Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Coherence and Culture

The Coherence Premium almost seems to be common sense, yet somehow the non-profit arts world is filled with incoherent institutions. Often organizations try to be all thing to all people, pursuing strategies which do little to define and capitalize on specific competencies. This may seem counter-intuitive in a world where every organization is compelled to have a mission, but missions can be broad and regulation is weak. In a challenging financial environment, many organizations have reacted not by refining their business models in ways defined by what they do best, but pursing risk-averse programming in whatever vein seems most advantageous to a broad audience.

D.C. based Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company bucks this trend, providing an example of the benefits that arts organizations could accrue from a more coherent structuring. Woolly has a very clearly defined external position, based around high quality productions of new shows. I would argue that Woolly has been so successful in their external mission because they have also aligned their internal structures in a mutually reinforcing manner.

Woolly’s capabilities strongly reinforce their narrow external strategy. I would define them as follows:

-        Creating space for meaning-making: One of the major challenges of new work is that it can be difficult to make sense of it. Woolly eases attendees into its shows through “Lobby Experiences” anchored in the themes of the piece. For a show set in North Korea they had art by an expat on display; for a show where wrestlers were the main characters patrons were encouraged and given materials to create their own wrestler persona. The lobby also serves as a social space before and after the show, making room for conversation.

-        Connectivity: Most arts organizations work in a department model, with Development, Marketing, Finance, and Programming as the major divisions. Woolly created a new “Connectivity” department which works across departments, focusing specifically on visitor experience and facilitating novel ways to engage with the art.

-         Focus on a Clear Brand – When you go to Woolly there is no ambiguity about what you are signing up for. This is a place to be surprised, not to see old favorites. As such, their subscribers and repeat attendees have clear expectations and it’s Woolly’s challenge to continue to meet them. This clarity invigorates the organization, and where other organizations struggle to find an audience for their new shows, specialization means Woolly has built a devoted customer base more receptive than most theatergoers.


In a very competitive theatre town, Woolly has managed to carve out a unique niche. I would credit much of this, and its sustained success, to the way in which its clear external identity is reinforced by and aligned with internal competencies. Other arts organizations could learn much from their model, but rather than emulating any one of their differentiating practices, it is the mutually reinforcing system that is worth focusing on.

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