When its current building was completed in 1885, the Rijksmuseum, the national art museum of the Netherlands, was intended to serve as a cathedral to house the greatest treasures of Dutch art and history. Throughout the 20th century, it was increasingly deprived of its glory: its decorations were painted white, and it slowly became cluttered with modern offices and archives. To some, it had become a dusty labyrinth where people struggled to find their way.
Accidentally agile: An interview with the Rijksmuseum’s Taco Dibbits
At the turn of the millennium, the Dutch government, along with a group of corporate sponsors, offered a singular opportunity in the form of a major monetary gift: the chance to transform the entire museum all at once. Despite bumps along the way, including a surprise discovery of asbestos in the building that stretched the museum’s closure to ten years, the museum’s physical transformation ultimately spurred an organizational one as well. As museum director Taco Dibbits describes in this interview with McKinsey’s Wouter Aghina and Allen Webb, the museum’s staff inadvertently embraced agile organizational principles—forming, dissolving, and reforming teams that were more interdisciplinary than those it had employed in the past—as it worked to redesign its galleries.
After a successful reopening in 2013, Dibbits, as director of collections at the time, first stepped back with his team from an agile process, then reintroduced it when he and the team embarked on a 21st-century vision for the museum. Along the way, Dibbits says, he learned a great deal about the characteristics of great teams, the power of constraints to inspire creative solutions, and the role of the leader to get people out of their comfort zones. Although the Rijksmuseum differs in many respects from the typical company experimenting with agile approaches, Dibbits’s experiences as an accidental agile leader should be thought-provoking for a wide cross section of organization leaders.
The Quarterly: How were things organized at the museum before the renovation?
Taco Dibbits: In the old museum, the art was arranged by specialization and was, in a sense, a reflection of the organizational diagram of the museum staff. The curator of ceramics had her gallery of vases and bowls, the curator of glass had his gallery of champagne flutes and pitchers, and so on. Within these galleries, separated by medium, the materials were then organized chronologically. So, for instance, in the paintings galleries you would start with the Middle Ages and walk up to the 20th century. With each new category, the public would have to start all over again.
The Quarterly: What was the motivating idea for a new approach? How did it change the way things worked?
Taco Dibbits: What we sometimes forget is that when visitors come to a museum, they don’t generally know what they’re supposed to get out of it. We sought to change that by creating an experience that would give the public a sense of time and a sense of beauty. We thought the best way to do this was to create a more sweeping chronological arrangement, because a national museum like ours also serves as the physical memory of the nation. Therefore, if you want to create a historical narrative for the public, you have to start mixing all the collections that traditionally had been arranged by material.
We decided that we would divide the gallery installations century by century, starting in the Middle Ages and working all the way up to the 20th century. The question we wanted to answer was not how to assign objects to spaces but how to place objects in groups that are linked aesthetically and historically in some significant way.
This would mean a change for our curators, who had previously worked quite autonomously. Now, everyone would have to start working together. We did this by establishing a working group for each century made up of different curators, as well as a person from the education department who would think about the right interpretation approach for the public.
The Quarterly: Were these groups completely self-directed or was there some leadership role involved?
Taco Dibbits: Each working group was chaired by the person whose expertise was right for that century; for example, in the Netherlands, the 17th century was the Golden Age—with paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and others—so the curator of paintings would chair that working group.
We encouraged the chairs to behave, to some degree, like enlightened despots, because we knew that otherwise, the groups would have tended not to make rigorous choices. We Dutch are all about consensus. But that kind of approach would have created a result that was too homogenous. We needed people in each group who could make their mark and say, “Well, the 18th century is the century of decorative arts. So that’s how we’re going to organize it.” You need a few people who push toward the highest-quality result, and those who are inspired by them to do the work and follow their lead.
The Quarterly: How did the proposal and selection process play out?
Taco Dibbits: It took about a year and a half for the groups to craft their proposals. There was very thorough research involved, and after that, each group presented its proposal to what we called the steering group.
