Saturday, March 27, 2010

Younger Minds Attract Younger Audiences*

IF "YOUNGER MINDS ATTRACT YOUNGER AUDIENCES" isn't your institution's mantra, you should seriously consider making it so.  Not just for staff and volunteers, I'm thinking this needs to be your board's mantra, too.  That's particularly true for well-established, highly structured cultural organizations presenting traditional programming formats. You know these organizations; you may work or volunteer in one.
While we read about the graying of audiences for some cultural activities, I'm wondering how gray the board and senior staff are.  Do you think there's a distinct correlation?  
Younger minds do more than attract younger audiences.  They keep the cobwebs at bay.  They help us question accepted practice and remix familiar elements to make new connections.  And they are the fundamental bridges to our organizations' futures.
Some organizations utilize "junior boards" for folks under 40 to try out their chops.  If you shine there, you'll get to move up to the "grown-up board" someday.  Some organizations create "junior committees" primarily to foster under-40 philanthropy (their activities always look like a lot more fun than the grander, big-money affairs). 
In big, bureaucratic institutions these mechanisms undoubtedly have a place for training, mentoring, and shaping next generation leadership.  But for most culturals, there's a pressing need to bring younger minds to the board room today.  It seems that few, though, have any inkling how to do that.  

Stereotypes about board service -- good, bad, and downright ugly -- seem to prevent so many boards from looking beyond a fairly short radius of known quantities.  This is particularly true when it comes to looking for younger minds.  These boards need to do two things immediately:  1) quit repeating that under-40's don't have time for board service, and 2) quit saying you don't know anyone.  All great boards are fed by far-reaching, complementary networks, and age is one of them.
If you've made an honest attempt to attract younger minds to board service and come up short, I submit that you need to rethink your organization's expectations of board service and its mission.

Photo:  Visitor Video Competition from Brooklyn Museum

* Carol Vogel.  "The New Guard of Curators Step Up".  New York Times:  March 13, 2010.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Working Together Doesn't Just Happen

I'M THINKING ABOUT TWO GROUP EXPERIENCES I'VE ENCOUNTERED IN RECENT DAYS: one is a planning team for a professional development program and the other is the board and staff of a historic site that has entered a new phase of independence.  Both groups are in the throes of creating something new; both have many voices around the table.  But, one experience has been a struggle at almost every turn while the other was a high-energy, highly focused (even fun) effort.  How come so different?
Group work is shaped by several common elements, but how they're addressed and tended to can lead to quite different -- even deleterious -- results.  
Who's at the Table:  Anything you read about effective collaborations underscores the importance of having all the major stakeholders at the table.  It's incredibly important to take the time to put this group together and to give them an opportunity to get to know one another.  That's especially true when you've got a disparate group who come from divergent sectors or backgrounds.  Barring all the potential positives of a "team of rivals" approach, personality does play a critical role here, as well.
We know that with many start-up projects, the group that develops them tends to be fairly homogeneous and "like minded".  That is largely the case in my examples.  The group that's struggling is made up of cultural sector leaders, most from one industry.  In this case, homogeneity has not been, so far, a predictor of success.  The seemingly more successful group at this point is also quite homogeneous with very little economic and social diversity.  Their struggle is to become more diverse and less "club-like".  Would that also help the struggling group?
Focus of the Work:  Both groups have relatively focused agendas.  The struggling group's focus is to create from scratch a high-level professional development program for a specific audience.  Over the course of the work, many twists, turns and false starts have made some stakeholders question the focus.  Considerable time has been spent rethinking the focus and stakeholder roles.  Continued ambiguity of focus and outcome is sapping the group's energy, enthusiasm and sense of ownership for the project.
By contrast, the high energy group is not quite developing something from scratch.  The focus for this group is tangible -- it surrounds them everyday in three-dimensional form.  They "own" their focus both literally and figuratively.  While they aren't building their project from scratch, they must continually break new ground in order to thrive and they must make some key leaps in institutionalizing their roles and responsibilities to be successful for the long-term.  
Leadership of or Within the Group:  The leaders of the struggling group suffer from professional attention deficit syndrome.  Their plates are too full, their commitment too splintered.  They pay the most attention to the project when a deadline is looming or when team members complain.  When group members have attempted to exert leadership, it has not been well-received.  Lack of leadership continuity can be a breeding ground for second-guessing, splitting into cliques, back channel discussion and decision-making, and drifting apart.
The high energy group has strong, long-tenured and respected leadership.  But leadership within the group, particularly at the committee level, is uneven.  And burnout is always a concern.  This group must figure out ways to push leadership deeper into its ranks to build a bench for succession while thoughtfully widening their circle to include more diverse representation.
Communication:  What is true collaboration without it?  Our struggling group example is plagued by a lack of regular communication.  Misunderstandings result in the voids.  Despite the fact that this project is now more than a year in the making, many on the project team are strangers -- colleagues, yes; friends, not so much.  I find myself saying that I'm having a hard time "falling in like" with the team.  Part of that I am convinced stems from a lack of opportunity to get to know one another.
When I met with the high energy group, the first thing I was told was this group had just been together the night before for dinner at the board president's house.  They talked animatedly and laughed a great deal as they gathered for their meeting with me.  They agreed that their internal communication was frequent and informal and this will need to change somewhat as it grows.
This brings me to a book I find continually useful: Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith's The Wisdom of Teams (my copy is from 1999).  The authors identified six overarching characteristics of high-performing teams and I refer to them whenever I reflect on teamwork.  They are:
  • the team is relatively small in number (generally less than twelve)
  • team members bring complementary skills to the table (too much homogeneity can lead to "group think")
  • the team has a common and clear purpose with a
  • common set of specific performance goals
  • the team agrees on the approach to the work
  • team members are mutually accountable for their performance
Photo:  artomatic huddle!  from mofo

