As 2010 comes to a close, it is a time of reflection for many cultural organizations. The inevitable question is “How did we do?” There are many measures of performance – artistic, educational, cultural, social, and financial among others. But as the arts and culture sector regroups after several bumpy years of economic uncertainty, it is now an opportune time to look forward to 2011 and beyond. Having learned from the past while living in the present and simultaneously looking to the future, the question now becomes “What do we want to do and how will we best serve our community?”
In this edition of Arts Insights, we’ve adapted Stephen R. Covey’s bestseller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and look at how it relates to the arts and culture industry. What are the seven habits and how can artistic and cultural management professionals, board members, community leaders, and visionaries employ them to create highly effective organizations in uncertain times?
First of all, let’s define the word "habit" before we get into Covey’s top seven. Webster’s dictionary says a habit is “a characteristic action that is often repeated.” When we expand upon that basic context, we use Covey’s definition of a habit as “the intersection of knowledge, skills, and desire.” Ultimately, this is the 1) “what to do,” 2) “how to do it,” 3) “want to do it,” and most importantly 4) "why should we do it?" Let’s look at how the habit gets formed and how we can best meet at that crucial intersection of organizational effectiveness and community impact.
1. Be Proactive
The first step in creating an effective cultural organization is to be proactive. That means taking initiative in artistic, administrative, constituent, and community matters. Thinking about the language you use each day is critical. Are your “talking points” proactive or reactive? Do they look forward with optimism or retreat to defense of past failures, even those that were completely out of your control in a world that is in constant change.
Here are some examples of reactive and proactive for consideration:
We can view any situation or personal interaction with a reactive or proactive outlook. Highly effective cultural organizations are proactive. All the challenges that they face fall into three areas where they have a) direct control of their own actions, b) indirect control over the behavior of others, or c) no control over what has already happened to them. Covey looks at the Circle of Influence (things that we can do something about) and the Circle of Concern (world events, problems at work, our health, etc.) in addressing these matters. Organizations can determine their level of proactivity by how much time and energy they spend in each of these concentric “circles.” The larger the Circle of Influence is, the smaller the Circle of Concern and visa versa. With that said, think about and listen to your own language and those of your colleagues around you. Does your organizational culture sound proactive or reactive? How can you create a greater Circle of Influence by being more proactive?
2. Begin with the End in Mind
Those organizations that have engaged in an effective, consensus-built strategic planning and community engagement process have already seen the effects of this useful habit. Where do you want your organization to be in 5 years much less 25 years? What types of programs or exhibitions will you be presenting – and why? How many people will you have served – and how? What are the major milestones in each of those 5 years that will bring you to your vision? Who will make it all happen? These can be very difficult, yet invigorating, questions that allow for significant organizational advancement.
Let’s use a more concrete example. You are going to build a concert hall or expand your museum. Before breaking ground, you need plans, blueprints, resource analyses, competitive market reviews, business models, and much more. More importantly, however, you need to know how the facility will be used, by whom, how often, and what it will look like in the landscape of your community and its broader needs. You wouldn’t start building the structure without first thoroughly assessing the many aspects of how this vision will become a reality. In the same way, your organization needs to go through the process of beginning with the end in mind. How will the organization “look” in 5, 10, or 20 years. What is the legacy that you are leaving on the community? What will others say in the 22nd century about what has been achieved in the 21st century?
Overall, it will take organizational leadership and courage of convictions in order to achieve this second highly effective habit. An organizational mission statement, vision statement, goals, objectives, and action plans will all lead to a fruitful “end” to your illustrious “beginning.” But this is just the start.
3. Put First Things First
Both Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis have said that “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Covey adds to that idea by saying that “Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.” If you’re following Habits 1 and 2 above, Habit 3 will really get your organization moving in the right direction. It is all about setting your organizational priorities and not trying to be “all things to all people.” Think about those things that are “mission critical” in advancing your organization and its people to the next level. How do these play out daily, weekly or monthly?
Many organizations fall into what Covey calls the “urgency addiction” mode of operating, whereby it is easiest to simply react to issues that present themselves daily. His time management matrix will help your organization determine its priorities by breaking activities down into 4 quadrants with the various activities that occur in each:
Ultimately, your organization should be spending a majority of its time in quadrant II, although quadrant I cannot be ignored. In order to ensure that your organization can “put first things first,” it is crucial to look at your activities, goals and objectives. Quadrants III and IV should be quite small, as minimizing these allows you to spend your time and energy dealing with mission critical activities. One way to do this is to establish your seven highest organizational priorities, probably already done by following Habit 2 above, and then develop your own time management plan on how you and your organization will focus on these issues daily, weekly, monthly and so on.
4. Think Win-Win
The first three habits generally focus on the private victories that are needed to begin your own organizational effectiveness process. Once these have been established, your organization will begin to move into the next deeper level, which includes the three habits of “public victories.” Achieving “win-win” is a philosophy that allows for positive human and organizational interaction. This sounds simple, but many organizations still follow the win-lose mentality or the win-or-we-have-no-deal thought process. How can they create effective external community relationships while building internal collaborations to advance your mission?
