Sunday, July 22, 2012

Time to Question our Decision Making Process

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


  • Congratulations to Betty Plumb and the South Carolina Arts community for successfully overriding the Governor's vetoes that would have eliminated the agency.  Alas, Betty informs me she would not be surprised if they had to do this all over again next year.  
  • New Report:  Set In Stone:  Building America's New Generation of Arts Facilities 1994 - 2008.  The University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center, a joint initiative of the Harris School of Public Policy and its affiliated research organization NORC, launched in 2007 a major study of cultural building  in the United States –focusing on a building boom that included museums, performing arts centers, and theaters. The goal of the study was to establish research that would serve as a basic and essential resource for any cultural group in the country engaged in planning construction, renovation, or expansion of their facilities.
Decision Making In the Arts:
The arts have focused a lot of attention on two lofty goals and aspirations: 
First, we embrace the concept of taking risks.  Indeed, we tout that risk taking is at the heart of creativity itself.  
Second, we more recently champion the idea that our organizations need to be leaner and meaner so as to be more competitive and effective.  
How then does our current decision making paradigm operate in light of those objectives?  Does the protocol and process we use to make decisions encompass a reasonable degree of risk taking and is it operationally designed to make us more competitive?  Specifically, are we able to make decisions on a timely basis - quick enough to be nimble and responsive to challenges and opportunities, yet balanced enough to be thorough and reasoned?

I think the system is antiquated, unnecessarily cumbersome, inefficient and needs to be streamlined.  In short I think we need to allow more discretionary decision making at all levels.  I'm not suggesting we allocate unbridled authority all up and down the line without any vetting of decisions or hierarchy input.      Rather I am arguing that we need to empower more of our people to make appropriate spot decisions at the level of authority commensurate with the position for which they were hired in the first place - and that should happen from our largest organizations including funders and government as well as the whole range of arts organizations.

I have heard a long litany of complaints from junior staff members that the decision making process in the typical arts organization is too encumbered and too top heavy; and that mid level management decision making must go through too many layers; that in many cases the decisions themselves are always made at the top despite the fact that such a process is inefficient and fails to utilize (let alone develop) the skills and talents of the staff.    Senior level management, more often than not, think that the decision making process works well for them.  Yet I have heard these same senior leaders decry the slowness and pained process of the grant making decision process.  And the truth is that it is not all about what works for the senior managers.  It doesn't always work that well for staff.

Decisions about allocation of funds are likely to always warrant more time and due diligence, yet the protracted deliberations in the past have belied that we truly support risk taking and seek organizations that are able to move quicker.  Likely the same process is at work in funders as in the typical arts organization - program officers must get approval for virtually all decisions they make - even though I suspect that virtually all of their recommendations are ultimately approved by their senior officers and boards.  Still, like mid-level arts organization managers, most funder program officers have historically not been empowered to act quickly nor have they been accorded much discretionary authority.  Grants are vetted and approved up the ladder.  There is nothing inherently wrong with having to rigorously justify your position and fight for what you want to do - but our managers shouldn't have to have every decision made up the ladder as it were.  That makes for slow organizations.

But for funders anyway, I think things are changing.  As they move more from grant making exclusively to organizations, and more towards expenditure of some funds that seek to impact the fundamentals of the field - infrastructure, leadership, capacity and the like - they are gaining discretionary decision making and are able to respond quicker than they ever have before.  Not all funders of course, but some of the leaders anyway.  That sea change is a slow process, but the door has been opened and will now (thankfully) be difficult to close again.  Will that practice trickle down as it were to the organizations within the field itself remains an open question.  As more arts funders gain increased decision making independence, perhaps they will begin to look for the same grant of authority within the organizations they fund.  It would also be helpful if as a field we could provide some training and resources that would help organizations and senior leadership facilitate more decentralized decision making.  Can we make it more comfortable to delegate more decision making?

I hope so, because I think the one risk that is worth taking is to invest more confidence in our people and their ability to make intelligent, reasonable decisions.  Our people need I(at least some of the time) to be able to green light projects quickly and on their own authority.  What we will need to do to foster that trend is to insure that we provide all our managers with advanced skills training and options to learn more so they will become better decision-makers.  To my thinking, there is no doubt they need to have more authority to make decisions if we - as a field - are going to grapple with all the challenges we face in a timely manner and begin to move from where we are to where we will need to be.  The current system is simply too inefficient and antiquated and it wastes the talent and idea generation potential of our leadership, as well as precious time.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.