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12 April 2024

Delivering the Year of Culture ‘LEEDS 2023’


Exploring LEEDS 2023, the learnings of the Experience Design team and how they partnered with Hippo to deliver the Year of Culture.

This is a guest blog, supplied by LEEDS2023 team member Fiona Young. The article is published with her permission and highlights the work Fiona successfully completed with the support of her mentor, Hippo Delivery Manager, Josh Parker.

This blog is useful for people working on digital projects and for people operating in arts and culture sectors interested in shifting into ‘digital first’ ways of working.

So what’s LEEDS 2023, I hear you ask?

LEEDS 2023 was a Year of Culture which took place across the city over 2023. Leeds City Council initially put together a proposal to be the host city for European Capital of Culture, however, this bid sadly became ineligible post-Brexit. Leeds City Council decided to not let this work go to waste and collaborated with partners to run an independent year of culture.

Fast forward to 2024 and the Leeds 2023 team delivered over 100 projects with cultural organisations from across the city and beyond. From raising a barn in 24 hours and filling it with empowering feminist events to leaving a permanent hibiscus flower in Aire Park, the team well and truly let culture loose.

Made up of Delivery Managers, Product Managers, Experience Designers, Web Assistants and Ticketing Service Managers, the Experience Design team was tasked with designing frictionless experiences for online and in-person events. Working alongside the Marketing and Comms team to make sure the people of Leeds and beyond knew all about what was happening and how they could get involved. It’s worth noting that this make up of a digital team is very rare for an arts and culture organisation. However, I think it was one of our biggest positives.

We’ve been able to demonstrate the value of user-centred design and ultimately create better experiences for our users. We have tried to advocate for the user in everything we have done. All content from our website was written in an accessible way and was designed to make information easier to digest. This approach was critical in our aims to engage the city of Leeds and ensure culture is accessible to all. We’ve also had a huge impact internally. Whether that be the digital products we used daily or delivering a data microsite that helps drive conversations on how we can improve.

Takeaway: Don’t be scared to challenge the status quo; bringing in diverse expertise can really elevate user experience in the realm of arts and culture. Data can be a friend and can help drive conversations across the whole organisation, not just the data experts.

A LEEDS 2023 take on Agile

As Delivery Manager, I employed agile and lean practices which helped to align the team better and prioritise workloads. As a time-limited organisation that ceased to exist in early 2024 I found the year to be a brilliant opportunity to experiment with these methodologies in the arts and culture context. We had our Kanban board to track progress day-to-day, but also at times we have tried sprinting in hectic periods like a season launch – for example, in August, when we launched the Autumn/Winter ‘Dreaming’ programme.

Whilst true agile would have been quite difficult to implement in an events organisation where waterfall project management is so deeply embedded in ways of working, we have borrowed from the Agile toolkits of others by having the support from Hippo.

Mentors such as Josh Parker helped support the implementation of different approaches and helped us define a way that worked for us at LEEDS 2023. We may not be following the guide exactly, but it was certainly interesting to see how our blended approach helped improve both the quality of work and the pace of decision-making.

One of our biggest wins and something I would highly recommend for any team in any organisation is to adopt regular ‘ceremonies’ such as daily stand-ups and retros. These are an excellent vehicle for building trust and rapport across a team. No problems were left festering and things were acted on quickly, our team always remained in constant communication and we could manage our progress daily. A retro takes this one step further by making time for honest conversations reflecting our strengths and opportunities for improvement. It helped the team understand how we could do things better so we were always making progress as a team.

Takeaway: Just two simple meetings plus using a collaboration tool like Slack can transform your ways of working and help create a strong team culture! We found that using more informal communication routes enabled faster and more effective collaboration.

Delivering against the clock.

The clue is in the name; LEEDS 2023 was a time-limited organisation. So about halfway through the year, we had to start planning the end game. How does an organisation spin up and spin back down again within a year whilst leaving behind a solid impact and legacy for the city to build upon?

Through support looking at methodologies with Hippo, we could see how Agile methodologies could come into their own. By establishing a list of priority items that we wanted to achieve, then applying MoSCoW prioritisation (sorting by Must, Should, Could, Would like to have) to these and assigning risk and impact values we started to see what needed to be done and when, and communicate this with the organisation.

This resulted in a prioritised backlog of EPICs to work through organised into a very big Kanban board. Gaining clarity from the outset of what we must and should achieve meant we could focus purely on the big priority items and not get stuck focusing on things that maybe wouldn’t matter come 2024. Having a deadline on your team means you have to remain pragmatic throughout. Looking back at the work now, a huge benefit of this approach has been reviewing the Kanban and seeing we have completed over 80 tasks out of the 120 we initially scoped in September, and those which are ‘parked’ or ‘to do’ have Could or Nice to have prioritisation attached, and those in ‘doing’ will mostly be done before the team all leave the organisation.

Takeaway: Whilst it might feel like a lengthy task to review a chunk of work in advance, using prioritisation and risk management models can help you to look objectively at all the work on the horizon and decide where your team needs to focus to achieve what your organisation needs.

From my experience as a Delivery Manager at LEEDS 2023 I think the people centric nature of the role allows it to be beneficial to organisations which work in other sectors, not just tech or digital environments. There are huge opportunities for Delivery Managers to help support anyone that delivers stuff, helping to nudge ways of working and shift work cultures for the better. The Experience Design team experienced no staff turnover outside of contracts ending, and in part I think that’s due to the open and trusted culture we created as a team.