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Author Archive | Joe Patti

Lies of Restraint

Non-Profit Quarterly recently tweeted a link to a really insightful article they ran in 2005 about the lies organizations tell themselves as a result of group behavior.

The author, Erline Belton, starts out by acknowledging that our basic instinct is for safety and well-being and so we tend to either lie or restrain our comments when confronted with conflict and risk. We often want to maintain a stable environment against our personal better judgment and comfort.

The problem is when people are avoiding conflict, nothing get changed because the problems with the organization are never brought out and discussed. Belton lists different ways these things manifest from groupthink where everyone goes along because they don’t want to rock the boat; imaginary conflict where people imagine consequences and act to avoid them regardless of whether it is based in reality; and hidden agendas where people fail to disclose what they believe is true.

Perhaps the reason this article resonated so strongly with me is my grad school memory of organizational behavior class where we discussed the Abilene Paradox where everyone participates in an activity no individual wanted to do. I have always tried to remain alert for those sort of situations.

Belton goes on to list all the ways everyday lies can infect discussions and weigh down the company. She goes on to list practices that support the truth and build a stable working environment.

Belton provides a particularly potent illustration about how groupthink hampered the work of a non-profit (I broke up paragraph for ease of reading):

In one organization I know, the staff was asked about the biggest lie inhabiting the organization. After much hemming and hawing, one man finally blurted out, “The lie is that we provide good services that the community wants. We don’t and we treat any client who complains like a troublemaker.” He went on to provide examples. Everyone else around the table nodded agreement immediately.

Consider the enormous cost of having kept this silent for years! This was a key organization, serving an isolated immigrant community. Unfortunately the dialogue group did not include the executive director or board members who later did not allow the conversation to progress further. This was seven years ago, and to this day, funders see the organization as “chronically in trouble.”

While it is a rather provocative question, asking about the biggest lie inhabiting your organization seems to be an effective way to cut right to the topics you wish to address. Since it is one of those things that makes you wonder, do I dare ask this, you almost have to in order to prove you aren’t succumbing to the type of thinking you are trying to eliminate.

This reminds me of something Peter Drucker said about decision making:

“A cardinal rule in decision-making is that you don’t make a decision until there is disagreement. If everyone agrees, you can’t tell what the decision is about. Maybe there is no decision to be made at all. So get disagreement.”

I have seen this quote or something similar related to the idea that if there is not disagreement, you probably aren’t getting everyone’s true thoughts on the matter and need to solicit opinions until someone does voice a conflicting view.

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Door #1 or Door #2 And $400,000?

If you haven’t heard about it yet, it is worth checking out a recent story about two successful Broadway shows vying for the same theater.

Some time back, the producers of The Audience, starring Helen Mirren reserved the Schoenfeld Theater starting in February 2015 as part of the plan to bring the show over from London.

In the meantime, the theater was empty so the producers of It’s Only A Play booked the Schoenfeld with the plan of moving out on January 4.

The problem is, It’s Only A Play got wildly successful and the producers planning to extend the run, naturally wanted to stay in the Schoenfeld.

This part of the story isn’t so news worthy, this sort of thing happens frequently enough on Broadway. What came next isn’t.

Because the theater right next door, Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, has an opening in January, the producers of It’s Only A Play, suggested The Audience move in there and offered The Audience $400,000 to do it. The It’s Only A Play folks figured it would cost them $800,000 to move, so if they could stay put they would offer half the cost they saved.

The configuration and amenities of both theaters are very similar, except that the Schoenfeld was more recently renovated.

Despite the large production costs that Broadway shows incur, the producers of The Audience declined to even discuss the arrangement. All their plans call for using the Schoenfeld.

Adding an interesting dimension to this whole story is that Ken Davenport is a producer on It’s Only A Play so he writes about the issue on his blog, The Producer’s Perspective.  His account of the exchange doesn’t diverge from that of the NY Times story, but he asks his readers what they would have done.

I thought most people would be incredulous that the producers of The Audience would leave that much money on the table. Who wouldn’t want Door #2 plus $400,000 when you already know what is behind door #2.

But the comments actually run about 2:1 in favor of The Audience taking up residency in the Schoenfeld.  The fact that Helen Mirren is in the show and that it has broken records in London factored into many opinions that the production should be in the place that best showcased its attributes rather than compromising artistic vision.

A case might actually be made in the other direction. It is not unheard of for West End hits to bomb on Broadway and vice versa. Since The Audience is about the rise of Queen Elizabeth II from 1952 to present, the show may not have the same draw for American audiences as it did in London.

This is not to say that both Queen Elizabeth II and Helen Mirren don’t enjoy a great deal of good will and respect in the United States. Just that as a hedge against a lesser degree of interest, it might be best to position the show in the best environment possible. Physical surroundings are a big influence on audience enjoyment.

This whole situation provides some good PR for both productions. The Audience has the reputation of being so certain of their success that they could turn down $400,000.  And now there is additional attention cast on the success of It’s Only A Play  for extending their run and making a gutsy offer that might have allowed them to stay put.

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It’s A Wonderful Arts Organization

We in the arts are frequently enjoined to ask ourselves what value we have in the community and whether we would be missed or the community would be worse off if we closed.

The subtext, at least when I hear and read this, is that arts organizations better make sure they are providing some service their community views as valuable whether it is shows, classes, outreach events, providing expertise and resources to others–whatever the case may be.

