Sunday, March 4, 2012

Question All Assumptions and Pass the Decision Wand Around

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on..................:

The Bright Spots Report:
Holly Sidford and her Helicon Collaborative have been in the spotlight this past year.  Holly's report on equity in cultural funding released at the GIA Conference in San Francisco last year caused quite a stir and lots of talk.  Now she has just released a study for the Paul Allen Foundation on Bright Spots Leadership in the Pacific Northwest - an attempt to look at arts organizations across the spectrum which are actually thriving and succeeding despite all the financial challenges and the economic hard times that has most organizations currently awash in attempts to merely stay afloat, and to inquire what values, processes, protocols and strategies those organizations might share.

The Bright Spots report lists five areas these kinds of organizations and their leadership have in common, and uses the an acronym ADEPT to explain and expound on those challenges.  See the report if you are interested in the full description.  Basically, what these organizations (and their leaders) seem to have in common is that they adapt to the challenges thrown at them.  They are resilient because they are willing to question everything they do and to move on and away from what seems not to be working.  It is this willingness to jettison past practices, approaches and ideas that are not working and to look at what they are doing in a different light that seems to herald their current success.

I am interested in the last two areas of the report's ADEPT acronym.

First PLASTICITY - "thriving organizations in the study are nimble and flexible about how they realize their mission, and very little about the organizational form is too precious too change."

The report concludes that the Bright Spot organizations are those where the leadership is willing to take all kinds of (even radical) risks and approaches that ultimately serve the mission of the organization.  And the base assumption for all seems to be that unbridled, linear growth is not necessarily always the best approach to "serve" the mission.

Second, TRANSPARENCY - they distribute authority and responsibility across the organization and practice transparent decision-making.

This leadership group run their organizations by consensus not by fiat.  They welcome the energy of synergy and they build trust not by ego but by empowering their entire people structure.

These two qualities are not really that difficult to understand and appreciate, but seem very difficult to implement - at least for the average organization.  As the report conclusion summarizes:
"We heard repeatedly about what keeps organizations from succeeding: fear of failure and the unknown, lack of discipline or will to change, unclear priorities, ignoring facts that challenge a preferred view of the world, and inadequate cooperation with others internally and externally. These behaviors are the inverse of the qualities we discerned in the bright spot organizations."
I have long been interested in our field's inexplicable clinging to the antiquated organizational structure dynamic of hierarchy and centralized decision making, when the litany of negative impacts of that approach is all too clear (labored as opposed to nimble decision making; squelching of younger management cohort ideas and input and the resultant negative impact on recruitment and retention of the best of the next generation emerging leaders; adherence to outmoded and outdated protocols and technology often resulting in sub-par productivity and performance and so on and so forth).  


Why do we continue to have so many layers through which the simplest of decisions must pass?  Why are more of our trained managers with potentially game changing ideas not empowered to make critical decisions on the spot?  Is it because of egos and people "deceived into thinking they have something to protect"? (line from Bob Dylan song:  To Ramona).  Is it because we really don't trust the people we have hired and trained?  Is it because we are so afraid of failure?  Or are we just basically stupid?


Arguably our greatest asset is our people, and yet we have to ask ourselves if we are really geared to maximizing the potential of that asset.  Every organization should do some kind of internal assessment of the organization's decision making protocols and ask whether or not their approach is designed to take advantage of their collective staff talent, and, moreover, whether those approaches are the best strategy to allow for calculated risk taking.  


This report may not stimulate the same level of dialogue the equity report did last year, but if it promotes any discussion and consideration as to the delegation of shared decision making authority as a key organizational dynamic and one plank in making an organization adaptable, flexible and nimble enough to not only survive, but potentially thrive - it will be a good outcome.



Have a great week.

Don't Quit
Barry

2 comments:

  1. Really well said.

    "Arguably our greatest asset is our people, and yet we have to ask ourselves if we are really geared to maximizing the potential of that asset. Every organization should do some kind of internal assessment of the organization's decision making protocols and ask whether or not their approach is designed to take advantage of their collective staff talent, and, moreover, whether those approaches are the best strategy to allow for calculated risk taking."


    We need more "calculated risk taking" -- and we can get it if we listen more to the community, rather than prioritizing the wishes of the few who seek to protect the status quo arrangements for their "oh-so-precious" art.

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  2. Having a long career in the theatre, producing more than 100 plays and directing a sizable portion of them, I learned early on to be a risk-taker (and thick-skinned). There will be hits, there will be bombs, and there will be some shows that land in between. (Or as the NY Times Sunday Magazine's one-page zine section now says: "meh").

    The same can be said for the programs established to fulfill the mission of all sorts of organizations. Among them is the arts council I now run. There's no time to cry over spilt milk. Some ideas you throw against the wall will stick and be successful. Others won't.

    Leaders of large and mid-sized arts institutions--rich in resources when compared to their smaller "cousins"--tend to be so risk averse that they are actually endangering the future of their organizations without realizing it.

    That's why Holly's work and the work being done by Alan Brown is so important right now. There are a few "deaf ears" it's falling on, unfortunately, but I think most of the arts community has awakened to the clarion call. At least I hope so.

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