Sunday, January 4, 2009

January 04, 2009


Hello everybody.

“And the beat goes on……………………………….”

Welcome 2009. The world has been anxiously awaiting you. Be kind, please.


I was watching a year end summary report on CNN yesterday and the commentator introduced a segment on the economic meltdown with the following remark: “And if the ‘smartest men in the world’ – those who run the big financial institutions on Wall Street couldn’t prevent this collapse, what do we do in the future?”

"The smartest men in the world"? Does anybody believe that those morons are the smartest men in the world? OMG – if true, we are up the proverbial creek. They certainly qualify as some of the greediest men in the world, some of the most selfish. They might actually be some of the dumbest men in the world. Or if their goal was to bilk the public and scam for their own profit, maybe they are smart, and we are the dumb ones. Anyway, this got me thinking that as a culture we attribute intelligence and even practical smarts to those we assume have ‘expertise’ in a given area. And we often believe people have superior expertise and understand things we don’t, know things we don’t, because their supposed ‘area of expertise’ is just too complicated for lay people to comprehend. They understand it, we don’t.

I remember when I was in my third year of law school and thinking that as a class of professionals lawyers have interjected themselves into multiple layers of business and everyday life under the guise of ‘expertise’ and superior knowledge. And the way lawyers (and virtually every class of experts it seems to me) succeeds in convincing everyone that only they have this superior knowledge is that they make up their own vocabulary. Only lawyers speak “law”. It’s a secret language the average person cannot fathom. Anyone who is not a lawyer who has tried to read the proverbial ‘fine print’ in a contract knows that they don’t speak the "foreign language" of law. Only the lawyers can translate into English the meaning and consequences of the law – and thus ‘protect’ you. And that’s why they are indispensable.

Of course lawyers have a vested interest in maintaining this belief. The whole of society is replete with examples of these “experts”. For 95% of the population who take their car into the mechanic when something goes wrong, you know that when you are told that “your Johnson Rods are hanging and need repair” you have little option but to say ok. Because though you may bluster and look skeptical as you try to convey the impression that you know what they are talking about, you know that you have no idea what your Johnson Rods are, if such a thing even exists, and whether or not the fact that they may be ‘hanging’ is a serious problem. You are at the mercy of those who know. Such a system is akin to being in a country, and not speaking the local language – perhaps someone interprets for you – but you have no idea if they are translating what you say. You are at their mercy. Monty Python had a bit on their show once where a Brit was a tourist in Hungry and bought an English / Hungarian dictionary that had all the translations wrong. So when he went in a store and looked up the phrase “Do you have any gum?”, it was translated into: “Will you fondle my buttocks.”

Such is the case with investment advice and counsel and the world of high finance. The comedian Buddy Hacket was on the old Johnny Carson show one night twenty years ago, and there had just been a major scandal where a prominent investment counselor had absconded with the money of a score of prominent celebrities, including those of both Carson & Hackett. Johnny asked Buddy how it could have happened to them, and Hacket replied: “Gee, I don’t know about you, but this stuff is beyond me. I get in a room with my manager, lawyer, accountant, banker, investment counselor and a couple other guys and they talk to me in ‘baby talk’ and then I nod my head”.

We’re in trouble now because the Bush Administration convinced us the intelligence experts knew what they were talking about in Iraq, the Wall Street experts knew what they were talking about in terms of banking de-regulation, the HMO’s knew what they were talking about in terms of health care provision, and the Detroit guys knew what they were talking about in terms of a competitive auto industry. None of these "experts" knew what they were talking about.

We do the same thing in the nonprofit field. We can’t even afford to avail ourselves of that many experts, but we defer to expertise whenever we get the chance – whether the interpretation of statistics or the conclusions to be drawn from theories about how to get to Malcom Gladwell’s Tipping Point and other marketing strategies. It's as though the whole of society defers to expertise because it's easy to make decisions about things somebody else's challenge.

We have to break out of the mold of doing things the same way we have always done them – because this Culture of Repetitive Behavior isn’t serving us well. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians parrot the same lofty goals of peaceful co-existence, and acknowledge that there is NO military solution to their problem, then refuse to relinquish their commitment to violence as the response of first choice.

We're in an endless cycle of behavior that does not work.

The whole world needs to ‘change’. And that leads to Obama’s election, which election was indisputably ‘change’ in and of itself. But will he actually change the system? Get us out of the cycle? So far his appointments are lauded almost everywhere – good, experienced people – "experts" if you will – people who speak the various ‘secret languages’ you and I don’t. But not yet have we seen new thinkers; the real out-of-the-box, maverick people who can presage real ‘change’ – people who have yet to actually invent their own new language to confuse us. It will be Obama’s second tier of appointments – to various agencies and to key senior advisor posts within the White House - that will tell us if real change is on the way.