Then the question for the management team became, “How are we going to slash the number of objects?” The 17th-century group, for example, presented far too many objects, around 3,000, which would never fit in the galleries. Any decision to cut down objects would naturally be frustrating for the working groups. It’s very difficult to “kill your darlings.” Our solution was to basically dissolve the task forces and assemble new ones. Their new mission was to create a selection one-third the size of what the first groups had proposed. They also had to write an argument for why they wanted to keep particular objects in, why they would be interesting to the public, and how these objects related to the others in the proposal. In this way, it gave all the specialists a feeling of ownership in the creation of the museum’s offerings, even beyond their own area of expertise.
The Quarterly: Did the reopening go as well as you had expected?
Taco Dibbits: We could not have imagined the scale of the success. The year of the reopening, in 2013, we had 2.25 million visitors, and the following year, the number of visitors increased by 250,000. At the time, we were so happy with how well things had gone—and so exhausted as a museum—that we didn’t immediately shift to new priorities. After two years, the previous director left, and I started in this role. Because I had been on the board in my previous role and I was an internal hire from within the museum, we could move quickly to draft a new vision and strategy. We didn’t include anybody else in that process, but once we had it on paper we opened it up for criticism. And we came away with a stronger vision, I think, because of those discussions with our supervisory board and works council.
The Quarterly: What were some of the goals and ideas driving the new vision?
Taco Dibbits: We were asking ourselves, “If we want to remain relevant in society, what should we tackle next?” We don’t only keep history; we shape it. That responsibility brings with it a few key challenges. As a museum born in the 19th century, our collection is very Dutch oriented. Back then, there was a large influx of new immigrants from Belgium, but today we have people from all over the world. How could we reflect that in the museum’s exhibitions?
Another challenge is that the Rijksmuseum is everybody’s museum, but not everybody feels it is their museum. We needed to figure out how to reach more people, not only in the Netherlands but abroad as well. How do we craft narratives that will resonate with our visitors on a personal level? Our goal is not to just convey that Rembrandt is the greatest artist and that if you don’t accept it you can leave. We want to tell visitors more about Rembrandt the person, more about his art and the time in which he lived—engaging visitors in a dialogue with the museum. And finally, in today’s world, where many forms of digital communication are central to our lives, another question was, “How do we remain at the forefront of digital trends and stay innovative?”
The Quarterly: How did you approach these various challenges?
Taco Dibbits: We felt that if we wanted to successfully tackle them, we had to change our organizational structure. Even though we had worked together in these groups to create entirely new gallery installations, we hadn’t changed the structure of the organization itself. Looking back, I think we should have tried then, despite how tired everyone was after our successful reopening. Eventually, though, our people wanted to be energized again. Restructuring the organization motivated people because they all understood how the bureaucracy in a 200-year-old institution mainly comes from the organizational diagram. We all wanted to break through it.
The Quarterly: What did some of this restructuring look like?
Taco Dibbits: As we looked at how to move forward, I kept hearing that we should think about an agile way of working. I had never heard of this, but as I learned more it dawned on me that it was quite similar to what we had done with our working groups in designing a new museum.
As we began to apply this thinking, we initially considered changing how our departments were organized by specialty—painting, glassware, for example—but we decided not to do it. First of all, in our surrounding field, the universities and museums are not organized in that way, so our staff would not be able to talk to peers. Maybe in the future, somebody will be an expert in 18th-century glass and silver, because there are similarities. But for now, that would be one step too far. Still, we’ve gone from 18 departments down to 15.
We ultimately decided to create four new agile working groups, one for each aspect of our new vision: exhibitions, personal stories, the customer journey, and digital innovation. For each group, there was a chair who would lead the agenda and then a project manager to steer and support the process. Since we no longer had the luxury of working inside a museum that was closed to the public, speed was of the essence—so we set a goal for these groups to come up with results within three months.
The Quarterly: Was there anything that you did differently with these working groups, relative to the ones you’d established during the renovation?
Taco Dibbits: One great decision that we made was to open up the groups to the entire organization, from curators to marketing. This gave everyone a feeling of empowerment to be able to use their specific knowledge and skills. It also provided the groups with more diverse perspectives that became crucial in tackling these multifaceted issues.
