Even Our Success Gets in the Way of Our Aspirations

2014 began for me by reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. As the New York Times Review of Books accurately observed, this is “a serious look at the science of habit formation and change.” Part two, The Habits of Successful Organizations should be required reading for anyone who cares deeply about the enterprise they’re leading.

My recent ‘aha’ was that it’s not only our habits that gets in the way, but even our past successes and current capabilities actually converge to limit future impact. This insight came when facilitating an intense three-week engagement with The Clay Studio (TCS) in Philadelphia. TCS is a highly-regarded 40 year old community arts organization for whom we had just recently facilitated a strategic planning process. While the plan contained worthy objectives, the board and staff were still searching for that grand and compelling vision to rally behind.

So TCS, at the behest of President Chris Taylor, gathered curators, artists, board members and staff to engage in a visioning process in support of their impending move to a new facility. We employed such prompts as Building Your Company’s Vision, by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras; Simon Sinek’s provocative Ted Talk (How Great Leaders Inspire Action) about “The Golden Circle;” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s stirring I Have a Dream speech from 1963.

Then, as the group wrestled with the assignment: illustrate The Clay Studio and the influence you see it having on the world, there emerged a set of phenomenal pictures of the future, ones that exemplified a powerful current across a newly imagined network of allies, a robust and more entrepreneurial business model, and most intriguing–-new and more qualitative metrics through which to understand and communicate success and impact. All these offered new pathways toward actually changing the world vs. simply responding to it.

While describing the world one want to help create is a very refreshing discussion, when done in a way that truly challenges one’s prevailing notions about purpose and priorities, and that calls into question the very things the organization has gotten good at, really raises the stakes and demands sustained focus, vivid imagination, and stamina; all of which the TCS team brought to the table in abundance.

So, as you and your organization look to the future, it might be helpful to keep the following in mind:

  • A truly worthwhile vision must be informed by the reasons the organization considers its existence to be relevant to the future.
    Why trumps what!
  • In order to imagine and articulate such a vision, the organization must set aside some things it holds dear.
    Prior success, current practice, and prevailing assumptions must all be up for grabs!
  • Those participating in such an endeavor must accept that the more difficult the work, the more legitimate the vision.
    Some work can be hard, yet deliciously so!
  • The work and words of others can be tremendously helpful.
    Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I Have a Dream” not, “I have a Plan”!
  • Having a vision and a strategy matter.
    While the future is merely an abstraction, it’s shaped by those who express a mandate to influence it!

Thanks to the folks at TCS for this compelling learning journey together!!

Governance IS Governance

There’s board service and then there’s governance.

Here’s a real list of Board duties from a real organization:

  • Make a financial contribution of at least $1,000
  • Purchase two tickets to the annual October gala event
  • Subscribe to the season and bring guests whenever possible
  • Attend six out of the eight board meetings per year
  • Serve on at least two committees

Are these good things to do? Likely, yes. Do they have anything to do with governance? Absolutely not.

It’s been a dozen years now since Ken Dayton’s seminal article “Governance is Governance” was published by The Independent Sector where he stated that Board members should, As representatives of the public, be the primary force pressing the institution to the realization of its opportunities for service and the fulfillment of its obligations to all its constituencies.” In essence governance is about representing the public’s best interest, pushing the organization to be its best, and assuring responsible service to the community.

Yet, we’ve gotten distracted from such profound purpose, and often settle for boards who simply participate in activities, and we have ended up with really well-meaning folks, those who have a real calling for service who, like lemmings, go to the monthly meeting with its cut and paste agenda, make a perfunctory annual gift, and hit up friends and associates to do the same. All good stuff, yet simply not governance. Wanna break the cycle? I can assure you your best board members do! Here are five questions to engage your board around:

  1. Why does what we do matter, for whom does it matter, and how is what we are doing making the kind of difference we want to see in the world?
  2. What makes our current priorities the right ones?
  3. How are we allocating our assets in ways that assure short-term survival and long-term impact?
  4. What are we doing out of habit, or simply because we’ve gotten good at it; and what needs to change in order to make us more responsive to our constituents?
  5. What opportunities are we pursuing in union with others so that we can increase the impact we are having, and assure our resources go even further?

These are not perfect questions. They might not even be the right questions for your organization. Yet it’s inquiry like this that opens up the channels for good people to provide good service…and to allow governance to flourish. Try them on. See what happens.


PS: I’m left to wonder how questions like these, if embraced by boards over the past decade, might have changed the course of numerous arts organizations we’ve been reading about of late, not least among them, the New York City Opera?

Creative Organizations…Are Rarely Tidy (with thanks to John Gardner)

“The 21st century is not for tidy minds!”

Boy, I’d like to claim ownership of this crucial observation. But alas, the credit goes to Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, the globe’s biggest ad agency. Sir Martin goes on to say, “The messier it is the better!” Yet, we’ve grown up to understand tidiness is good, messiness is bad. (NOTE: Just don’t look at my desk!) So just like our parents urging us to tidy our room and tuck in our shirt, we spend our time tightly honing our strategy; adroitly allocating resources; and pursuing really, really clear job descriptions for everybody. It just seems like the right thing to be doing…making it all tidier, less messy.

