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Curiosity has been described as a leadership superpower, but unfocused curiosity can be frustrating, confusing and ineffective for the people you work with, writes Ash Mann.


Juanitia Swart/Unsplash

Being able to distil and transform new ideas into actionable, testable solutions that help you identify effective ways forward for your colleagues, your teams and your organisation is where the true superpower lies. 

When considering change it’s easy to let yourself become paralysed, feeling that you have to get things perfect. Or that you have to accomplish everything in one big bang programme.

But as Nick Sherrard - a partner at venture firm, Label Ventures, who has held a variety of digital-focused roles in the cultural sector - says: “A curious leader with a willingness to learn by doing will outperform someone who just talks about their ideas.”

Experiment and iterate

Through Substrakt’s work with leaders across the sector, we’ve observed that the most impactful people adopt an effective, iterative ‘test and learn’ approach. They identify small opportunities for experimentation and then double down on success to extend those wins. 

But there’s an entrenched view across the sector that there’s no time to create these opportunities for experimentation. People feel they can’t justify spending time on such speculative and ‘risky’ activities. As Kati Price, Head of Experience & Digital at the V&A says: “Test and learn – it’s a phrase you hear a lot of in our sector. But while there is a lot of chat, how many of us are actually doing it?"

Done in the right way, understanding the difference it can make to your longer-term strategy, it’s well worth the investment. And the time commitment isn’t disruptive if approached in this iterative way. By coupling active curiosity with an ability to work out where the most effective solutions might lie, you can help teams collectively begin to imagine new, more successful futures. And by approaching and framing this work as iterative and experimental you derisk it and make it easier to engage with.

Kati Price says: “Start by asking, what’s the impact you want to have? In which case, what do you need to learn, and what are the tests you could run that will help you find the answers? It’s good to frame this as a hypothesis – by doing X we believe we will achieve Y. Ideally this hypothesis is based on some evidence and insight.”

Culture is key

The ability to shift successfully to a more experimental, curious mode of working will depend on your institutional culture. Booking.com is frequently cited as an organisation with an especially innovation-friendly culture. One of their core tenets is: “Anyone at the company can test anything - without management’s permission.”

Could the same be said about most cultural organisations? Sadly, it’s unlikely. 

I’m not suggesting any cultural organisation could reach the level of experimentation that a company like Booking.com undertakes - at any one time it has “quadrillions of landing-page permutations” - but a shift seems increasingly urgent and necessary.

Nick Sherrard says embracing a more open, curious approach to leadership can have a big impact. “My board asks me how we can enable our team to do the best work of their lives. That leads you towards helping people experiment, and follow hunches, and still be disciplined. I think these small changes in thinking can lead to quite big improvements in the outputs of a team.”

Getting it wrong and dealing with doubt

The main reason for not experimenting comes from fear of getting it wrong. This is why the start small approach is so important. An effective experiment is to test something potentially significant if successful, and not disastrous if it fails.

As with much of this work, culture plays an important role. Rather than looking to achieve consensus around an idea, it may be more effective to consider different ways of collaboration and making decisions.

Dr Carrie Goucher, an expert on organisational culture, cites using tools such as ‘agreement levels’: “You might have five levels. For example, level one could be total veto. I disagree and I won't support it. Level two could be I don't agree, but I will back it. Three could be I think we need more information. Four could be I agree, but with these caveats. And five could be I wholeheartedly agree, and it allows people to take a position and make that clear very quickly.”

Consent decision-making is another potentially effective approach. In this model, rather than getting everyone to agree, progress only stops if there is strong enough objection. It can be a powerful way of making progress while retaining safeguards. 

Experimentation in practice

Increasingly, established ways of working across areas as diverse as marketing, fundraising, audience development, programming, artistic development, audience experience, and more, are no longer working as well as they once did. 

Recently we have seen effective experimentation across all these areas, which may act as a guide for organisations looking to shift their approach. Here are just a couple of examples.

In 2019, Opera North tested a new approach to engaging first timers, experimenting with email automation, specific content and a physical welcome pack. Almost a third of those who signed up converted into first time attendees. This scheme is now an important part of the way Opera North welcomes new audiences.

And In 2020, through the first lockdown, the National Theatre tested putting full-length films on YouTube. The experiment allowed them to iterate quickly and ultimately resulted in the launch of the NT At Home video-on-demand programme. 

Your experiments will differ depending on what you are testing. Kati Price observes: “Testing can take many forms. It could be running some content experiments to see what new formats might increase engagement with your social media followers. Or using software to A/B test new features that might lead to increased conversions. Test and learn looks different depending on what you’re setting out to achieve.”

Different ways forward

Take Tony Ageh’s career - mostly recently Chief Digital Officer at the New York Public Library, he’s also held leadership roles at the BBC, Virgin and The Guardian. He describes his focus at The Guardian in the 90s: “I was given a brief to ‘…think of something that might help that we’re not doing already’.

I set myself these objectives: to address the decline in sales and readership, build confidence inside the organisation and outside, reduce production costs or increase profitability from magazines and supplements, and bring a sense of excitement to an organisation that had become risk averse.”

All those concerns resonate with challenges our sector is facing today. But the sector is so worn out battling to sustain pre-existing models that there is little space to consider ‘something that might help, that we’re not doing already’.

We need the curiosity and courage to imagine different possibilities, and experimentation will help us to work out which of those futures are worth pursuing. The sector is blessed with passionate, curious people. Let's empower them and work together to find ways forward.

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

Nick Sherrard and Kati Price will be speaking at the Digital Works Conference on 24-25 April at Leeds City Museum. 

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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Head and shoulders image of Ash Mann