Archive for ‘Art & Culture’

June 5th, 2012

Mission, Vision, Values, and…

For years–decades, even–the triumvirate of “mission, vision, values” has reigned as the core of strategic planning for non-profits. Putting a plan together often meant starting with those three elements and then endlessly word-smithing them into the appropriate degree of institution-speak.

But it is time for a change, especially for organizations focused on the arts and culture.

What is missing is an articulation of “service”: how an organization will activate those three other elements–mission, vision, and values–and make good on its ability to serve its audiences.

As a society, we are long past the point where audiences see themselves as mere consumers of cultural offerings provided by others. Today’s audiences are participants, with a stronger role in creating and validating the programs they choose, beyond simply purchasing tickets for them. Moreover, audiences increasingly gravitate towards those institutions, programs, and activities that welcome their new modes of engagement and that offer greatest flexibility around how they choose to engage. Those points of engagement may be driven by technology, but are not necessarily; technology is only a tool to support an organization’s customer service, not a replacement for good service itself.

In an age in which there are a million and one distractions beeping in a person’s pocket, and another million distractions prepared to offer you free or low-cost entertainment right from the comfort of your couch, it is no longer enough to think that organizations can reserve “service” areas as something to be addressed tactically, programatically. Any (arts) organization that wants to maintain or grow its audience needs to start thinking at the highest levels about its customer service experience. The organization must be prepared to speak to its goals, strategies, and tactics from the perspective of those customers–no longer just from the perspective of the organization’s presumptive mission, vision, and values.

May 8th, 2012

Book Juggling in Mid-Air

I’m writing this at 37,000 feet (36,988 to be precise), presently somewhere over Iowa. Moments earlier, I downloaded volume one and two of the collected works of Ambrose Bierce from Project Guttenberg onto my iPad, thanks to the inflight wifi on Virgin Atlantic.

And you’re thinking: Ambrose Bierce? Yes. Reading a review of a new edition of his “Devil’s Dictionary” in The New York Review of Books convinced me that his stories from the Civil War sound like must-read material. Now I have them, and you can too. (I’ll let you know if the stories meet the hype.)

The thing is: I’m a book junkie. I am not entirely agnostic on the question of e-books versus the old-fashioned kind (though my views are, you might say, “evolving”), but I am certainly pragmatic. It will take me years, possibly decades, to approach the level of well-read-ness I would like. And much like the survivalist hoarders who build bunkers with freeze-dried food to last 99 years, one thing I am sure of is that I won’t run out of reading material in this lifetime. I am more than ok with that, and e-books may help with the “space permitting” portion of the equation.

Now I can read Bierce–literally, right now. If I like the stories, I may invest in a hard copy, the kind my children will be able to pick up and read for themselves in a few years, when iPads are gone and we are all on to the next big thing–which may or may not be better for books than the current set of e-readers.

UPDATE, somewhere over Wisconsin/Michigan: Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is an amazing short story. Totally captivating! Five stars! Read it–for free!

January 12th, 2012

Prophets, Guardians, Barbarians

A few days ago, in a piece about politics in Israel, Daniel Gordis mentioned a reframing of “left” and right” that he’d heard at a conference: rather than those traditional designations, the speaker preferred to think of people as either “prophets” or “guardians.” Since reading that, I keep thinking about the applicability of these same terms to the working world, too. The distinction seems clear enough: prophets reflect a vision for the future, a response to changing dynamics that draw on core values but adapt them to new and more challenging circumstances, where guardians are people who recognize that the value in the status quo and fight to protect it against whimsical change or uncertain times.

As a consultant, this situation comes up more than occasionally, and assessing the relative weight of the prophets versus the guardians can be a rough guide to the future. When organizations are confronted with challenges or the need for change, the reactions that are provoked are often very similar. Some people respond like (or turn into) prophets; others become guardians. I think this genuinely reflects people’s responses to (potential) disruptions in either their internal or external working environments, no less in the world of arts and culture than in any other area–and sometimes more so, because the motivations for change in a non-profit are very different from those in a for-profit.

Understanding that people may respond this way can help leaders navigate through the necessary interpersonal and practical decision-making processes. Guardians can be helped to understand that not all change is bad–and that most organizations change over time, even if they don’t recognize it as such. Prophets can be encouraged to frame their views in ways that connect past and future; they can be helped to turn their vision of an inevitable future into a process that feels controlled and controllable.

