California Symphony–They Speak Your Language

I was excited to see Aubrey Bergauer posted a follow up to her original 2016 Orchestra X post regarding how the California Symphony was acting on the feedback it has received about the concert planning and attending experience. I have written about some of Aubrey’s work since then, but I was eager to see a cumulative reflection.

Unfortunately, her post came in the middle of the holiday production crunch so I only got around to reading it this week.

A couple of really interesting things that caught my attention in this latest post. First was the counter-intuitive value in leaving past events posted on the website. I always want to get the clutter of old information off my website so it is easy for potential attendees to find the information they want. While this is probably an important practice generally, for the California Symphony, leaving that information available helped bolster their credibility. She writes,

1) As the season progressed, this list got awkwardly short, especially for an orchestra like the California Symphony that doesn’t perform as frequently as our bigger-budget peers. Participants told us they couldn’t believe we didn’t perform more often, and it looked even worse when only a few concerts were on that list. 2) As they were trying to “get a sense of what we’re about,” as they said, they couldn’t really tell based on only a handful of upcoming shows

Another thing is that they started running digital ads in both English and Spanish. The Spanish ads have a link to a Spanish language landing page.

That pilot test did lead to a measurable increase in Latinx households, and so we decided to put some money behind developing the new site in both languages. Now, when we run ads in Spanish, we can link to landing pages in the same language, another step in making this important segment in our community feel invited and welcome here, as well as give them the information they need to join us.

This was not new information to me because Aubrey has been reporting her success attracting a broader audience segment on Twitter for a few weeks now.

While she didn’t report on the outcomes of the changes, her discussion of how they adjusted some of the website sections to be outwardly focused rather than inwardly focused gave me something to think about. For example, instead of “Education” as a navigation header they are using “Off Stage” with subheaders focused on kids, adults and artists. They also changed “Support Us” to the more outwardly oriented “Your Support.”

A lot of the work they did was in the area of providing background information both in their program book and website. Their program notes are more about the background of the artists and music than the technical details of the music. They have song clips and information drawn from Wikipedia available online for those who want to know more. They changed their writing style to short bullet points rather than paragraphs.

Aubrey provides the rationale behind these changes based both in research and user feedback so it is definitely worth while to read this recent post.

Who Knows The Problem Best, Makes The Decision

Recently over at Nonprofit AF, Vu Le talked about the problem of decision fatigue experienced by executives and other leaders. He mentions that his organization has been using an alternative decision making process called Advice Process though he doesn’t like that name and suggests,

Feedback-Informed Networked-Autonomous Lateral (FINAL)

[…]

In the FINAL decision-making process, whoever is closest to the issue area is the person who makes the decision, provided they do two things: Check in with people who will be affected by their decision, and check in with people who may have information and advice that might help them make the best decision.

The web page Vu links to explaining the Advice Process makes it clear this is not consensus building.

It is a misunderstanding that self-management decisions are made by getting everyone to agree, or even involving everyone in the decision. The advice seeker must take all relevant advice into consideration, but can still make the decision.

Consensus may sound appealing, but it’s not always most effective to give everybody veto power. In the advice process, power and responsibility rest with the decision-maker. Ergo, there is no power to block.

Vu lists a number of benefits to this approach including cultivating an environment where there is better decision making, critical thinking and relationship building. He also says employees feel more empowered and supervisors’ role in the relationship is more focused on coaching and support.

He also admits there is definitely a learning curve that requires trust, restraint, tolerance, and permission to fail as a result of poor decision making. He mentions it can occasionally be difficult to discern with whom decision making should reside and there are some decisions just too big to be made by one person.

There is also the issue that some people and organizational cultures may not be in a place to adapt to this approach. Shifting from a familiar dynamic is not always easy and people want to maintain known roles.

One of the commenters, A Nia Austin-Edwards, shared an anecdote about an organization whose executive director ceded decision making in a similar manner. The staff wasn’t educated and prepared in the process and consistent coaching wasn’t provided to guide the staff. This was exacerbated by some traumatic organizational history.

