Trick or Treat (Or Why Plan?)
I really wanted to put together an eye-catching costume for Halloween this year, but I didn't make the deadline. On October 31st I ended up limply draped in a half-hearted, last-minute amalgam of odds and ends cobbled together from whatever happened to be randomly lying around the house. It could have been so much better.
Instead, my celebration of All Hallow's Eve was spent kicking myself for my lack of . . . something. Not foresight, because I started thinking about it a month early. Not commitment, because for the first time in several years I actually wanted to dress up. I mean, it's just a lousy costume, how complicated can it be? Come up with an idea, get the materials, make it. My schedule got a little complicated as calendar pages passed, but why couldn't I pull it all together?
"It could have been so much better." I've heard arts organization staffs say the same thing; but, instead of referring to a Halloween costume, they were talking about a half-successful season, or promotional campaign, or arts education collaboration with another organization. For them, however, the consequences of these fizzled projects ranged from inconvenience to bankruptcy, however.
What linked us all was a lack of planning. These organizations had not conducted any meaningful planning.
Why didn't we plan? In my case, because I am a natural slacker. And the organizations? Because--pick one:
Planning is anal. Plans are for businesses. Plans are straitjackets. Plans are just stacks of paper that sit on a shelf and are never used. Plans are out of date as soon as you dot their last 'i'. Plans give the board a weapon to use against staff. Plans give staff a weapon to use against the board. Plans are just busywork for consultants. Plans for arts organizations are like discussing neurophysiology while you're looking at a rainbow. Plans are just transcripts of the executive director/board chairs/artistic director talking to him/herself. Plans are just written for funders.
So much misunderstanding, so little time.
PLANNING IS A PROCESS NOT A PRODUCT
Don't run away. Planning is only a tool.
The word "plan" evolved from Latin and originally meant a plane, or level ground, a plain. Let's start where planning begins. Beyond the Latin, beyond MBA school, what does "planning" mean, anyway?
Planning is the equivalent of consciousness among organisms. It does not preclude or subvert instinct, but adds a layer of awareness that spells the difference between survival and extinction in a changing environment. Planning may or may not involve a stack of paper. It does involve:
An honest understanding of an organization's history.
A systematic examination of an organization's environment.
The rigorous assessment of an organization's mission.
Clear vision of organizational goals.
A mapping process presenting ways of reaching those goals.
An inclusive, collaborative process for gathering information, ideas, opinions and intuitions on which goals and decisions are based.
A realization that planning never stops.
THE VELOCITY OF CHANGE
Does it seem that the world around you moves more quickly than it did even five years ago? That's because it does. The increasingly unrestricted international movement of capital and its increasingly vertical integration in business and industry are the major reasons, with the effects of this unleashed economic torque radiating into politics, culture, and civic and social life.
Rapid advances in information management and communication technology give extra spin to both the perception and the reality of change. As populations and cities and cultures and industries and philanthropy and government alter and morph in increasingly mercurial ways, organizational management demands a different attitude than that demanded even in the early '90s.
No need to recite the further list of social, governmental, economic, electronic, cultural, and other forces currently shifting the foundations on which the arts have built their organizations. Suffice it to say that it is courting disaster to run an arts organization without some kind of planning process in place.
Moving forward in cycles.
MASTER OF SITUATIONS
Being "master of situations" is how Duke Ellington described his philosophy as band leader. Planning means not necessarily predicting the future, but anticipating a range of likely futures and being prepared for them as they rush toward you at the speed of change. Planning represents a kind of surfing, seeing event waves coming and catching them, riding rather than being pounded into sand. Gnarly, dude!
BAMBI MEETS GODZILLA
In arts organizations, members of the artistic staff often shy away from planning, feeling that it leaves no room for serendipity or magic or the simple changing of minds. Often this perception results, like many of the misconceptions related to planning, from experiences with bad processes masquerading as planning. In truth, an arts organization's planning process should mimic the creative process and be just as open and flexible. The process of strategic thinking becomes by far the most important part of planning, and the absorption of such thinking into everyday organizational life the most important outcome.
A plan can begin with an honest, income-based budget and a budget narrative. How much beyond this basic foundation an organization needs to build a plan depends completely on the organization. However, artistic staff are critical to the process without them, there is no plan. The heart of an arts organization is its art, not its fundraising or its marketing or anything else. The unique artistic vision of each organization is what it contributes to the world, and from this springs everything else.