At the same time, the world is rarely so black-and-white; few of us are ever 100% of anything, let alone 100% “prophet” or 100% “guardian.” We may embrace change or fear it, and sometimes we do both in equal measure. That is the most difficult place to be, because it can so easily lead to stagnation. But for most businesses and organizations it may also be the best hope–if both those leading and those being led can understand that they are in this dynamic together. This is the point when the good ideas and opportunities can be separated from the bad, using the critical judgments of those leaning in one direction or the other. It does not necessarily mean absolute consensus, but it can mean general agreement that helps an organization’s leaders to lead.

The worst situation? Whether an organization is mostly guardians or mostly prophets, the real threats come from the barbarians: those who function that way internally, or those who are outside the organization and viewed as such. The internal barbarians are the ones who may run roughshod over both the good and the bad ideas, forcing “change” but not evolution. They form alliances that fight for the status quo, but only for the status quo that applies to them. If you perceive barbarians externally, well, your problem is likely also internal. Those people are your audiences–your customers–so if you view them as barbarians, then you need to ask yourself whether you are doing enough to help these folks understand your mission and your goals.

Are there legitimate barbarians outside your gate? Probably a few. But they may be clamoring for a past they vaguely recall, or for a future they cannot articulate. Your goal is to embrace and convert them. An organization that cannot adapt to embrace its customers–and instead views them as a threat–is doomed to fail. No embrace of the future or protection of the sacred past will change that.

December 8th, 2011

World-Class Deficiency

Earlier this week, someone sent me the strategic planning survey for a small, culturally focused non-profit organization. It’s a scrappy little place: off the coasts and in a community with a long history of economic battering, and yet they have managed to be successful. This organization isn’t a client, but I know some of the people involved and understand their project goals, and so was flattered to have had my name given to their consultants and to be asked for feedback as they develop a new strategic plan.

Until I was stopped dead in my tracks quite early on by a question about what they can do “to achieve world-class excellence.” Hmmm. (1) Nothing. (2) Should “world-class excellence” even be the goal? What on earth does that mean?

It seems as though this term–“world-class,” or sometimes offered as “world class” without the hyphen–is on the rise (again), particularly in the non-profit world. In the last couple of weeks, it has come up in materials for more organizations than I care to count, all attempting to use it as the ne plus ultra of modifiers to signal “We are awesome!” All of them miss that mark.

There are three core problems with using the term “world-class.” First, if we take it at face value, then most organizations / cities / restaurants / experiences just are not that. That’s not snobbishness; rather, that’s clearly the point: to identify one’s group with the (very few) things in this world that are absolutely outstanding and exceptional. Objectively speaking most things do not rise to that level, and most cities and institutions will not become (rapidly, anyway, or based on the wording in a website or a press release) the must-see destination of the year or the century.

Does that suggest “world-class” is just an expression of an aspiration? Perhaps. But why is that the thing to which one wants to aspire? The second problem with the term is that because it’s what so many people say, it fails the test of how to sell or market something. Don Draper never would have stood for it, you can be sure of that; I can just imagine the “Mad Men” episode in which it might come up. He’d have thought it lazy, not to mention a threat to his business: if you can say the same thing about so many different things, with no meaningfully expressed point of differentiation, then why bother saying anything at all?

As a term, “world-class” offers nothing in the way of insight to the person one is trying to seduce: the average visitor is unlikely to decide to come based on whether you have (or have not) described yourself that way, and journalists probably don’t even see the phrase any more because it’s in such common use. If you want to sell your project or engage someone in thinking about your organization or community, find a description that is organic–something that reflects who and what you really are and where you’re actually headed. People–consumers and journalists alike–are more influenced by descriptions that feel genuine and that engage their imaginations, not by generic terms that can be used by anyone.

And that’s the third problem with the term “world-class,” the problem so deftly addressed in “The Incredibles“: if absolutely everyone is special, then no one is. Or rather, then the word “special” loses most of its meaning and value. It should be ok–more than ok, really; it should be acceptable, comfortable–to be “special” within the community that a particular organization is most concerned with engaging. It’s desirable to want to express that, to tell the world that your project or entity is worthy of support and is contributing value to its community. But that does not make it “world-class” by default.

Especially in the world of culture, it’s easy to find wonderful and charming projects that excel within a particular niche–such as a museum with a very specific kind of collection, or a small performing arts group with a focus on music from a specific period or style. Organizations that adopt the “world-class” mantle actually lose their specialness by embracing terminology that no one finds compelling and that, at the same time, wipes out the descriptive qualities that might help them appeal to both their core audiences and new ones, too. Being “world-class” is harder than simply saying it, and also less meaningful–to the worldly, anyway–than it may appear.