As Covey suggests, there are four steps in the process of achieving a win-win relationship. First, it is important to see the problem from various points of view. Let’s say that earned income from ticket sales has dropped. The marketing director would be very concerned about this situation and may have a certain point of view. But in speaking with the development office, new clues into donor perceptions of the organization may come to light. Artistic challenges or a change in direction may have also had an effect on sales. Production problems may have arisen that have caused a drop in quality that negatively impacted sales. By viewing the same problem from various perspectives, it allows for a greater breadth of understanding the “real” issues at hand.
Second, it is valuable to identify the key issues, concerns, and stakeholders involved in the organizational challenge. This is not taking a “position,” but rather attempting to understand the full impact of the issue and how it impacts those around you. Third it is wise to determine what results would be considered fully “acceptable solutions” and to embrace them accordingly. Sometimes, these solutions are long-term changes while others are quick fixes with lasting impact. And fourth it is prudent to identify the possible options for achieving the results through the alignment of all the salient stakeholders’ interests.
5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
How do most organizations communicate their messages? Print advertising, radio spots, e-mails, websites, oral presentations, and word-of-mouth are a few. But how do they know if they are communicating the right message? Highly effective cultural organizations seek first to understand themselves as multi-faceted community leaders where they also engage their audiences, donors, communities, artists, Board, and staff in a public dialog about how and why they are essential.
Colleagues in the cultural sector face similar organizational challenges, and they sometimes discuss them in search of a one-size-fits-all solution. But how do people and their organizations tend to listen to the challenges faced by others? They evaluate by agreeing or disagreeing with the situation based on their own experiences. They may also ask probing questions to give them a frame of reference to their own situation. Sometimes organizations advise others based on their own experiences, even if it may not be relevant to the unique situation that each organization faces. They might even interpret the situation based on their own motives and behaviors without fully understanding the situation and the cast of characters that can shift organizational direction or paralyze it into inaction.
With that said, it is crucial to really hear and understand the situation from other points of view. There are so many stakeholders – both advocates and detractors - to consider along the way. But once this public dialog has been achieved, it will be much easier to present your organization and its vision from a broader and well informed world view. Your message will be more clearly understood, as people will have both intellectual and emotional engagement in who you are and why you’re important to them. They will generally have greater faith in your mission, goals, and integrity once they realize that you hear what they are saying. As a nonprofit cultural organization, you’re dealing with feelings and emotions at each performance, exhibit opening, or educational activity. Acknowledging those feelings will allow others to open their minds, so that your organizational messages will be understood. The logical presentation of your organization’s challenges will be more readily accepted through emotional engagement.
How can organizations pull together in uncertain times to become more effective and impactful? Well, let’s first define “synergy” as the whole organization being greater than the sum of its departmental or individual parts. Therefore, an effective organization is made up of people, facilities, and an artform that can indeed stand alone. But only when these parts combine and become integrated can a cultural organization truly achieve its public victory with resilience.
Think about those organizations that appear to be effective. How do they generate audience anticipation and a true “social network” that is about people rather than technology? How does that flow into efforts that contribute to financial stability and organizational advancement? Highly effective cultural organizations achieve momentum through integrated efforts between all of their operational aspects. Top-notch governance. Skilled and sensitive leaders. Dedicated artists, staff, and volunteers. Public advocates who overcome myopic detractors. All these gain synergy through the collective effort of being the caretakers of their organizations, so that these institutions can be vibrant entities that help their communities thrive.
7. Sharpen the Saw
As Covey says, “Sound motivation and organization theory embrace these four dimensions …. the economic (physical), how people are treated (social), how people are developed (mental), and the service …. the organization gives” (value) to the community.” Overall, this simply means taking the time (Quadrant II) to balance all four dimensions of our organizational existence. But what does this mean in each of these four areas?
Physically, an organization needs to consistently maintain its facilities, perform financial planning, and thoroughly understand its human, technical, and physical resources. Core values are what keep your organization centered, grounded, and committed to its constituencies. Focusing on these values allows you to develop consensus and momentum in organizational visioning. Mentally, those who work in the organization need to be at their best. Education, training, and mentoring of artists, board, staff, and volunteers will keep the organization in top intellectual shape. The social dimension comes into play by staying true to organizational value and values. While the first three dimensions are closely tied to habits 1, 2, and 3, the social or emotional dimension focuses on habits 4, 5, and 6. This social dimension is centered on the principles of interpersonal leadership, empathetic communication, and creative cooperation between people and organizations. In other words, do unto others as you would have them do unto you and your value as an institution will be evident to one and all.Summary
Arts and cultural organizations are vibrant, living, and dynamic entities. They involve thousands of people on all levels of organizational interaction. They can become highly effective in achieving their vision, mission, goals and objectives when they repeat the simple activities above that can give them balance and longevity. As you think about your organization’s future in 2011 and beyond, think about being proactive in establishing the long-lasting legacy that you seek. Set priorities that allow everyone to focus on the priorities that are most important to your success. Create win-win relationships internally and externally by first seeking to understand your stakeholders before presenting your case for attendance or financial support. Then pull all the aspects of your organization into a collaborative synergized unit. And finally, keep a constant eye towards sharpening the saw of the physical, mental, emotional, and value-based dimensions that will keep your cultural organization fresh and alive for future generations.
Bibliography: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, copyright 1989, Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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