Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Assembly Line and Failure

I've recently returned from Theatre Communications Group's Annual Conference, where the theme was "model the movement," focusing on new models and transformative ideas from the field. I was particularly excited to attend this year, as the speakers included Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz and author/marketer extraordinaire Seth Godin.

Howard kicked off the conference with his speech "Theatrical Innovation: Who's Job Is It?," in which he compared the systems of our regional theaters to that of an assembly line, a theme that would resurface multiple times over the course of the conference. As regional theaters grew and became more complex, often times non-profit managers were encouraged to borrow best practices from corporate entities, designed to improve efficiency, streamline processes and increase return on investment. And it worked...until it didn't. You see, the process of creating art cannot be controlled by an assembly line system. We don't create widgets. And as one artist said to me, "if I was exclusively concerned with return on investment from a monetary perspective, I wouldn't create art, and I certainly wouldn't have had children."

This isn't to say that theaters shouldn't have systems. Systems have helped us reduce waste, maximize time and better utilize our resources. But an over reliance on particularly inflexible systems can also guarantee failure, at least from an artistic perspective. Theater is a particularly risky business, even when producing so called "cash cows," as I have previously written about here. To quote one artistic director, "theaters eat risk for breakfast." But as the economy has contracted, have we become too reliant on our systems? and if Woolly Mammoth is wrestling with this issue, a company that is known to be nimble and innovative, then it must be a significant challenge for others. How often do we as marketing directors get handed a project that we can't wait to work on, knowing that we will need to call upon all of our creativity to develop innovative audience development strategies, only to think - shit, if I give the time and attention this project requires, the next three shows will suffer? Which then results in trying to pound a square peg into the round hole that is our assembly line, which is a disservice to both the artist and the marketer. Great work will push boundaries across all departments within an organization, and senior managers need to create systems and budgets that not only allow space for custom approaches, but that encourage them.

As managers, we like to mitigate risk, thinking that if we could just control our variables just a little more, that we would reach a utopia of risk free theater producing. It's a fool's errand. Since the beginning of the global economic crisis in 2008, the stakes have risen so high that it can feel like we don't have room to fail. But in failure, we find success. It sounds counter intuitive, but making today as failure free as possible will ensure a less successful tomorrow. Even Mr. Godin, a titan in the business world, in his bio proudly proclaims "as an entrepreneur, he has founded dozens of companies, most of which failed." So the question we should all be asking, particularly in the budget process, is - are we building enough room for experimentation and failure?

Recently, I had the opportunity as a consultant to work with a few senior managers who were tasked with reinventing a business model for a program that was part of a much larger institution. Due to funding cuts, the program needed to become revenue neutral over time, and pro formas were developed to guide that process. Along the way, the program hit some unforeseen challenges, but as the pro formas were the only measurement of success, decisions were made that allowed the organization to "stay on target" by hitting financial benchmarks as scheduled at the expense of future operations. When I began my work, I was asked if I thought the program could reach revenue neutral status on the timeline outlined in the pro formas. I said that I believed it was possible, but then followed up by saying the question asked really should be whether the program can remain a going concern after hitting revenue neutral status given the short-sighted decisions that would be necessary to get there. In other words, does it really matter if we got the patient to the hospital in record time if the patient dies in route? How many decisions do we make each year that only considers the financial position of the company during the fiscal year in question? and would we make different decisions if we considered the pros and cons over multiple years? The financial strain on many arts organizations is tremendous, but if we continue to sprint to obtain single year targets while we ignore the conditions that wait for us at the finish line, over time we can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Unless an organization is under dire financial constraints, and death is literally knocking at the door, all major decisions must be viewed in a multi-year context.

Studies have shown that people are motivated more by avoiding failure than by achieving success. As this article states, some professional athletes like winning, but they really hate to lose. This would explain why limiting risk is so appealing, even if it jeopardizes our ability to succeed. But I would argue that mindset breeds mediocrity, and that artists and arts administrators are different. We know that our best work comes from taking risks, and this is something we need to remember as we head back into work tomorrow.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

The First Key to Success -- Defining It

Without clear direction, success can never be achieved. We’ve all experienced situations where we run toward a goal as fast and furious as we can only to have the goal posts moved on us in route. When this happens over and over again, an organization is guilty of foolishly wasting precious resources at a moment when most are under resourced as it is.

