For Melissa Firth, deploying a lot of ‘firsts’ is just one of the upsides of taking on the inaugural chief digital officer post at Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand.
When she joined Te Papa nearly three years ago, she built a digital team from scratch. “I recruited a new management team – all learning Te Papa in its complexity and how to grow into their roles.”
A year later, the team established Mahuki, the first business accelerator programme in the world, focused on opportunities in the culture sector, and based in a museum.
“The acceleration model enables us to support and grow an innovation ecosystem around Te Papa and the wider culture and heritage sector, and to partner with industry (creative businesses) to generate new value for all – not least, our key customers, the New Zealand public,” says Firth.
“Mahuki offers Te Papa a unique opportunity to tap into the creativity of New Zealand innovators, and it offers those innovators the chance to work in, and benefit from, our unique environment,” she says.
The programme provides the participants access to sector knowledge, collections, museological and business expertise, and a chance to market test with the museum’s 1.5 million visitors.
The 2017 entrepreneurs who participated in Mahuki have developed a range of experience and enterprise technology business ideas including: Collaborate (a digital marketplace matching skilled volunteers with charities and cultural organisations who have need for specific skills); VR storytelling platform I Want To Experience; Vaka – interactive digital portraits that use chatbot functionality to enhance the visitor experience; and Simplify – collection cataloguing and managing made easy for customers ranging from cultural institutions to private collectors to families.
“Everyone benefits – Te Papa gets a lift in capability, and an ability to explore suites of new ideas that can be applied across core and new business and to culture sector development, which we are mandated to support under the Te Papa Act; and the businesses themselves benefit from significant opportunities available with Te Papa as first customer and through the global sector relationships we hold.”
Firth says there were several factors to consider before they started Mahuki.
We had to ensure we had the power under Te Papa’s Act to implement the proposed Mahuki acceleration model; and obtain approval from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage.
Te Papa also had to make room to house the new purpose-built innovation space. In combination with a much-needed accommodation refit programme – we were able to create the needed footprint, she says.
When you’re navigating uncharted waters, and there’s no map to follow… recovery from mistakes is part of learning.
Customer focus, co-creation
She explains the current digital strategy for Te Papa is increasing public reach and access to the national collections, stories and knowledge; improving the effectiveness and sustainability of their work through innovation and the use of transformative technology platforms; and using the interactive and participatory strengths of internet technologies to create great, engaging audience experiences and amplify the co-creation approaches Te Papa has always been known for.
In 2017, her team replatformed the museum’s online collections with lightning fast search and a new underpinning Collections API. API keys have been given to Auckland Museum, Digital New Zealand and the Department of Internal Affairs so far.
They also started an rapid digitisation programme that delivered in its first two months the same number of imaged and described taonga (treasures) which it previously took a year to complete.
“We’ve also reduced by half the effort and cost to deliver exhibition interactives by creating a new digital delivery platform that also gives us access to usage analytics for the first time,” she says.
“We’ve grown audience reach to Te Papa’s main website by 22 per cent through a content strategy of timely online editorial that meets the different interests, contexts and needs of New Zealanders online and treating that audience as distinct from physical visitors researching their impending visits to Te Papa.”
On top of this, they have rolled out a SaaS DAMS (Digital Asset Management System) for the rich media assets used in all the museum’s storytelling and communications operations.
Firth explains structurally, a significant portion of the digital capability they have built is at present tied to capital projects.
“The challenge for every business in a digital age, including Te Papa, when it’s growing its digital capability – is the need to identify, plan for and resource an appropriate baseline of digital operational capability – that work is currently in progress.”
Operationally, alongside developing the museum’s first three-year digital strategy, Firth and her team also developed a new digital product development framework that uses tools from lean, agile and design thinking, and has a two-tier governance structure for risk assurance.
They ran a number of education workshops with finance, risk and the executive leadership team to communicate the different governance approaches needed for agile projects as opposed to waterfall-delivered projects.
“Initially, it felt a bit weird having designed processes for a team that didn’t yet exist – but the value of that foundational work has been significant,” says Firth.
“Every new digital team member on-boarded knows exactly what the process is and how we ‘do digital’ at Te Papa. And the team themselves refined and improved the toolset in response to learnings from implementing the framework.”
Firth participates in the weekly executive leadership team meetings in which key organisational decisions are made.
She has run executive workshops on agile, lean, design-thinking, product management and how governance differs for projects run via those processes.
“One of the nicest pieces of feedback I had from a couple of our digital leaders during this year’s performance reviews was that it felt safe to make mistakes,” says Firth.
“When you’re navigating uncharted waters, and there’s no map to follow, no received wisdom, recovery from mistakes is the crucial resilience needed to ultimately build to a successful product or initiative.”
She stresses to her leadership team the importance of having a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset.
“Everyone is capable of learning more, being betterhellip; I’ve found that people who work on self-awareness, those who strive to be better, who read around their issues, who are open to learning and take on feedback hellip; they are the superstars,” she says.
On her leadership style, she generally gives her teams autonomy.
Using agile practices, we devolve decision-making responsibility to the team to give them autonomy to apply their judgment appropriate to their level of work, and the problem/challenge/opportunity, she says.
Firth says one of the most valuable things she did for her new leadership team was a two-day leadership workshop using using LSI (Life Styles Inventory, a personal development assessment tool) to understand together their behavioural profiles, and personal and professional goals. “The trust created in those two days gave them wings.”
The digital leadership team is 60 per cent women, and across the 48 digital staff, the percentage is higher, 66 per cent.
She points out in the 2017 Mahuki (business accelerator programme) participants, a third of the founders were Maori and Pasifika, and 38 percent in the 2017 cohort were female.
“Diversity is critical to good decision-making.”
“I have learned the hard way that you can set the perfect strategy, but you absolutely must bring people along with you.
Firth believes bringing everyone along for the journey is critical as Te Papa steps up to the digital era.
Firth says the digital team works with their counterparts in the other units to immerse them in digital practices that can be applied to other types of work. “For example, we are about to adopt lean business model canvas for opportunity evaluation for all product development at Te Papa including exhibitions; and regular stand-ups have become wide-spread across functions to speed team collaboration.”
Every time the group delivers a new digital platform or product, they produce a blog for the intranet to explain the benefits.
“When you’ve been in a digital or technology career your entire professional life, it trains you to feel comfortable with regular, ever-changing technology cycles and to approach the resulting opportunities and challenges without fear,” she says.
“So it’s easy to forget that innovation, transformation and change feels very uncomfortable for a lot of people.”
She cites how Denise Chapman Weston, current Edmund Hillary Fellow, inventor, psychologist, and theme-park designer, designs her location-based entertainment experiences not for the enthusiasts but for the “arm-pretzlers” (the bystanders with their arms folded).
“I have learned the hard way that you can set the perfect strategy, but you absolutely must bring people along with you,” she adds.
“A good portion of that is putting time into the framing conversations that prepare people to approach the exploration of potentially uncomfortable insights with a growth mindset that can grasp an opportunity to reach potential, rather than a fixed mindset that perceives threat and assumes a defensive position. It’s about making people feel comfortable to participate. It’s time-consuming, but essential.
“It’s true, culture trumps strategy,” she concludes.