Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Making Strategy Count in the First Place

While reading "The Real Value of Strategic Planning," I could easily relate to the manager who said, "We pretend to make strategy and they pretend to follow it," having worked for several organizations where this was exactly the case. I remember personally writing a strategic plan for my entire department (since everyone else was preoccupied by "real work"). We were then charged from senior level staff to complete these goals and objectives one year from the date. Of course, one week before the due date, we ran around mad, throwing together a report with exaggerated half truths just for the sake of appearances. After all we were sure no one at the top would ever read it closely anyway.

As stated in the article, perhaps we would have been more willing to try to achieve these goals and objectives handed from on high, had we been included in the initial conversation. This is also assuming the organization actually has a strategy to develop and implement in the first place. For example, NPR, despite its very survival being at stake, has been accused of not having a strategy at all, reacting defensively to conservative attacks instead of fostering their relationship with their listeners: http://www.newsweek.com/2011/03/20/what-s-killing-npr.html. Blame it on the stereotypical difficult artist personality, lack of time, or lack of money, but there seems to be very little conversation happening between senior leaders and lower level staff at many arts organizations. Instead, the biggest priority is simply to stay afloat and focus on next season's show.

Speaking of lack of strategy, what about the lack of information about the actual market, opportunities, changes in technology, etc. at most arts organizations? Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak with someone from the Smithsonian Office of Policy and Analysis about his experience with "diagnosing the current process," step one in bringing about the cultural and organizational change required for effective strategy making. He said even after discovering which strategies and tactics are not working through qualitative and quantitative research, and providing direct solutions on how to fix the problems, he constantly faces the frustration of being flat out ignored and disregarded if the changes are not something convenient. People cling to their assumptions, generally distrust data, and are afraid of making any changes lest they change that one thing that is actually working. For example, when it comes to measuring visitor experience, when have you seen an art museum go beyond the comment cards, bulletin boards, or suggestion books? Once again, this is why it is so important and fundamental that you get buy-in for your strategies in the first place, by allowing people to have a voice, and allowing them to care.

So what do you do when you are at a lower level position and you see senior level management not going about strategy in the right way? How do you influence those at the top?

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