A ‘CALM’ approach to leadership in the digital age

This ‘explainer’ by Dr Lauren Vargas forms part of University of Leicester’s One by One project aimed at building digital literacy and confidence in museums.

It is aimed at museum managers who are considering how to use effective management alongside digital technologies as tools to improve leadership, communication and project planning. The ideas can be adapted for museums of all sizes and structures.

Jump to: What do we mean by leadership in the digital age? | What is a ‘CALM’ approach to leadership? | What problem does it solve? | Who is it for? | How do I develop a CALM approach? | How long will it take? | How does it work? | How can we measure success? | In conclusion | Further reading

What do we mean by leadership in the digital age?

Museums are being asked to do more with less and, while digital solutions may help our organisations scale efforts and public engagement, the understanding, use, management and creation of digital activity varies from person to person and organisation to organisation. Museums may look to other organisations and industries for inspiration but require in-house talent and support to lead long-term digital exploration, adaption and adoption.

Leading in the industrial age meant rigid organisational hierarchies and a ‘command and control’ approach to management. Leading in the digital age is not exclusively linked to a role in management and requires a new set of competencies, capabilities and skills. In the 2018 research, commissioned by Arts Council England and produced by the Culture and Policy Institute at King’s College London, to examine the transformation of leadership in the arts, museums, and libraries, researchers stated:

“Leaders today need the skills to cope with a world defined by rapid change, to rise to the occasion in dealing with increasing complexity, unpredictability, plurality and to manage growing expectations placed on them.”

In understanding what this new breed of leader needs to succeed in museums, we are challenged to reimagine how we organise into teams, identify efficient and effective processes and work together in a more open and transparent way. To do this, we must embrace:

  • What made us successful in the past will not necessarily be what drives success in the future.
  • To enable others to lead, we must provide direction.

How can we navigate this new way of working? We need to strike a balance between learning from the past to inform the present and preparing for the future while leading with vision. We also need to avoid defaulting to micromanagement.

What is a ‘CALM’ approach to leadership?

We take a ‘CALM’ approach and use digital skills and activities to heighten the value of our personal interactions and create a suitable environment for useful and usable connections, collaboration and communication to thrive. Along the way, we strive to build digital confidence and skills across our museums.

To best understand how leaders and teams are identified and establish how well they are working – or not working – together, we might consider how knowledge, expertise and data is shared across the organisation.

We can all agree that capturing organisational knowledge is essential to the future of our organisations, but just how do we begin to secure data to develop information and establish centres of knowledge?

“Knowledge is commonly distinguished from data and information. Data represent observations or facts out of context that are, therefore, not directly meaningful. Information results from placing data within some meaningful context, often in the form of a message. Knowledge is that which we come to believe and value on the basis of the meaningfully organised accumulation of information (messages) through experience, communication, or inference.”

Michael H. Zack (1999) Managing Codified Knowledge

We begin by understanding where we are today and consider how we use these insights to assess our potential. Today, we have a varied collection of connected and collaborative knowledge centres that exist in our organisations such as central filing systems, intranets and other collaborative spaces for internal communication. Our organisation may be making major strides in establishing technology that helps us become more efficient and effective, but we require an understanding of when to use what, how and why. This helps to ensure that the technology we use is not influencing our activities in unhelpful ways and is instead enabling better communication, knowledge exchange, processes and workflows.

“In the desire to oversimplify we end up with documents that are akin to having a map without landmarks or road signs, with the organisation unable to see the routes people really take.”

John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid (1991) Organisational Learning and Communities-of-Practice: Toward a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation

We need more detailed organisational maps that can clearly show us what exists and the most efficient paths to take. They may also take us into uncharted territory – here be dragons!

One of the pitfalls of knowledge centres and exchanges is assuming that everyone is aware of an organisation’s data, information and knowledge and that it does not need to be documented. An area of common confusion is project planning. Many of your organisation’s practices and processes may not be clear or explicit, making it difficult for individuals to know who is responsible for what at any given time or how their work may impact others.

In a ‘command and control’ environment, information is power and is limited to a few people. In the digital age, leadership is distributed, and information is fluid and used by ever-changing teams of individuals, rather than physically bound and static collections of people. Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, Amy C. Edmondson, at Harvard Business School, says:

“Teaming is a verb. It is a dynamic activity, not a bounded, static entity. It is largely determined by the mindset and practices of teamwork, not by the design and structures of effective teams. Teaming is teamwork on the fly. It involves coordinating and collaborating without the benefit of stable team structures.”