However if you’re so predisposed…here are three rather intentional and timely ways to untidy things—even create some messiness in the organization.

Reach beyond the organizational boundaries and initiate genuine collaborations that will challenge you and your organization to cede some of your authority, share real responsibilities for outcomes with others, and truly commit to shared success or failure. As Frans Johansson showed us in The Medici Effect, in the intersection of different fields, disciplines and cultures, there’s an abundance of extraordinary new ideas to be explored. If however, your organization, going it alone, is working just fine for you, please ignore this data.

Facilitate real work—of real consequence—across internal functions in ways that challenge everyone to reconsider their position in light of organizational outcomes. Two decades worth of research as documented in The International Journal of Management Review (IJMR) indicates that cross functional teams lead to some pretty critical successes like increased ability to handle complexity, increased speed in making key decisions, and enhanced organization wide creativity and learning. Not bad! If however, the silos, led by folks with really clear job descriptions are working just fine for you, please ignore this data.

Intensify innovation efforts in ways that challenge your most firmly held assumptions, and put at risk the outcomes you’re getting through current practice. The Australian Innovation System Report: 2011 just published by the Australian Government’s Department of Innovation, Science and Research, documents that innovative businesses far surpass non-innovative businesses in total income, profitability, productivity, and the range of goods and services offered. Again, not bad! If, however, you’re satisfied with current outcomes, please ignore this data.

So, three provocations for moving from tidy to messy. And for each, an easy way out—if the comfort of the tidy is simply more attractive than the discomfort with the messiness.

Whew, now with this done, I can finally tidy my desk!

The Fifth Question (with a nod to Peter Senge)

There’s some adage about biting the hand that feeds you.

Strategic planning—as currently practiced and promulgated is based on the notion that we can not only predict the future, but can decide in advance how we will manage that future…three, five, even ten years hence.

Not only is this more than a bit absurd; it’s channeling precious organizational wisdom and commitment away from more critical endeavors like innovation and adaptive execution; and finally, by paying high-priced consultants like me to collude in these endeavors, it’s pouring a good amount of money down a rat hole.

Moving away from traditional strategic planning in no way relieves the organization of the responsibility to be purposeful in their pursuits and prudent with their resources. It’s simply that the path forward will not be a sequence of predetermined steps into what, at best, is an unknown future.

So, instead of hammering out goals, objectives, strategies, tactics, and timelines, imagine a facilitated process addressing five fundamental, provocative and exciting questions.

  1. Why does your organization exist?
    What irrational belief do you hold about the world…and the influence your organization can have on that world, which makes your very existence worthwhile?
  2. How must we adapt, so we can thrive in support of that dream?
    Thriving is distinct from surviving. Surviving is about making it to year’s end. Thriving is about the boundless and energetic pursuit of what the organization believes in.
  3. How do we build a healthy and resilient culture that continually challenges the status quo?
    Candor, optimism, and fun are signals of a healthy culture. Do people say what’s on their mind? Do they believe the future is attainable? Do you hear laughter through the walls and down the halls?
  4. How do we improve execution through learning and innovation?
    Organizations are complex living systems. And what do living systems do? They learn and they adapt. That is their nature, their way of thriving.
  5. What would achieving our vision look like, and what should we be doing right now to move in that direction?
    This is the payoff questions, where the essence of the organization is manifest. Our true colors show. And, if we have addressed the preceding questions with focus and depth, engaging around The Fifth Question is both exhilarating and liberating.

This more contemporary approach to planning assures the organization thinks purposefully, acts prudently, and executes effectively; all while creating an environment where challenges and conflicts are seen not as obstacles to maneuver around but as catalysts for new approaches, changed practice, and the reinvention of old systems.

We should be excited by…and driven by what the future holds…but we do things now, we execute in the present in order to attain that future.

To read more visit our Leadership page.

How Do Expectations Influence Organizational Behavior?

Driving across North Carolina last week I heard an interview with Wes Moore, author of, The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates.

The book, set in Baltimore, was inspired by the author, learning of another Wes Moore (same name, same town, same neighborhood, and same age), whose life journey has led him toward crime, and eventually imprisonment…a path quite different from the author’s. When asked about the influence of the environment on what happens to kids as they get older, his response was that it’s less about environment and more about expectations. This insight has led a number of colleges to choose it as a ‘common book’ for their 2011 incoming freshmen.

Then it hit me. Some organizations, like the other Wes Moore, are often hostage to low expectations…and behaving in ways that high expectations wouldn’t allow: affirming the status quo, sticking to the tried and true, arguing over all things inconsequential, denying reality, etc.

