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Happenstance: making software and making art – the Agile manifesto

As part of the Nesta, Arts Council and AHRC Digital R&D for Arts and Culture Fund, the Happenstance project, developed by Caper, looks to fund six technology residencies at three major UK arts organisations – Site Gallery in Sheffield, the Lighthouse in Brighton and Spike Island in Bristol.

In an extract from the Happenstance blog, Natalia Buckley explores the relationship between making art and software and experiments with a more ‘Agile’ way of working.

Generally speaking, tech companies try to get good at investigating and reflecting on their own processes – often this results in exciting ideas that challenge the traditional ways of running organisations.

At GitHub, for example, there is pride in the lack of managers – or as Ryan Tomayko puts it, the fact that “everyone at GitHub is a manager… each responsible for managing a single person: their self.”

Another example, Valve, has no formal corporate structure – everyone can pick what project they work on and the desks are furnished with wheels for setting up impromptu temporary teams. Decisions are made by getting enough supporters from across the company who want to work on the project. Their employee handbook describes exactly how it works and it’s a fascinating read.

But there is a philosophy that at first doesn’t seem quite as radical, though it appears the entire software making world is practicing it: the Agile philosophy.

I can quote the entire Agile manifesto here because it’s so short:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it – through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Happenstance was supposed to help consider whether the Agile philosophy of making software could be useful to arts organisations and, obviously, there are many differences between the ways in which software and art are made. The biggest difference is in the way they are funded; arts funding is mired in bureaucracy, paperwork and relies on relatively few bodies, which grant money to projects that fit within their goals and agendas.

For a while I wondered whether an Agile approach is even useful. Lighthouse is a small team working in one room – most of the work they do is about strategy, planning and managing, rather than making things.

But as I considered it more I realised that agility comes from a specific culture within the organisation and has relatively little to do with making things or technology. The idea that face-to-face conversation is the best way to convey information surely applies outside of the software-making world.

Agility comes from not fearing change or small mistakes and learning to respond to them quickly and efficiently – it’s about responding to change.

I have recently felt like I’ve gained enough trust among the team at Lighthouse to be able to propose anything and that they would at least try it out, knowing that I’ve got their best interests at heart. So I decided to give it a go, and completely banned email as a means of internal communication.

Obviously I have no way of of checking up on everyone, but judging from the feedback and the amount of work-related discussions that are happening in the office, they decided to follow it.

I’ve also introduced daily stand-up meetings where we all very briefly describe what we were working on yesterday and what we are going to be doing today. Somehow the format stuck and we even describe what we all did on our days off as well – it’s actually really nice to be always in the loop, and occasionally hear a funny weekend story.

It made me realise how much and what kinds of work everyone does – all the boring bits: catching up on emails, reviewing things and so on. So after these things were practiced for a while, what good did they do?

I find it hard to quantify it after a short period of time, partly because I don’t actually work on any of their projects, so I can’t tell whether things are easier, better, worse or without change yet.

… I will gather more feedback and then I will report on it.

Matthew Caines is a journalist currently blogging and posting updates from all eight projects involved in the Digital R&D Fund for Arts and Culture

Find out more about the Happenstance project here

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