Knowledge can be  buried in our email inboxes, central filing systems, intranets and internal social networks. It is difficult for even long-term employees to find the right information at the right time. In addition to the lack of knowledge management, our efforts may be overly focused on what we are producing and miss the opportunity to recognise where, when, how and why we are doing what we are doing.

How do we communicate our practices and processes?

For instance, how do we expect our new employees, short-term contract staff and volunteers to locate and act on the vital knowledge about an organisation’s business practices and processes?

The ‘One by One’ project designed projects with the Museum of London and the National Army Museum to tackle this challenge and develop a digital-first work environment that is:

  • C – Collaborative: engaging openly and transparently with other staff to plan and develop (internal or external) work products.
  • A – Anticipatory: planning effectively using agile methods, being aware of relevant data (through analysis and reporting) and building in a process for feedback.
  • L – Letting go of Command and Control Leadership and Embracing Collective Leadership: locating and enabling leaders at all levels whilst developing a shared sense of decision-making and accountability.
  • M – Mindful: making time and space to reflect on information and decisions.

See Museum of London’s adoption of new digital practices and processes and National Army Museum’s adoption of new digital practices and processes

Taking a ‘CALM’ approach enables any individual within any team to take a leading role at any stage of a project. In the digital age, this new way of working may be just the edge our organisations need to thrive in a time-poor and cash-strapped environment.

What problem does it solve?

An organisation’s digital maturity is not assessed solely by the hardware and software chosen to promote or enable a successful visitor or consumer experience. To develop more innovative consumer and visitor experiences, perhaps we might establish greater confidence within the workforce by actively experimenting with digital and practising new ways of communication, collaboration, and community building.

Digital skill-building from the inside out may allow organisations the time and space to develop more sustainable and resilient use of digital technology that permeates the entire consumer and visitor experience.

Who is it for?

A ‘CALM’ approach may be applied to any physical or digital activity within your organisation. For example, when using this approach to project manage, as the National Army Museum did as part of their One by One project, the activity required the involvement of a cross-section of the workforce, including staff from various departments, salary bands and contract hours, as well as volunteers.

Whatever your museum’s size, the ‘CALM’ approach has a better chance of succeeding if it is first supported by, and includes, participation of your organisation’s senior management. Having these managers involved early and often ensures organisational commitment to the affirmations and interventions reached. Seeing these traditional managers vulnerable while participating in these new ways of working – modelling open and transparent information sharing and encouraging collective decision-making – encourages staff to test and apply new business practices and processes.

Taking a ‘CALM’ approach is an exercise in digital literacy building; a form of reflective practice that reframes the way that people consider the role of digital technologies to support how work is completed within their specific organisational context. The process of determining suitable actions requires a collective appreciation of the existing digital competencies of staff, as well as a consideration of what kinds of capabilities are still required. The act of working and learning ‘out loud’ is therefore an articulation of what kind of digital literacy is most suitable to your specific organisation.

How do I develop a CALM approach?

Appointing a nominated ‘change agent’, either an external consultant or an internal employee, is recommended. This person will initially lead and facilitate ‘working and learning out loud’ (see deliberately practising collaboration, below.) Whilst a consultant could be effective in this role, with enough leadership support, there is nothing to stop an internal staff member being appointed to this position. Whoever is appointed, the change agent needs to have enough time and autonomy to facilitate successful collaboration. They should be impartial, friendly and approachable; able to garner the support and confidence of their co-workers easily. Ultimately, a psychologically safe workspace – where staff members trust and respect one another and a learning-through-action environment that allows space for risk taking – is required to undertake a ‘CALM’ approach to leading in the digital age. Evidence for this was found in a 1999 study by Amy C. Edmondson and reinforced in a two-year study at Google to develop the perfect team.

How long will it take?

There is no right time to start taking a ‘CALM’ approach to any physical or digital museum activity. It is just as illogical to wait until you have the right leader or the right team before making changes to how you work. Internal and external forces beyond our control have changed organisational power structures. There is no end to this change. Rather, we must find ways to develop and lead with a new organisational model for the digital age.

How does it work?

While there is no specific sequence to these elements, it is vital that all elements are explored in tandem, in a psychologically safe workplace.


Deliberately practising collaboration

In the digital age, work happens in many places. There is no one way, or one place, in which people come together to solve issues, build business solutions and develop visitor or consumer experiences. We may establish a ‘collaborate-in-place’ environment that enables people to come together in a physical and digital way at the right place and at the right time. In this, we enable a learn- and work-out-loud approach to working. When we develop the default practice of sharing what we are doing and how we are making decisions with more people, we allow for people to build on others’ ideas and develop more than one way to think about, or solve, issues.

