In my own research on workflow and organization I’ve tried in vain to find reading related specifically to the needs of publishers, especially those in nonprofit fields. It’s easy to find organizational advice for work in corporations, easier still for personal improvement, but hard to find it tailored to a world which is more likely to be trashed than praised in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. And much of that stems from the apparent contradiction of a public-minded mission–in our case, educating the public to our shared, preserved artistic history–and a need to, well, make enough money to advance that mission. More money, more mission, rinse and repeat.
Digital projects can bring this contradiction into high relief, because there are so many counter-currents at once in making content available digitally. There are free blogging and tweeting tools, but those may only work with an expensive investment in infrastructure (or else you get stuck using your own computer and wifi connection, essentially providing infrastructure for free). Colleagues and partners abound, but finding and staying in touch with them takes a lot of time (finding someone NOT overwhelmed by email is now harder than finding the opposite), and there’s only so many interns in the world to help us with those “additional duties as needed” in our job description, never mind what we were originally hired to do. Even the very freedom that our bosses may give us to pursue digital publishing can suck us into an open-ended commitment because of the very, well, open-endedness of it all.
Which leads me to today’s overall concern: project drift. We know it by a few names: mission creep (better than the alternative, creepy missions), cluster-****, and so on. Your seemingly well-defined project quickly changes its very nature, usually at a level over your head. The political wranglings of budgets, stakeholders, and hot-potato-responsibilities used to drive me batty because it all seemed so pointless. We all want to make great art available to the public, right? There’s a big pile of money to spend, right? I’m nice, trustworthy, and always meet my deadlines, right? So what’s the problem?
I’ve not only learned better but learned to respect the senior team members who go to the dozens of meetings that make them frustratingly unavailable for that signature or approval just when it’s needed. The bombs they drop on us when they return from the Olympian heights of the director’s office–”so the number of publications to put online has risen a bit, from 50 to 740,” for example–aren’t arbitrary, they’re part of a carefully choreographed dance of institutional needs. Or so I tell myself when my blood stops boiling. The offered snacks at the meetings where this kind of wonderful/horrible news gets delivered don’t hurt, either.
For those of us coming from a print background, is it really that different from those dreaded curatorial words: “I’m just reading this for the first time and we need to [insert most insane possible changes imaginable here]?” Or when the director approves the books running an extra 50 or so pages to fit that essay which came in ten times too long, or those new acquisitions/loans which absolutely must appear in the publication? When you find yourself saying, “I wish we stopped acquiring so much art” it’s time for a reset.
If your project parameters don’t change 50 times by the time you launch, your project probably isn’t dynamic enough. Keeping up with the changes requires a few things: a good system of tracking versions of your project needs so you can revisit earlier iterations, bosses who don’t necessarily want you to explode, and at least one project team member with a sense of humor at any given time. A few self-help books on knowing your own personal style of working best under pressure is useful. That, and the wherewithal to remember that we’re doing good work here. I remember after a few years at the Met, I was asked by a relative if I was okay with the undoubtedly less money I was making. “If I wanted to make money,” I said, “I’d be doing desktop publishing for a bank.” His response was, “Well, why don’t you?” I didn’t answer because I didn’t need to. And there you have it.