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Honest Planning Isn’t A Game

One of the common elements between the non-profit arts world and the gaming industry are the long, dehumanizing hours for little to no pay. There is actually a web comic dedicated to satirizing the work conditions at gaming companies. It allows people to submit their horror stories. Incredible as it may seem, if the stories are true, working in the gaming industry might actually be more dehumanizing and exploitative.

There is one post that sounds hauntingly familiar as it recounts comments from friends and family along the lines of “you are doing what you love, how can it be work?”

Makes me think the arts need a web comic/war story board to gather around.

Last month we had a video gaming conference in our theater. One of the speakers was talking about the stages of putting a game together from pre-production through testing and release.

What he said was, if you did your planning right and maintained discipline so that you didn’t get sidetracked trying to integrate some new cool technology or idea someone had, you wouldn’t end up doing a lot of 60-80 hour weeks of crunch time.

He said it was important not to allow your or your team to put in too many 16+ hour days because when it came to planning out your next project, you would forget/ignore the true cost in time the project would require. Yes, you were able to complete that stage in four weeks last time, but it involved your team working 80 hours a week during those four weeks.

And guess what, the new project will require everyone to work 80 hour weeks for a month as well. By trying to adhere to a reasonable schedule, you will inevitably recognize that you really need 6 weeks to complete that stage (not 8 weeks because your team will likely be more effective well rested than exhausting themselves every day.)

I often hear theater staff talk about the fact that renters often underestimate the amount of work their event will require because everything appears to occur so effortlessly and simply. But the truth is, a lot of theater staff don’t really acknowledge the true effort either because they push themselves over long hours to get a project done or people are pulled in from other departments to lend a hand.

Often this results from the gradual push to do more with less as the organization tries to maintain the same level of service as their funding gets cut.

Just as often, if not more often, this practice has been part of the organizational culture from the beginning. Everyone happily worked the long hours or stepped in to lend a hand on that first show and no effort was ever made to evaluate the planning process to create a schedule that was more conducive to good physical and mental health.

Then either the number of projects increased or new people joined in who weren’t part of the original core group and they start feeling a little resentful about the work load.

Those who have been around longer start complaining about the work ethic of youngsters these days, never really noticing that the founding culture might have been fine at the time, but it really wasn’t a sustainable planning and working model.

There is a lot of talk about work-life balance these days. The solution you may came up with is to allow people more time off. What you might really need to do is pause for a second and think about whether the assumptions you are bringing to your timeline planning is flawed.

If giving one person more time off means you are shifting more responsibility to someone else, that can be great in the short term if it is helping someone develop new skills. However, if in their enthusiasm over being trusted with new responsibilities they start working longer hours, it just hides the problems with the planning process until they get burnt out or the person who replaces them complains.

A good, hard, honest look at the true cost of time and resources being expended in order to fulfill annual or project plans may be required if you are going to effectively provide a good work-life balance to everyone.

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People Are Talking (Just Not To Me)

In the last day or so, Howard Sherman tweeted a story on CNN about the number of websites choosing to shut down the comments section on their websites in favor of social media interactions due to the number of abusive and spammy comments that appear in the comment boxes.

I momentarily panicked wondering what the implications might mean for my efforts to collect audience feedback as grant support if people got out of the habit of leaving comments on webpages.

The I realized–nobody is posting comments on my organizational website, just on my blog. All the feedback about the performances at my arts center already comes through social media.

But that actually brought another issue to mind for which I hope, dear readers, you might have some suggestions. (And in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I will certainly thank you.)

While we do get some nice comments on our Facebook and Twitter pages, I find that most of the really good comments are being made on my staff and board members’ personal Facebook pages. I have encouraged them to take screenshot, send me links, etc, but everyone doesn’t always remember.

The problem I have is that these comments made by people who attended a performance to board and staff members are pretty high quality, with a much more sincere and detailed feel than responses on surveys.

And I don’t know they are being made.

I have keyword searches on Google and Hootsuite for my organization related terms and all the shows we are doing each season, but these comments don’t appear in the results.

With Facebook saying they will throttle Facebook Pages content starting in January, I am concerned that even “What did you think of the show” posts might get filtered out of our followers’ newsfeeds making it more difficult to gather feedback and making me more dependent on the goodwill and memories of staff and board members.

In fact, I wonder if the throttling has already begun because we didn’t half the reach or responses to the follow up post for a sold out show two weeks ago that we have gotten for shows with half the attendance.

Any one have any ideas and thoughts on how to gather the good comments and prepare for less social media exposure?

I should note that board members receiving better comments than the organizational social media site presents an opportunity rather than a problem. It provides something of an obligation to provide them with sufficient information and support to be good brand ambassadors for the programs. I won’t have as much control of the message as I would through our organizational social media accounts, but I can enhance the value of what the board members are already doing naturally and willingly on and offline.

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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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