Modern leaders empower people to make their own decisions, invite two-way conversation using language everyone can understand, and are curious about learning new things. These traits all make up what is called

Working-Out-Loud (WOL).

“Working Out Loud is a way to build relationships that can help you in some way, like achieving a goal or exploring a new topic or skill. Instead of networking to get something, you invest in relationships by making contributions over time, including your work and experiences that you make visible. Your contributions over time are what build trust and deepen a sense of relatedness and that’s what increases the chances for cooperation and collaboration.”

John Stepper, Working Out Loud

Originally developed by John Stepper to foster greater personal interactions, the elements of a ‘working-out-loud’ culture are also applicable to digital interactions – whether it is via email, an online community, or real-time communications. Cultural organisations of any size or type may begin to embed ‘work-out-loud’ elements into business and communication practices to break down physical and digital barriers between staff.

Consider how ‘work-out-loud’ practices may be adapted for use across your intranet or digital communication channels (for example Microsoft TEAMS or Yammer, Slack and Trello) to cultivate transparent and connected information exchange.

Some examples of ‘work-out-loud ‘practices may be:

  • Sharing work in-progress: Is everyone aware of what colleagues are working on and why? Develop a ‘Work-Out-Loud Wednesdays’ practice and ask staff to share what they are working on that week. Ask them to include links to their work and share their challenges and victories. This is an opportunity for people in other areas of the organisation to share expertise, offer time and aid – and praise.
  • Exchanging stories: Rather than share an interesting news article or video with colleague(s) via email, encourage staff to share this inspiration or information with a broader audience. Ask staff to share the link and include a brief description of what they found compelling about the article/video. Ask them also to explain how it relates to the museum or a particular problem or project they are exploring within context of their work.
  • Developing strong knowledge networks: Establish a face-to-face ‘working-out-loud circle’ to jump-start an online community of practice. For example, your organisation may be trying to develop digital confidence and skills using customer relationship management platforms. Use the Circle Guide to work towards shared learning goals.

Check out how other organisations are using #WOL practices to place the focus on human interactions instead of depending on the ‘bells and whistles’ of any one technology.


Becoming anticipatory

Time is the scarcest of resources. Finding time for planning or engaging with co-workers may sometimes seem harder than making plans. Jane Bozarth, author of Show Your Work tackles the conundrum of workers saying they do not have time to plan or share or engage with this statement:

“Saying, ‘I don’t have time to narrate my work’ is akin to saying, ‘I’m too busy cutting down the tree to stop and sharpen my saw.’ (‘I’m a busy knowledge worker. I don’t have time to think.’) You’re already talking about your work, probably more than you know. How can you make that more available to others?”

While each of us has the same number of hours in a day, we spend our time very differently – this is not just because we have distinctive roles and responsibilities, but the way each of us consumes and produces information is particular to our learning and work styles. Firstly, we should be aware of what is happening and why it is happening – then, we can observe where we need to fill gaps and/or find opportunities to assist our colleagues with projects and events.

Five simple tips for making time and space to plan and engage with others:

  1. Schedule your planning time: Set a date with yourself. You wouldn’t stand your best friend up would you? You should not stand yourself up either. Guard this time on your calendar. This is your sacred space to reflect, plan, and engage with others.
  2. Create a habit: Establish routine. Consider starting and ending your day on your team’s designated collaboration space – think of this space as your new inbox.
  3. Set a timer: If you tend to ‘wander’ or have trouble starting and stopping work in an allotted amount of time, set a timer to help you stay focused and on track.
    Do you have five minutes? Scan the conversation channels. Has anyone asked the group any questions that you need to consider or respond to? Is there anything you need to ask or share with the group?
    Do you have 10 minutes? Scan your team and/or organisation’s planning calendar. Are you clear about who owns each task/project/activity/event? Do they have the authority to be held accountable? Do they have the time, resources and clarity necessary for success? Do we understand what needs to happen to accomplish the task/project/activity/event and are these tasks reflected elsewhere on the spreadsheet?
    Do you have 15 minutes? Tackle one week, one month at a time when inputting your tasks/projects/activities/events on the planning spreadsheet. It can seem overwhelming and a never-ending effort if you are trying to input ALL of your tasks/projects/activities/events at one time. Divide your time into ‘snackable’ activities.
  4. Learn to say “No”: Do you really need to have a meeting? If you are not making decisions, conducting brainstorms, or conveying confidential information, consider using your team’s online conversation space to disseminate information or work out challenges.
  5. Let it go: Differentiating between low or high value activity is difficult when you find yourself running as fast as you possibly can to keep up with where you are right this second. Being reactive becomes the default position if you are unable to let go of low value work. Taking time to plan your activities, and view them alongside the activities of others, helps you and the organisation prioritise work.