Success begins with leadership. As Michael Kaiser discussed in his Huffington Post blog, there must be a leader. All too often, arts managers try to lead by consensus. They don’t want to be the bad guy. They don’t want people to be upset with them. In complex situations, many times the answer isn’t clear, and trying to get a wide variety of stakeholders moving in the same direction can be tough. But this isn’t a time to postpone critical decisions in an effort to get senior staff, board members and other various stakeholders to agree on a course of action. The executive has been hired to lead, and lead they must. Part of leadership is gathering all the data necessary from various perspectives, and then making a timely decision. Waiting for full consensus is folly because more often than not, time does not bring consensus.

When a problem reaches the desk of an executive director, usually it means that an easy solution isn’t available, because if there was a simple answer, senior managers would have resolved the situation. The life of an executive director involves making imperfect decisions daily. It isn’t a job for the lighthearted. Failure is often public and wide reaching. But make no mistake about it – inaction or a delay in decision making is a decision in itself. Taking no action in an attempt to build consensus around an issue that will never result in a consensus decision is even more costly than setting a clear course toward a defined goal.  As an outside adviser, I was once asked to participate in a meeting where senior managers from an organization were divided on a particularly divisive issue. Each argued their position passionately and articulately. At the conclusion of hours of conversation, the room looked to the executive director for a decision, at which time he asked for a vote of hands. I about fell out of my chair. Unfortunately for them, there were an even number of people in the room, and it was hopelessly deadlocked with a leader who would not make a decision because he desperately wanted consensus.

Someone has to lead, and one of the most important decisions a leader makes is defining success for the organization. Senior managers can and should be relied upon to develop strategies for success, but the leader must define the destination before a map can be created.

When defining success for arts organizations, here are just a few things to consider:

Growth vs. Sustainability. In a previous post, I asked if “right-sizing could be as sexy as expansion?” We live in the country of manifest destiny, super-sized meals and McMansions. Bigger is always better. But this mentality has led to obesity being an out of control epidemic, people purchasing homes they could not afford, and boom or bust economic trends. I see the same success metrics in play at non-profit arts organizations. Chief marketing and development officers are measured solely by growth, and if an organization tries to right size, top talent will leave because their numbers will shrink, not because of sub-par work, but merely because of a decrease in tickets to sell or programs to fundraise for. Why do we constantly equate success with growth, when it is entirely possible to demonstrate significant growth to the detriment of sustainability? If it costs you $2 for every additional $1 in growth, and that equation doesn’t equalize over time, then you will demonstrate growth until such time as your lines of credit are maxed out, your board becomes unwilling to conduct emergency fundraising campaigns, and the community becomes tired of your pleas for help. This is how once stable and reputable organizations get into trouble. Success should be defined, at least in terms of business models, by sustainability, not growth, which is not to say they are necessarily mutually exclusive, but all too often, we succumb to pride and make growth the more highly prized success metric.

Quantity vs. Quality. Similar to growth, I’ve found that some arts organizations in part define themselves by the quantity of work they produce. I’ve never understood this. Most artists are motivated by creating the highest caliber of work, but then arts organizations feel pressured to produce a certain arbitrary amount of plays, concerts or performances each year, with an increase in offerings usually regarded as a sign of success by board members, funders and the press. The highest quality products in the world are not produced in mass as mass production doesn’t usually dovetail with world class quality. Case in point, if asked, I’m sure Steve Jobs would have been happy to have the best computers on the market, even if his market share was significantly less than competing products. And today, TedX is experiencing brand erosion because of quick expansion resulting in it losing in part its competitive advantages. Long ago, I used to work for a company that only produced one or two plays a season because the average gestation time on a project was several years. Although some objected to the avant-garde nature of the work, the company was almost universally lauded for artistic excellence. However, if quantity of productions were the litmus test for success, it wouldn’t be considered a successful theater.

Impact vs. Financials. Alan Brown, Clay Lord and Theatre Bay Area have spent the last two years working on measuring the intrinsic impact of live theater. I won’t go into the specifics now as this study deserves its own blog post, but I must say that I am excited that the study is changing how people, especially funders, are defining success. This study has developed a new system to quantifiably measure the intrinsic impacts theaters are having on audiences, and funders are starting to understand that previous metrics, such as audience members served, might not deliver the full picture. Along with financial and attendance data, what if theaters started to define their success by the impact they are having on their communities, which for the first time can be benchmarked, measured and tracked year over year.

The first step on any journey is to clearly define the destination and to establish success metrics.

Leaders—set the course and the direction. Don’t fear lack of consensus. Be bold. Be ambitious. And be decisive.

Senior managers—establish clear success metrics, and track them relentlessly over time.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” – President John F. Kennedy, in an address to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961.