Personally, I would like to see documentary film makers, investigative journalists with impeccable credentials for facts and honesty (are there any left?), and writers, commentators and academicians recruited to move us away from the tired old ‘spin’ doctors – the ‘experts’ who speak the secret babble and know what it really means. I would like to see new people like Malcolm Gladwell, and people who will take the conversation in a bigger direction – artists and people looking at the bigger picture (like Bill Ivey) appointed to key positions. Watch for those advisor 'without portfolio' appointments to see if Obama will institute any meaningful change. Those are the people who will set the stage for change shifts that will mean something. Bush had virtually none of those people. I am skeptical. I think Obama will more likely be a precursor of future change, than bring real change himself.

I am not saying we should shun all expertise and experience. Nor am I arguing that data and research are anything but vitally important for us. All I am arguing is that we have become complacent and reliant on advice that we automatically “assume” is good advice when we really have no way of knowing. I am arguing for the recognition that knowing a secret language is no guarantee that insight and good advice (let alone success) comes with that knowledge, and therefore we need to be a little more questioning, a little more suspicious, a little more cautious before we commit the very limited resources (time, money, energy) we have based on what somebody ‘tells us’. We need to listen a little bit to our intuitions and gut, to our common sense reactions. We need to stop trying to borrow some approach that worked in some unrelated arena and just assume we can mold it to fit our needs.

We need to shake things up. We need, at least in some instances (and our own self-interest) to lead not follow.

And thus, I think, as a sector, we must begin to champion our own new advisors – people who do NOT rely on a lexicon only they can decipher. We are, after all the creative sector – and we need to start being more creative in how we strategize to solve our problems. The same old approaches, the same futile expertise simply isn’t serving us very well. We need to listen to new voices too.


So what. What is my point? I just took 1200 words to say essentially: “The world at large, and the arts specifically, have to trust their own instincts more and rely less on so-called experts”? The reason I am making the point at all is that this blog is a set-up for what is to come.

For a long time I have been interested in Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point theory – or more pointedly, I have been interested in ‘how’ (or if) it might be possible to consciously, intentionally, strategically move towards the Tipping Point. Tipping Points happen, there are causes for their happening, there are explanations as to why they happen, you can chart what was involved in reaching the critical mass that lead to a Tipping Point. But how do you set out to get there? Are there conscious, practical things you can do that will move your organization, your product or service, your idea closer to the Tipping Point? In other words can it be manufactured, manipulated, managed? Can you create a campaign the end result of which will BE the Tipping Point?

How to do that is critical – otherwise it is just a very provocative and interesting theory and way to look at things – but not terribly valuable to move from point 'A' to point 'B'.

While there is no map or blueprint to move to the Tipping Point, and doubtless every Tipping Point is unique to its own circumstances, there are, I think, practical approaches to increase your chances, improve your odds – specific initiatives that even if they don’t bring you all the way, nonetheless have value – with the potential of actually achieving the essential critical mass that is a condition precedent for the Tipping Point.

To get there I think we need to begin an internal dialogue on the assumptions of our marketing strategies – whether they be audience development, fund raising or pleas for public support. For the past half year I have been voraciously reading materials on marketing, human behavior, change dynamics and the like. I have developed the tentative framework for a new theory for the arts (well, Theory may be too ambitious a term, but thoughts on the elements invovled in our marketing / sales approaches - some new, some borrowed). I call it ‘Casting the Wider Net’. I propose, over the next year, to present to you via this blog, the framework of that thinking, and, probably more importantly, all the unanswered questions that this initial bare bones framework will suggest. Hopefully, with your help and input, we can collectively begin to “suss” it out and see where it might lead us. I invite you all to help me refine new thinking as to our marketing approaches. If it turns out to be useless, so be it – I think the exercise itself of trying to develop a new approach to something as fundamental to us as our approach to marketing / sales can be well worth the effort, and might lead us to fascinating new places.

While I certainly am not suggesting we cast off all we know about marketing, marginalize the new thinking that has been going on in the past couple of years or otherwise foolishly reject all expertise, I am suggesting that we need to do three things: 1) come up with new ways to market ourselves, 2) integrate the various different approaches, theories, new thoughts into some kind of cohesive over arching approach, and 3) differentiate between short term needs and strategies and long term thinking. The arts sector is in some big trouble right now. As I said a couple of weeks ago, we need a bailout of the whole ecosystem - otherwise we will simply spend the next decade trying to survive and rebuild rather than thrive and grow.

So I need people to begin to cast off the yoke of blind deference to prior ‘expert’ thinking, and our collective sublimation to secret languages that do little more for us than protect the agendas of the experts. I need people to accept that we can develop our own theories and hypothesis, and then test and refine them ourselves, based on our own experiences and expertise. That is precisely what we should, and must, do. The answers to some of our most pressing problems lie within our own heads - based partly on our experience, partly on our common sense, partly on our research.

If your are trying to market some new fashion statement to the Millennial generation, it makes little sense to direct your efforts to the AARP crowd. If you want more people in your audience you can't ignore content as a variable. Yet, these are examples of the kind of thinking that seems to me precisely the way we approach trying to expand our audiences, get new donors, and move the public to demand our product. The only Tipping Point we are accomplishing is to Tip Ourselves over like some turtle that then can't right itself. Witness the recent spate of closing of our institutions here in California and across the country in the last few months.

More to come. Lots more to come.

Have a great first week of the year.

Don’t Quit.