What We Can Learn from Works in Progress

Bethany Crystal
Jan 30 · 6 min read
A glimpse at the lower level of the Guggenheim Museum during an exhibit changeover this spring.

This Exhibit Under Construction

A couple of months ago, I went to see a show at the Guggenheim Museum while their main veranda was in transition from one exhibit to the next. Since the main shows at the Guggenheim snake around the main walking path of the museum in a snail shell design, attendees have the unique privilege of getting to watch the “work in progress” as museum curators and art handlers carefully package up one piece of art and bring in the next collection.

Not an artist myself, I found this process entirely fascinating. I stood by the elevator bay in the museum, leaning over the ledge, trying to take in what was happening. At the lower level, yellow and tan crates stacked on top of each other while a half-dozen workers set up makeshift stands that held some of the larger works. In the corner, a couple of men worked on small projects at a desk, their hands illuminated by the lamp as they pages through some of the specifications for the display.

On the upper levels one artwork as a time was placed on a table, then closely inspected with a flashlight (some curators even using their iPhones), while they looked back and forth from the original to a printout of the artwork. I imagined they were looking for any stray marks or damages that may have occurred while the piece was on display. On the opposite side of the veranda, more tables had been set up, with stacks of neatly organized papers in folders. Were they certificates of authenticity for the works, I wondered? Special instructions for how each piece should be hung or returned? Every now and then, a dolly would roll past me as a piece was gently lifted up or down, then set at its ultimate resting place, leaning against the wall, waiting to be hung.

I ended up spending about 15 minutes exploring the exhibit I went to see. But I watched the transformation in progress for the better part of an hour. Eventually, I grabbed one of the operations leaders as she walked past.

“Hey, would you mind answering a few questions for me?” I asked her. “Can you explain what I’m looking at here?”

We chatted for about 10 minutes as she confirmed some of my hypothesis about what I had been seeing, including the various roles of the team at work, from the curatorial staff to the art handlers and everyone in between.

“I just love this kind of thing,” I confessed. “Thanks so much for helping me understand a little bit more about what’s behind the curtain.”


What’s Behind the Curtain

In any job that exists, there is the finished product — what the rest of the world sees — and there is the process, what the “doers” see. Whether it’s an exhibit at an art gallery, a Broadway show, a building under construction, or a software product under development, unless you’re on the team doing the building, these things often exist in binary states. It’s either finished and ready for you to see, or it’s behind the curtain, under development, and hidden away from view.

While the finished product might be impressive, I prefer participating in the “work in progress” phase. To me, that’s where all of the learning happens.

With a finished product, you see what was created — but when you observe the process, you get a couple of layers deeper, into the how and sometimes the why. Some lightbulbs may go off, such as “Of course they need to use brick to hold the dollies in place at the Guggenheim. The entire museum is on a slight incline, so nothing will lie perfectly flat otherwise.”

Sometimes these insights may appear to exist in a vacuum. Admittedly, I may rarely have a need to conduct an art installation on a ramped incline in my life. But other times, these lessons can be transferable.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I went to see the comedian Mike Birbiglia perform in the West Village. But this wasn’t a headlining show. There was no marquee. And it didn’t even have a name. Mike needed to test out new material for an upcoming show and, as a comedian, seeing how an audience reacts to your jokes provides crucially important information for your development process.

When he has a set of “work in progress” jokes or stories ready, Mike sends an email to his newsletter subscribers, inviting them to play in the sandbox with him for a couple of hours and react to this new material.

On stage stood a music stand with some loose papers, and when Mike appeared, he carried with him a stack of colorful index cards, each one containing just a few key words to remind him of the joke or story he intended to share. For the next 90 minutes, we moved through index card after index card as he tested out new material. At one point, he walked over to the music stand and read aloud from the page or two he had written.

As audiences do, we laughed, we applauded, and we expressed what I’m sure included many more emotions that he was clocking with his writer’s eye, making mental notes of what to tweak for the next time.

To me, watching this work in progress ended up being personally validating to one of my own “in progress” methods. When I prepare for a long speech or presentation, I don’t like to read from a script, but I also don’t like to come across as having memorized anything either. Instead, I’ve found success with setting up what I refer to as “transitional anchors” for myself. Often, these are short catch phrases that tee me up for either the example that’s to come, or to close out the topic I just discussed. Rather than remember all of the details for an entire presentation, I commit to memory just those anchors. If I get lost, I still know what’s next, and I can get back on track.

Seeing Mike use a similar technique in how he practices and remembers his long-form joke-telling in standup specials provided me with additional context into my own strategy. “This is how the pros remember things,” I thought. “I’ll be sure to keep using this technique in the future.”


Paying Attention to the Process

There are lots of opportunities to watch other people’s processes. How does the front desk clerk at the UPS store manage a busy line in a holiday season? How does a bartender handle a growing crowd while keeping people calm? How does a bus driver make sure people feel safe?

My guess is that most of us don’t take the time to notice them. Or even when we do, it’s even rare to jump to the next step and ask, “I see what’s going on in this context. What might I learn from this?”

One of the things that I enjoy the most about working in the tech sector is how much we value knowledge transfer and shared learnings across different leaders and organizations. But one of the things I don’t love so much is how often we restrict that thinking to our own silos.

When is the last time you’ve heard about a tech company CEO looking to iterate on their product development process based on how a construction team manages project timelines when building skyscrapers? Why don’t we think to do this? After all, skyscrapers have existed far longer than software. We might be able to learn something from each other.


Originally published at Dry Erase.

Bethany Crystal

Written by

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC

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