I think this is driven by a final grant report/justify your government based funding mentality. The concern that you aren’t doing enough to be of value to your community could easily be a matter of lack of data collection rather than lack of doing on the arts organization’s part.

Basically, it is the “It’s A Wonderful Life” problem. George Bailey doesn’t realize what a positive impact he has had on the community until he gets to see what life would be like if he weren’t around. He lacked knowledge of what sort of impact his presence had in Bedford Falls.

No one can ever really know the full repercussions of their presence or lack thereof without the help of an angel interpreting cause and effect. If you had asked the residents of the depressed Bedford Falls if their lots would have been better with a George Bailey around, they wouldn’t have had any concept of the extensive differences between the two timelines.

Still, people do have some idea of what would have happened had they not had certain opportunities available to them. George never asked and was never told how important his building and loan was to the community.

Well, at least not until the end of the movie which results in a scene very familiar to many arts organizations– People in the community react to the imminent closure of their beloved organization and donate a large amount of money in the hopes of staving off disaster.

Bedford Falls or An Arts Organization You Know?

Bedford Falls or An Arts Organization You Know?

Optimally you don’t want to wait until a crisis to find out how much your organization really means to the community. Gathering the responses from a wide range of people is required, asking those who don’t participate as well as those who do. It is often suggested that those who don’t attend or participate be queried so that you can figure out how to better serve them.

While this is true and important, there are people who will never attend or participate in your programs. However, they may still value the presence of your organization in the community. For example, I don’t participate in Habitat for Humanity construction projects, but I certainly know that life in the community would be worse if they weren’t around.

What I don’t know is what are the best questions to ask. The things that immediately pop to mind are reminiscent of high school kids trying to find out if that other person likes them too. My impression is that the questions need to investigate what people value in the cultural ecology and how your organization fits in to it rather than “what do you like about us? what is it that we do that you would miss if we stopped doing it?”

My other impression is that this is the sort of questioning that has to be done in person rather than in a written survey because a conversation can force deeper consideration than an opportunity to jot down a response. Engaging in deeper consideration will probably cause the respondent’s feelings on the matter to acquire a deeper resonance as well.

Despite this being a labor intensive process, since you are collecting the data to assess the perception of your organization in the community and not to provide results by a deadline for a grant report or to decide whether to being a new initiative, it is possible to conduct this process in a relatively informal way.

The purpose is to get a sense of whether people would miss your organization if it closed so you are constantly asking your questions and paying close attention to the responses. The process never ends.

It occurs to me that if you are being honest and asking both those who support you and those you don’t, you can end up identifying non-participants you will want to formally survey to find out if there is something you can do to serve their needs.

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The Phonebooth Returns! (Sort Of)

There is an initiative starting in NYC that I hope is really successful and catches on in smaller cities and communities because it can help under served communities and potential provide arts organizations a central communication channel to these demographics.

According to a CityLab article, all but three pay phones in NYC will be replaced by eye-catching Links stations. These stations will provide free public Wi-Fi, free phone calls anywhere in the US, free charging for mobile devices and serve as sources of information (maps, directory of city services, etc.)

The services will be paid for by advertising and public services messages displayed on the screens on the sides of the structures.

But what caught my eye was that the acknowledgment that these stations need to be placed in poorer neighborhoods. I agree with them that is where these stations are needed most. (my emphasis)

But if what the service providers are aiming for is the big bucks, could they bypass poor neighborhoods in favor of spots that attract high-end advertisers?

City officials say no. About half of the pay phones that will be transformed are in the lower-income outer boroughs, says Anne Roest commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications .

“There’s an assumption that poor people don’t spend money,” she says at the press conference. “One of the tricks is to figure out the advertising that’s providing what folks in all communities of New York are actually buying.”

Low-income individuals are more likely not to have expensive mobile phones and data plans, and may be more likely to need links to make calls or access the internet.

As I said, it would really be great if this model proved to be successful in NYC and became attractive enough to replicate in other cities.

It is unclear to me in the section I bolded if they are oriented on finding a one-size fits all neighborhoods advertising approach or will work on studying and segmenting the advertising. If they pay attention to what different approaches to advertising worked in each community demographic, perhaps the basic lessons could be applied elsewhere.

With that data in hand, companies can use specifically targeted advertising on these Links stations and have better insight into what general services these communities desire versus those in more affluent neighborhoods.

As the saying goes, if you are not paying for the product, you are the product. I have no doubt that usage data will be collected, crunched and sold. There is no reason this data can’t be crunched to provide social benefit as well.

I suspect the perceived value of these stations in low income communities which lack Internet, WiFi access and wide spread access to the amenities of smart phones, would generate positive associations making them valuable advertising vehicles.

It can be tough to get your advertising viewed on people’s individual televisions, computers and phone screens. There aren’t central communal sources of knowledge like there were when there were only a few television channels, broadcast radio stations and newspapers.

In addition to learning how to better design programs to suit the demographics of an area, this is the opportunity to raise awareness of your programs at the place people gather to make calls or charge their phones. (If you have ever been in an airport with charging hubs, you know demand won’t be an issue.) This could be the best chance to get low cost events and classes on to the radar of people whom you might not be able to reach in pretty much any other way.

Competition for advertising time in places like NYC might make the costs prohibitive there, but it could be more reasonable around the rest of the country. The success of this program is something worth keeping an eye on for a number of reasons.

(Of course, these stations don’t solve the problem of restoring locations for Clark Kent to transform into Superman.)

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