By taking time to ensure the information being added is useful and usable for our colleagues, we build increased efficiencies that may include a reduction in meetings, fewer ‘silos’ or isolated work practices, a decrease in redundant activities and saved time and energy.


Letting go of ‘command-and-control’ leadership and embracing collective leadership

Work culture and organisational design will make or break any activity, whether or not it is digital. And with more dependence on technology to connect us with each other and our activities, comes a new set of communication and digital skills we need to learn and continuously practice. This learning and practice often fall on us, as individuals, to navigate and manage. And, on top of the everyday business of doing our job, it may seem incredibly overwhelming to prioritise new methods of working. You are not alone. Across all industries new organisation models are being tested: some are successful, others are not.

“Generally speaking, it is worth remembering that every time you make a change in an organisation to solve one problem, you are going to create others.”

Adam Grant, organisational psychologist and host of TED’s WorkLife podcast

In an episode of the ZigZag podcast, Adam Grant joins journalist, Manoush Zomorodi to discuss workplace culture and organisation design trends. Some of the experiments they discuss are quite radical! Grant reminds listeners of the importance of workplace culture in the success of any management or collaboration design.

Applying lessons from the military

Like the military, museums confronting an often spoken of and written about history and structure in order to continue to be relevant in the digital age. Both the military and museums are moving away from command-and-control hierarchies and shifting to flatter organisation models and decision-making processes. This noticeable shift in the museum sector is calling for more diversity of leadership voices at all levels and in all size museums.

How might we learn from and embrace the structure and discipline of the military and apply these to our museum practices and processes without hindering our museum’s creative spirit and ‘agile’ decision-making?

According to Anthony King PhD, chair of War Studies in the Politics and International Studies Department at Warwick University, twenty first century command requires a new way of working to respond to the increasing complexity of military campaigns.

Existing command models, derived from the twentieth century, have become increasingly obsolete in the face of new global problems. Precisely because organisations and operations have become more complex and dispersed, traditional, heroic models of leadership, designed for vertically integrated organisations, have become obsolete.

Anthony King PhD, Command: The Twenty-First Century General (2019).

King recommends that we take a more collaborative approach to leadership without sacrificing the structure required to ensure we are all driving towards the same goals and have a clear understanding of expectations.

Collective command – consists of all staff at all levels “bound together in dense, professionalised decision-making communities” (King, 2019); meaning, there is shared decision-making authority within clear boundaries.

A certain amount of ‘intrapreneurship’ is needed to explore new ways of working. In 1978, sustainable business school founder, Gifford Pinchot III, coined the term ‘intrapreneur’ and defined it as “dreamers who do.” Just as personal computing has evolved to become mobile, galvanising social movements, so too has the definition evolved. So, just what is intrapreneurship?

Intrapreneurship – is a system that allows employees to act like an entrepreneur within a company or organisation. They are self-motivated, proactive and action-oriented people who take the initiative to pursue an innovative product or service.

There is a yearning to embrace a ‘culture of digital experimentation’ across the cultural sector.

How might we begin to showcase our ‘intrapreneurship’ and ‘collective command’ digital leadership through collaboration and become an example within your organisation?


Establishing a mindful rhythm of work

Part of being anticipatory is identifying a consistent rhythm of how work gets done and how the organisation reflects upon that work in progress and on completion. One way to establish a more mindful work environment is to use agile methods and established rituals.

“Rituals can be one powerful strategy to improve our work lives—and help us act more like we aspire to be. They are practices that can bond people together, help us move through conflicts, amp us up to better performances, and assist us in adapting to change.”

Kursat Ozenc and Margaret Hagan, Rituals for Work.

Being ‘agile’ here is a matter of codifying the way your organisation is already working as you make explicit the practices and processes your people may have assumed were implicit. Consider using digital collaboration spaces to foster collaboration across teams to apply agile, or flexible, practices and introduce shared consciousness. This can be described as:

“the way transparency and communication can be used in an organisation to produce extraordinary outcomes across even large groups”

McChrystal, 2015, p. 5

U.S. Army retired General Stanley McChrystal refers to the development of adaptability and cohesiveness in pursuit of a common goal as a ‘team of teams’ capability. McChrystal says:

“This [capability] involves creating a team of teams to foster cross-silo collaboration. That way the insights and actions of many teams and individuals can be harnessed across the organisation. Innovation and problem solving become the products of teamwork, not a single architect.”

