communication, negotiation and, above all, empathy.

The ability to understand someone else’s priorities, anxieties, pressures and ambitions - and to configure your work and the way you talk about it to address those points - comes up time and again.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the most important bit of any digital work is the people, and that inherently involves ambiguity, messiness, and change that cannot and will not happen overnight.

Being comfortable with, and thoughtful about, operating at these two speeds, and with the very different concerns they involve - and giving them equal focus - feels an increasingly vital element to delivering both successful and, above all, sustainable digital work.

And in the cultural sector, in an age of squeezed budgets and resources, this is essential.

No formulas

It’s not common to see any of the types of ‘fast change’ projects I’ve mentioned above accompanied by a relevant programme of ‘slow change’ work to aid adoption, adaptation and impact. And often when you look at why a digital project or initiative is successful, it is because of the slower change work that has accompanied it. 

It’s not necessarily exciting or sexy to say: “We really need to work on the culture/mindset/skills of our [whatever] teams to maximise the impact of any new brand/website/restructure/etc.” But as our sector has to do more and more with less and less, we need to ensure that everything is aligned towards impact and success. So thinking across these two paces of work and change is important.

To be clear, you do not need a fast change project in order to start thinking about the slow change you might need to make. There are changes you can start making today that will have an immediate impact and that will create a better environment for any future projects.

In a recent workshop, we asked the question: “If you had a new website tomorrow, what would you have to do to stop your current website issues reappearing?” Nearly all the answers were around collaboration between teams, feedback, information sharing, leadership buy-in, agreeing and communicating priorities and things that no amount of new websites are ever going to solve alone. 

We can create more favourable conditions for our digital work, and that change can start today.

Ash Mann is Managing Director at Substrakt and Strategy Director at Creating Impakt. 
 substrakt.com | ashmann.medium.com 
@substrakt | @biglittlethings 

This article is part of a series contributed by Substrakt exploring the many ways in which arts and cultural organisations can embrace the world of digital.

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