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Building a Plan Layer by Layer

LET'S TALK ABOUT SOMETHING THAT'S THEORETICALLY very simple:  the architecture of a plan -- you know, that written thing that's supposed to help guide your activity.  It doesn't matter if we're creating a plan to manage a project or a plan to reinvent an institution, the architecture of it ought to be pretty much the same.  In its most basic, stripped-down state, a plan is a hierarchy of information, built up in layers like the foundation of a house.  

The "house", which the foundation supports, is the result the planner is seeking to achieve.  For the project manager it's completing an activity on time and on/under budget.  For the institutional re-inventor it's about articulating and achieving a new vision or a renewed mission. 

I typically use three different kinds of informational layers in building a plan:  1) broad overarching goals shaped by mission and understandings of external needs and realities; 2) sets of focused activities that, over the life of the plan, will achieve goals; and 3) specific individualized action steps, or tasks, to accomplish activities.  These three layers go by a number of names, but the key is that they form a hierarchy of information -- broad ---> focused ---> specific and individualized -- that I believe is critical to building a foundation strong enough to hold the house we envision.

For many people this is a tough hierarchy to understand, let alone master.  Countless organizations consider a list of tasks, untethered to goals or a mission, as a plan.  But a list of tasks is nothing more than a "to do" list, which can lead an individual or organization in any direction if not informed or kept in check by the informational layers above it.  Here's an example of one organization's "goals" for a five-year period:
  • develop a website
  • develop job descriptions
  • review personnel policies
  • clean out the basement
  • organize filing system
  • collect email addresses of members
Are these really goals?  They are so specific, so obviously boundaried in scope, that they clearly support some larger -- although not articulated -- directions or overarching mission that they really belong in the third layer of information.  It's a lot easier for people to get their heads around tasks, it seems -- and why not? -- many of us live out our daily lives in the form of "to do" lists.   But, if we are ever to accomplish the meaningful stuff of personal or institutional life, we must have the "house" and at least the first layer of information clearly in our sights.

So, here's a thought -- a relatively painless, low-tech, and maybe even fun way to review the construction of your plan:  gather a group together (ideally board members and staff), give them a bunch of colored index cards (one color for goals, one for sets of focused activities, one for tasks) and ask them to dissect your current plan according to those three layers of information.  When everyone is finished, sort the cards by color on a big table.  What emerges?  Will you be changing the colors of some of the information?  After you've done that, what information gaps are you facing?  How will you fill them?

Photo:  Index cards  from redspotted