But overall this may be something your organization might want to consider adopting. Some of the burn out staff may experience may be attributable to a feeling a lack of control and authority within the organization–that they are subject to the whims of others whose motivations they don’t understand. A structure that allows people to become more involved in decision making may help alleviate some of that.

“Change Starts From Within” Means You

Cyndi Suarez wrote a piece for Non-Profit Quarterly that bears considering as non-profit organizations make an effort to have the demographics of their staff and boards better reflect that of the communities they serve.

In writing about the challenges faced by people of color entering organizations predominantly staffed by Caucasians, she notes, (my emphasis)

“…they’re expected to both bring a particular value as a person of color and fit into the dominant culture. This puts the person in what one described as being at odds with “the truth in my heart.” The organizations don’t expect to have to change, and it’s extremely difficult for these people of color to address the challenges from within the organization, in isolation from others like themselves or any other support.”

Seems a little silly doesn’t it given how often the phrase, “change starts from within,” is blithely thrown around?

While I have heard discussions about the disconnect between wanting to expand involvement and participation by groups without considering that it will mean changing things about the organization, I hadn’t considered that the following problem also exists:

“…even though that person of color is a symbol of the potential change that often ushers in the money, she usually has no decision-making authority over how that money is used, and it is rarely presented as a budget at her disposal. Or, even worse, as with Carlos, the person is expected to take the lead in identifying the money himself.”

An organization in the initial phases of trying to expand involvement and participation may not be in a place to put a new hire in direct budgetary control of funding, but there should be consideration of creating a strong relationship between the funding and the scope of the new hire’s responsibility/decision making in its use.

Suarez makes other worthwhile observations about the changing dynamics in the work place in her piece. These are the ones that primarily jumped out at me.

Are You Persistent or Consistent In Your Pursuit of Excellence?

Seth Godin made a post earlier this week comparing Persistence with Consistent wherein he starts with the statement “Persistence is sort of annoying.”

He goes on to talk about the way in which consistent is the desirable opposite side of the coin,

Consistent with your statements, consistent in the content you create, consistent in the way you chip away at the problem you’re seeking to solve.

Persistence can be selfish, but consistency is generous.

And the best thing is that you only have to make the choice to be consistent once. After that, it’s simply a matter of keeping your promise.

In this context,  persistence seems to be about performance of a specific action whereas consistent is policy. In this sense persistence is approaching a challenge in the same way until it is worn down to the point you can pass. Whereas consistent is more about dedication to finding a way past that obstruction.

While both approaches never falter in achieving a singular goal, the latter entertains options regarding the methods by which this can be accomplished. In fact, consistent may be better equipped to recognize that surmounting the barrier isn’t the goal but rather getting to the place beyond the barrier and therefore there may be no reason to engage with this particular barrier at all.

What actually drew my attention to Godin’s post was that last line about keeping a promise. Working in the non-profit arts sector is often such a struggle that we feel like we can only survive with dogged persistence. Perhaps what is really needed is a focus on consistency.

If our promise to the community we serve is to provide a certain experience, a persistent approach may keep you locked into executing an approach and methods which have decreasing relevance. A determination to offer a consistently valuable experience can lead you to place more importance on needs of those you intend to serve rather place importance on the methods by which you accomplish it.

Think about it this way. If you want to keep a promise to provide excellent customer service do you do the same thing today as you did five years ago? Do you use the same approach for small groups as large? Kids as for elderly? Film audiences as for Broadway musical audiences? 2500 seat theater as for 150 seat theater?

Sure you will still make bad choices, but a consistent approach to great customer service is likely better able to take the differences of time, place, environment and expectations into account than a persistent approach.

If you are like me, Emerson’s line, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” might have come to mind when you first saw the term. In that context consistency has a negative connotation. After reading and pondering Godin’s post I wondered if it might have been better said as “a foolish persistence.” Though I learn toward consistency is a better word choice.

It should also be noted, Emerson never mentions what the characteristics of wise or non-foolish consistency are. Consistency is not necessarily negative in and of itself. Persistence isn’t either, but it does have implications of a single-mindedness that can quickly become problematic.

You may have noticed I didn’t make definitive claims about persistent being one thing and consistent being another. Ultimately, of course it isn’t about what word you use as much as what practice you embody.

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