For example, a curator knows the collection and has an antenna out for what’s currently important in the academic community. Meanwhile, a security guard has everyday contact with the public and sees how visitors move around in the museum. And somebody from the social-media team can argue, “Just because we’re doing this exhibition on slavery doesn’t necessarily mean that people from the Caribbean will visit. In fact, we aren’t currently reaching them; we need to engage those groups on other platforms.” We learned that having the involvement of people from many different disciplines ensures that we’ll maintain a stronger connection between the museum and the community.
The Quarterly: Did all the groups tackle their mandates in the same way, as the earlier-century groups had?
Taco Dibbits: Interestingly, they each went about it in different ways. The customer-journey group conducted a kind of agile research outside the museum on why different groups of people—international visitors, Dutch families, and so on—don’t come to the museum. They presented a few conclusions and laid out how much their solutions would cost and how much value they would bring to the museum. Today, we have smaller groups within our normal working structure actually implementing these recommendations.
The personal-stories working group took another tack: they decided to invite people from all kinds of professional backgrounds—entertainment, journalism—to brainstorm how we could craft stories that would resonate with visitors. At the end, the group identified the ingredients of a good story and how we might tell it. The group is currently thinking about how we tell our stories on different platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram.
The group working on digital innovation had the most difficulty working in an agile way. We usually think agile comes from the tech side, but they’re also naturally very analytical. So they started out by making an inventory of what they were already doing. That took them a long time, and then they were just starting to ask what the next step should be and what innovation they should implement, when their three-month deadline arrived. It was interesting to see that not all four groups succeeded to the same degree.
The Quarterly: How did you balance giving these teams the freedom to tackle these problems while also providing enough direction to keep them on course?
Taco Dibbits: In Dutch, we say, “Let everybody fly.” But as leaders, we also have to let our teams know where they are flying to; otherwise there’s a risk they will become frustrated and deflated. I think agile leaders need to understand that for teams to self-organize and self-direct, they also need to have a very clear and thoughtfully constrained task.
However, this doesn’t mean going so far as to tell teams how to work toward the goal, because that will actually hamper them. And then they’ll think, “Why should we do it that way, just because he or she says so?” It is better that leaders restrain themselves even though they may already think they know what the result will likely be. After all, the team’s results might be surprising in a positive way.
The Quarterly: In your experience, what’s the optimal number of people for these teams? Is there any tension around who’s involved?
Taco Dibbits: For one thing, once you start this agile way of working and create task forces, the people who are not initially placed on them feel excluded. So the first reaction of our task force chairs is often to ask, “Can we make the group bigger?” And I say, “No, you can’t.” The optimal size for these groups is really five to seven people.
This is, in part, for pragmatic reasons. If the group takes a vote, an even number of members makes it difficult to decide. Also, the group dynamics change with more people. If you have more than seven people, it’s difficult to have a fruitful discussion, because by the time everyone gets to have their say, you’ve lost speed. Also, with a smaller group, it’s harder for a person to remain silent. You can challenge people to say something and they often have very valuable insights.
Ultimately, it’s important to communicate from the start that everyone’s time on these task forces will come. We continue to regularly mix up the people in these groups so that everyone has a chance to participate.
The Quarterly: This nontraditional structure of working seems to strip away some of the traditional responsibilities of a leader. So what is the purpose of a leader in an agile way of working?
Taco Dibbits: The role of our leadership team is to push people to think more broadly, to get them out of their comfort zone, and ultimately to do things they never imagined possible.
If you want to keep pushing forward, you have to make sure that you and your broader team are seeking out different perspectives, and not just from the usual places. It’s human nature to gather people around us who have a similar way of thinking. But it’s better when we find others who challenge us and expand our understanding. For instance, it may not be our first instinct to consult someone without a strong background in museum work, but if they have, say, a deep understanding of the cultural issues surrounding an upcoming exhibition, we can benefit greatly from their contributions—and the exhibition will be richer for it. It’s all about actively cultivating an open mind and a sense of curiosity.
To learn more about the Rijksmuseum’s next major endeavor, read about Taco Dibbits’ latest announcement of a major restoration of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. This multiyear project will be on view for the public to observe in progress at the museum or watch via livestream online around the world.