Sunday, July 11, 2010

“A Man Hears What He Wants to Hear and Disregards the Rest” – Paul Simon

Good Morning.
“And the beat goes on…………………..”

Questioning our Basic Assumptions:

One of the great dangers in doing the same thing and using the same processes for a long period of time is falling into the trap of elevating basic assumptions to the status of indisputable facts. Continuing use of outdated models can promote a culture that is risk averse, unimaginative, clings to historical ways to doing things, and makes false assumptions on which is premised faulty logic and action. Most of our strategic plans, daily operations, various forms of community outreach (supporters, donors, audiences, volunteers etc.) and operative tactics are predicated on the assumptions we make. For much of our sector, the assumptions that govern our thinking and action were arrived at a long time ago, arguably suspect at the time; too often unjustifiably enthusiastically embraced, and really just a case of the arts collective conclusion that, indeed, the Emperor was splendidly dressed. We really haven’t even taken a look at them in some time. Some remain valid, others do not; some were highly questionable at the outset, others have less relevancy as time has eroded their validity.

But something is happening. In the past year, everywhere there seems to be the initiation of conversations about rethinking our models, questioning some of our dearest held beliefs and assumptions, taking that long, hard look at what we do and how we do it. We have begun the process of more seriously questioning our way of doing things.

It’s hard to change a culture of how things are done; axiomatically harder the longer that culture has had time to insinuate itself into the layers of how we think and how we act. I think as we continue to engage periodically (and regularly) in the exercise of asking whether or not certain of our most fundamental, basic assumptions are in fact based on reality or are just ‘givens’ we long ago accepted as real – assumptions about who supports us and why (or why not); who are audiences are and why or why not; what others perceive about us that might be different from our self perceptions; how we can at least survive, and hopefully thrive in good and bad times and on and on – we will get closer to figuring out how to repair some of the broken models and come up with brand new model designs where that will be the only rational course available to us.

So I started thinking about examples of assumptions I think we might take a look at. Here are three: (and these off the top of my head, doubtless there are more, many of which demand more serious attention). It is the process that I am touting here.

1. Assumption: The chief motivation of our small core of major patrons and supporters lies in their commitment and passion for the art form. These are the people who understand and appreciate the creative process and they give so generously because they have a deeply personal relationship with a specific art form and that process. Their principal motivation is their relationship to the art itself and / or to the value of the arts as a whole.

Fact: Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes the motivation of donors is personal and really may have nothing to do with the art(s) or the value we perceive when we think of the arts. Bob Lynch, in honoring major Americans for the Arts’ benefactress (endowment of $100 million over 30 years) Ruth Lily on her passing, told a story at last month’s conference in Baltimore that he urged people to keep in mind. After receipt of the Eli Lily pharmaceutical heir’s extraordinarily generous gift, Bob asked her attorney: (paraphrasing) What was the tipping point for Ms. Lily in her decision to make the gift? Was it the diversity of Americans for the Arts programs and outreach? Was it their effort to champion the arts for everyone? Was it their role in promoting arts education? Was it their commitment to creativity? Was it their work in defending the NEA?   And the lawyer told him that the one thing Ruth Lily was impressed by, which she commented on, and was thankful for, was that Bob had always remembered her Birthday and sent her flowers every year. Maybe it is, for a lot of our supporters, the really little personal things that tip the balance and NOT as we would like to think that they share our same set of value priorities. Even where we have research that seems to confirm what our supporters want, what they value, why they give – that research may be only a small part of the actual fact of what truly motivates people.  Maybe the personal realtionship of the donor / supporter with the organization trumps the relationship with the art form itself - at least in some of the cases. 

2. Assumption: In order to secure government funding – on whatever level – federal, state or local – we need to more forcefully and convincingly make the case as to our value and worth – both tangible and intrinsic - from economic benefit and job creation, to the education of our kids, to civic and community pride to the pure joy and intrinsic value of creativity. The best way to send that message is both through the example of personal stories of how that value impacted individuals and credible, reliable, academic research, studies and data. One of the keys to advocacy success is staying on message.

Fact: Maybe, maybe not. We have made a better case for our value every year for at least a decade. Our arguments are stronger, backed by more research and data now than before. We have archives of personal stories that quite clearly illustrate the personal value of the arts on every conceivable level. If it were even mostly about persuasively making the case for our value, then we wouldn’t likely be losing (as much) ground on the state and local levels – going backwards and giving up previously won victories. Not every special interest that argues for its value has suffered anywhere near the cuts we have. Could the difference possibly be not that they make a better case for their worth, but rather because they are more politically active in elected officials campaigns? Could it be that making the case for value is not the only (and perhaps not even the most important) part of successfully advocating for a share of the pie?

3. Assumption: All millennial aged emerging leaders intuitively know and understand all aspects of web 2.0 and 3.0 including the mechanics of social networking. If you have issues and needs in these areas, turn them over to the millennial on your staff.

Fact: Maybe, maybe not. Surprising as it may be, there are many millennial aged people that are no more familiar or comfortable with the web, social networking or computer maintenance than are some aging boomers.  And there are many of those aging boomers who are very comfortable with computers, and all things WEB oriented.  This is likely a false and silly generational bias. While not very important in the overall scheme of things, it IS emblematic that the generations have some serious misperceptions about each other and that fact does have serious implications for how we construct and govern our workplaces.  We are probably too quick to stereotype ourselves. 

It is likely that the above three assumptions (and all of our assumptions) may be somewhat valid and somewhat (as suggested) suspect. The important thing is to go through the process of asking whether or not our assumptions are valid, whether they do or do not hold up any longer – or maybe if they ever did. It is the questioning process that is now critical if we are to move forward to rethink all of the models we are using, and we have to dig deeper into and question every assumption that we make.  It isn't that every one of our assumptions is necessarily flawed, it's more likely that most of our assumptions are too shallow and that reality is much more complex.  We shouldn't base action on partly true assumptions.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.