2015, 54

Agile principles were first published in 2001 as part of the Agile Manifesto – these principles were originally crafted for software developers to manage information technology (IT) products and projects. Over the course of 18 years, numerous frameworks have been created to move away from waterfall project management (in which projects move in one direction with the illusion of progress without taking into consideration unforeseen challenges and setbacks) toward practices that are iterative, useful and usable by all areas of a business. Agile practices allow organisations to plan realistically and achieve long-term goals within a complex and evolving environment. It also allows for projects to be pulled when they are not working, allowing projects to be flexible; fail fast, fail early.

Many different organisations and teams have developed agile processes that work for them – there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. During the course of the One by One project, the National Army Museum (see case study: adoption of new digital practices and processes) practised ‘agile rituals’ every two weeks to become more reflective about why they were doing what they were doing, while building up and recognising leaders at all levels and areas of the organisation:

How can we measure success?

Just as we assess the engagement of visitor groups and communities, we may apply similar measurement methods to how staff engage with each other to work and ‘learn out loud’ as they collaborate through their desired digital channels.

The Community Roundtable, is a resource for community professionals and this group publishes an annual state of community management report. In addition to this report, this group have developed the Engagement Framework:

“a tool that articulates four stages of culture change, and documents how cultures move from transactional relationships to collaborative relationships that allow people to explore out loud, a core attribute of collaborative and innovative cultures.”

Consider using the Community Roundtable Engagement Framework, to assess the success of the ‘CALM’ approach by observing how participants engage with each other in these four categories, which form part of the ‘Working out loud’ framework:

  • Validate Out Loud
  • Share Out Loud
  • Ask & Answer Out Loud
  • Explore Out Loud

You may also want to augment this formative (ongoing) evaluation with a tool to assess the values, motivators, tendencies, and behaviours that influence your staff. There are many such models, but there is one model that aligns well with the One by One project objectives – The Strength Deployment Inventory  developed in 1971 by Elias Porter. This is about developing a deeper understanding of what influences the actions of people you work with and for.

In conclusion

We may know that change is necessary and will positively impact us long-term, but when you are amid change, that ‘knowing’ succumbs to your emotions. You may feel lost or overwhelmed, or feel nothing at all  as you exist in the space between what you have experienced and what you have yet to experience.

This leads us to ask how we might ‘honour the space between no longer and not yet’?

Nancy Levin, a life coach and attributed author of the above phrase, says:

“This space allows you to integrate all that has happened for you, everything you’ve experienced, and what you desire to create. This is the place where resilience, possibility and opportunity are born.”

Perhaps the way through any life or work change is to practise and adopt the Kaizen philosophy. Masaaki Imai, Founder of the Kaizen Institute, defines Kaizen as improvement:

“Moreover, it means continuing improvement in personal life, home life, social life, and working life. When applied to the workforce, Kaizen means continuing improvement involving everyone – managers and workers alike.”

When we take a ‘CALM’ approach to leading in the digital age, we help our entire organisation feel calmer about how the organisation adopts new ways of working and emerging technologies to enable a more connected and engaged workforce, as well as, develop innovative consumer and visitor experiences. We are not alone on this journey of reflection and self-exploration as we learn to operate as a ‘museum of the future.’

In this Digital Pathways resource, we asked several ‘How might we’ questions. Consider sharing your reflections with others in the museum sector by tagging your responses with #museleadership.

Further reading

The following resources may be useful:
Developing staff digital skills: approach & process. Embarking on this process is vital preparation for organisational changes, allowing you understand and support the needs of staff and volunteers in your museum in terms of digital development
• Case study from Royal Pavilion and Museum: Working together to grow digital courage. How can we develop digital confidence in the museum workforce and empower greater personal storytelling around its collection using technology?
How to set up a digital community of practice. This guide includes tools and templates to use to create your own community.
• Case study from National Museums Wales: Developing a digital community of practice. How could we get people within the museum to share digital knowledge, increase dialogue and break down departmental barriers?
• Case study: Museum of London’s adoption of new digital practices and processes. How can we promote and sustain cross-departmental collaboration to support major museum events and exhibitions planning, processes and practices?
• Case study: National Army Museum’s adoption of new digital practices and processes. How might we ensure all museum people encourage, and influence, digital skills to flourish across the organisation?