When pursued correctly, the planning process fosters creativity, rather than creating fossils.
RIGHT YOU ARE, J.B.
The business world voraciously sucks up useful ideas, regardless of their origins. The arts must be equally voracious in looking for any edge that can be found. Planning may have come to the arts from the corporate world, but so what?
An arts organization is still an organization. It produces art and services. It must find the human and other resources needed to make its products, it must use those resources as efficiently and effectively as possible, and it must get its products to as large an audience as possible or appropriate. Viewing operations from a pragmatic vantage is not being corporate; it's being smart. The days of taking pride in lack of business acumen and administrative ability should be over, for such (misplaced) pride represents a luxury no arts organization can afford.
Planning is what allows the vaunted entrepreneurial model to succeed; you make your own luck, and place yourself in position to be able to take advantage of opportunities when they pop up. It also helps you weather adversity. That's why businesses plan because planning produces results.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If key people in an organization balk at planning because of a fear of possible failure in pursuit of goals, or in fear of being held to standards, then problems run deeper than FOP (fear of planning) and must be dealt with before real planning can begin. Appropriate planning involves the crafting of expectations in collaboration with those responsible for implementation.
Honest planning can uncover long-buried problems and stir up considerable stress, as assumptions and understanding are tested. Usually this is a positive thing, forcing an organization to deal with rather than avoid issues. Sometimes, the process reveals unbridgeable rifts and the organization suffers. Here, however, planning serves only to accelerate inevitable outcomes.
Planning means developing self-knowledge. Just as this can be scary in individuals, this discovery process produces anxiety for organizations. Healthy organizations work through the anxiety. The result is wisdom.
I can't finish nothing
Organizational planning, when it does occur, too often is spurred by crisis, focused on the short term, and not well thought out. To create healthy futures, organizations must construct processes for creating their futures that are not fueled by the energy of crisis and turmoil. It can be done.
Another tendency of planning driven by the wrong energy is to segment or compartmentalize, to plan for a component of an organization's operation. A healthy organization, however, represents a balanced and intertwined web of systems and operations. Especially in small organizations, everything depends on everything else. It's not possible to consider a particular program in isolation from others; the whole organization must be included in any attempt at organizational thinking.
ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL
Every organization is unique in its history and culture, and, it is to be hoped, in its mission. Every plan should reflect that uniqueness; there is no standard model appropriate for every organization.
As a corollary: any outsider (e.g., a consultant) should be involved in a process only as a facilitator (or, if a document is involved, as an editor). The real work of planning can only be done by an organization's artistic and administrative leadership, in collaboration with staff, focus groups, community groups, peers, or whoever else leadership deems necessary to the process. A planning process in which an outsider played a key decision-making role is sure to be about something, but not about the organization.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Plans are first and foremost for organizations, but it is true that funders, especially corporate funders, may predicate their potential support for an organization on the organization's ability to demonstrate a clear strategic vision of its future. Smart organizations know that planning not only offers concrete and immediate results in shaping an organization's future, but it is also an increasingly necessary prelude to developing relations with funders.
PIXIE DUST ON MY CLEATS
Anyone ever involved with the creation of any art knows that it is hard, unromantic work, built on, in most cases, years of dedication and practice, and lots of humbling failure. In spite of stereotypes fostered by pop culture and Hollywood concerning the creative process, being in "the zone" going mano a mano with The Muse is a small part of the birth process for a stage work, poem, painting, or any other artistic endeavor. The larger part involves a series of decidedly practical and technical processes. It's dirty, dangerous work, and I can't order anyone to do it. Any volunteers? (Oh, sorry, just wandered off there into that WWII movie I saw last night.)
Regardless of the effortless magic of the final product, behind the scenes is a lot of sweat and duct tape. Therefore, does it make sense to believe planning is somehow antithetical to the diaphonous spirit of creation? (After all, artists most often begin the process of making a particular work by crafting a plan: sketches, studies, storyboards, outlines, maquettes, etc.) It is my experience that the gossamer spirit is a tough, hungry old buzzard that's pretty hard to kill (it has to be) and interested only in its own stomach, which it will fill by any means necessary. And planning is way more useful than duct tape.
PLANNING . . .
like fire, is a tool of enormous latent value. This value, however, depends completely on what you do with it. You can light a cigarette with it, or you can use it to heat the air in a balloon and circumnavigate the globe. Or you can -- well, it's up to you, isn't it?
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