Over the past year I have been working with a number of groups that are retrenching, cutting budgets, restructuring, merging, etc. While such steps may be necessary and may need to be accomplished expeditiously, it’s only half the job; without an equal commitment to affirming a clear and compelling longer term vision—what’s the point? I’m finding that it’s the organizations that couple this realignment/rightsizing work with the articulation of a compelling vision that can then turn to their community with newly-found strength and reaffirmed commitment. This critical second half of the work can get lost in the near term fight for mere survival. Leaders must ask, what makes our survival important, what are we offering the future that no other organization can? As Peter Sellars once said to me, “survival may be necessary, but it’s not very damn interesting.”

PS: A big shout out to Jesse Rosen, CEO of the League of American Orchestras for his recent talk where he makes three straightforward timely recommendations. While he was speaking to an orchestra audience, the message is on target for all organizations: Take responsibility for your true financial condition; realign your work in support of community needs; and foster internal creativity. If we followed this simple and sage advice, the horizon might be nearer and brighter than we’re allowing ourselves to imagine. Thanx Jesse!!

Making Do with More

“Humans are really good at dealing with scarcity, but terrible with abundance.”

Clay Shirkey, author of Here Comes Everybody

Being distracted by the wrong questions can severely debilitate any effort, especially when the stakes are high. This is such a moment for the arts. Out of the box, the President’s budget calls for reductions in both the NEA and NEH budgets through the consolidation of administrative functions. So with Obama already negotiating against himself and the House leadership ravenous in its pursuit of reducing or even zeroing out the budgets for both agencies—along with NPR and the CPB, it’s not a pretty sight. What’s even more scary are the sizable reductions—through legislative initiatives and budget reductions—for arts and cultural activities and organizations in virtually every state and at many local levels.

So, now is hardly the time to have an argument about whether we have too many or too few arts organizations, and/or whether the large ones or the small ones should get support. This is plain silly.

In 1961 we had 23 regional theatres, now we have well over 1800—some say 2000. The question isn’t whether we have too many or too few. The question is, what does it mean to have such abundance? The opportunity residing within this national theatre ecosystem is especially critical to identify when, even with this hundred-fold increase in organizations, a playwright still can’t make a living at her craft; there is, by some estimates actually less theatre activity in our schools than 25 years ago; and for all their ‘professionalizing’, these theatre organizations derive only 39% of their revenue from ticket sales (down from 48% in 1997). And this is with really, really smart people running these organizations! Something’s not working.

What to do:

Collective impact must become the core strategy for funders, policy makers, and arts organization leaders. We got it wrong, building and supporting an endless number of arts organizations is not the same as achieving unfettered and ever-increasing creative engagement by our citizens. We need to set our sights higher—and imagine new ways of getting there—together. We saw such wondrous examples of this approach at our January Powerful Partnership institute in New York!

A focus on creative learning systems, like with Big Thought in Dallas should be adopted by all communities. Stop trying to reinvent the wheel, if something works, franchise it, parlay it, replicate it, make it happen across the nation. If Dallas can do it, Detroit can do it. We have 4500 local arts councils/agencies. Beyond simple self-perpetuation, how could they re-imagine their roles as catalysts and/or structures for collective approaches to learning, innovation, and engagement across their communities?

Priorities must be recalibrated. While a focus on ‘professional’ and ‘excellence’ may have had its place, these emphases have gotten us in trouble. How ‘committed’ is the organization to the community that supports its very existence; and how ‘relevant’ are its outputs to that same community are the questions that must drive visioning, planning processes, and priority setting. It should be the answers to these questions that inform what we should do to support our artists and sustain our organizations. Not the other way around.

How Leaders Develop Leaders

This title of a 1997 article by Eli Cohen, Research Director at the University of Michigan Business School and Noel Tichy, who is also at the School and teaches Organizational Behavior and Human Resources Management is striking in its elegance and power.

The job of the leader is to develop their successors, and the job of the successor is to learn to be the leader of tomorrow. Somehow we have gotten caught up in believing that we send our people off to be developed into leaders. But these folks spend all their waking hours inside our organizations! So isn’t that where leadership learning should occur? Ask Cohen and Tichy, “The best way to get more leaders is to have leaders develop leaders,” they posit.

Then they go on to share some requirements of leaders and learners in the organization:

Leaders have a ‘teachable’ point of view. Meaning simply, they have the self awareness to understand what it takes to successfully lead others in the field. Then they turn ‘every interaction with their people’ into a learning and teaching event.

Leaders tell powerful stories about the future, and link successful leadership behaviors to those compelling stories about what’s possible.

Leaders develop leaders at all levels. With command and control proving ever less valuable, and with quick thinking and agility demanded of everyone, things no longer go ‘up the ladder’ for approval, and ‘down the ladder’ for implementation. Collaborative decision making and co-leadership are essential.

So, before sending your folks off to learn the newest leadership tricks, just ask some questions of yourself.

  • What might I do today that would model the way for my successors?
  • What question might I ask that would challenge the best thinking of my best people?
  • How could I bring my best and brightest into the dilemmas I’m responsible for managing?

Let’s build leaders by leading!!