Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Myth of the Ubiquitous Solution

Today I tread lightly into the “new models” discussion which has recently been at the forefront of chatter among arts managers. For a good recap, please read the following:

Why Arts Managers Short of Cash Are Looking at Detroit,” by Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal
Theaters Look for New Ways to Draw in Subscribers,” by Nelson Pressley, The Washington Post
The New Model, Part 2,” by Michael Kaiser, The Huffington Post
Swimming Downstream in the Current of History,” by Adam Huttler, Fractured Atlas Blog

As Michael Kaiser states “the world is changing – but it has always been changing.” I agree with Mr. Kaiser to a point, but I’d like to point out that the amount of change organizations have faced in previous decades probably pales in comparison to the change they have confronted in the past ten years. In a one decade, pretty much everything we have been taught is now in question. How many of us were taught that the key to financial stability was saving money in order to purchase a house? For those of us who purchased prior to 2007, becoming a homeowner could be the dumbest financial decision we make in our entire lives. Who knew that we would experience a global economic crisis so severe that it would destroy
40% of the world’s wealth, or that people would actually opt for negative investment returns in order to move monies into safer investment vehicles? For the first time in the history of the United States, Standard & Poors downgraded the credit rating of the federal government to below AAA status, and the youngest Americans will most likely be worse off than their parents. Staples of American life, such as Social Security and Medicare, seem to be imploding, and new college graduates are entering the work force with record high student loans.   And this is to say nothing of the arts. States and municipalities are slashing funding, arts education barely exists in school curriculums and the lack of discretionary income is affecting ticket sales.
As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that arts managers are engrossed in discussions about new models. Many organizations had reserves to weather a couple of bad years, but recently we’ve begun to ask – what if this is the “new normal?” And how arts managers describe the “new normal” reminds me of the Hindu tale of the Blind Men and the Elephant. As the story goes, six blind men were asked to touch and describe an elephant. Each man’s description varied widely depending on the part of the elephant the man touched, and as the tale says “each in his own opinion exceeding stiff and strong, each was partly right, and all were in the wrong.”
Our descriptions of the “new normal” are as different as our points of views, and thus our responses to our changing environments should be as unique as each of our institutions.  I fear anyone who offers a panacea to all proclaimed from his or her own mountain top, as the view from my mountain may be different. For example, in his mostly excellent article about the Detroit Institute of Arts, Terry Teachout chides theater companies that “cling to the old-fashioned subscription model.” Similarly, in Nelson Pressley’s article “Theaters Look for New Ways to Draw in Subscribers,” Tony Heaphy, Director of Marketing at Centerstage, describes subscribing as “a chestnut.” I have no doubt from their perspectives these comments are valid, but theaters that have experienced significant growth in their subscription base might view the situation differently. What works for one, rarely works for all.

Therefore a customized approach tailored to your institution is wise. When looking at possible adjustments to your business model, I would suggest:
1)      A test a day. Test a new idea, small in scale, each day. Every day that an organization doesn’t test, is a day that it doesn’t learn.
2)      Test small, miss small. Identify a challenge. Develop a hypothesis. Test a solution. But don’t bet the farm on it. Conduct each test fully expecting a negative result.
3)      Test ideas that are easily scalable. In order to minimize risk, I’ve tested ideas that performed very well on a small scale only to realize that putting them into play in a larger way would be cost prohibitive.
4)      Identify your sacred cows, and test those first. Often times we shy away from testing solutions to a known issue simply because that issue is a sacred cow. If you are looking for meaningful impact, identifying sacred cows is a good first step.
5)      Be informed, but question everything – even “experts.” Read everything you can. Follow experiments at other companies. Conduct research. Analyze data. But don’t accept anything or anyone as infallible. Even the best are human, and they speak only from their experience.
6)      Be careful of “one size fits all” solutions. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard marketing directors wonder why something that worked so well in one city, bombed in the next. There are few universal truths in the marketing world.
7)      Overcome your fear of change. As humans, we are all programmed to fear change. You’ve identified a challenge. Formed a hypothesis. Tested a solution with impressive results. Developed a plan to scale the solution. And now it is decision time. Some people are paralyzed by fear of change. Be comforted by knowing that if you desire different results, you must act differently. Some difficult decisions are easy because they are demanded by circumstance.