On pilot projects and other things that don’t work
“If your organization requires success before commitment, it will never have either.”
-Seth Godin, Tribes
So first, a confession. I’ve done pilot projects before. As recently as April of this year, I said that museums should be doing “better pilot projects.” It’s an idea with powerful appeal—you’re having trouble getting a technology project off the ground, so you propose a fact-finding pilot project as a way to convince the powers that be of the merits of your proposed idea. But after seeing more and more museums stumbling through their own pilot projects, I realize now that I should never do another pilot project again, ever. And neither should you.
First off, the whole concept of the “pilot project” itself is a fantasy. It’s rarely a project in the conventional sense; it’s a hedge. More often than not, a pilot project is undertaken as a way for technologists to slide a potentially controversial (and yet often technologically mundane) idea past museum administration. It’s a way to fail without actually incurring the costs or benefits of actual failure.
But of course, real failure is built into most pilot projects from the beginning, for one or both of the following reasons:
- Pilots usually take place in rarefied “test” environments that bear so little resemblance to actual use as to make the “findings” of the pilot project virtually useless.
- Because the pilot project usually has a short engagement period, museums typically will not commit enough resources to the project to sustain it should it turn out to be successful (as described—heartbreakingly—in this recent post by Nina K. Simon about a successful crowdsourced library cataloguing project in the Netherlands).
So this is the problem in a nutshell. Because pilots are rarely given the resources necessary to succeed, they are doomed to failure (or at least some sort of permanent beta status) from the beginning.
And what are these pilot programs designed to prove, anyway? At least as far as museums go, technology is one of the few areas in which pilot projects are ever undertaken. We rarely, if ever, see pilot publications, pilot exhibitions, or pilot educational programs. That alone tells me that we do pilot projects not because we truly need to prove out the technology, but rather because our institutions aren’t as comfortable with technology as they are with exhibitions, publications, etc.
This just seems like bad practice to me. I’m sure there are plenty of successful projects that have arisen from pilot projects, but looking at the evidence from my own experience, I tend to think that this is despite their previous status as pilots, rather than because of that.
We need to stop this hedging, and own up to our failures when they occur. If you’re pushing a technology project at your museum, make the case for it at the beginning, rather than hoping that a successful pilot will make the case for you. If you’re proposing the project in the first place, it’s probably because you already have some faith that it will be successful. Don’t ensure that project’s death by committing it to the pilot project graveyard.