So much of our training, theory, practice, and focus in cultural management has to do with outcomes and processes. When we look to improve how our organizations ‘work’, we tend to chose between ‘making better things’ (the outcomes or products), or ‘making things better’ (the processes that lead to those outcomes).
This is not a bad way to spend our time, but it’s incomplete. And it tends to leave so many arts professionals feeling short of time, short of breath, and short of energy.
In short (see what I did there?), we feel like we’re shallow-breathing, moving air at a rapid pace but not getting much oxygen.
This issue is not unique to arts organizations, but it’s particularly salient to the arts. The great waves of management theory and practice in the wider world have moved through the same attention deficits: First came product-market-output focus (in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s), where managers differentiated functions within the company, established performance metrics (such as KPIs or Key Performance Indicators), and adjusted their work toward better outputs. Then came process-focused management theory and practice (in the 1980s and 1990s) in the form of Total Quality Management (TQM), organizational learning, workflow analysis, and other forms of midstream attention.
In systems thinking, we would call the products/outputs “stocks” — buckets of nouns that can be counted (staff levels, event nights, sales, dollars, inventory). Processes would be called “flows” — the pipeline verbs that define our activities (hiring, building, training, selling). Attending to both is essential work if you want to grow, learn, and improve over time. But only attending to those two leaves out a rather important bit of the plumbing: the source or the wellspring.
The wellspring for any enterprise is the deep, human, driving force that compels both output and process. It’s not what you do at work, or how, but rather why you’re there in the first place. This why is often deeper than rational reasoning, and beyond traditional management language.
C. Otto Scharmer describes these three layers of attention and intention in his book Theory U, making it clear that every layer is essential to a healthy enterprise. He describes the three layers as an organic whole, with healthy leaders and managers ‘breathing’ deeply — in from products through processes to source, then back out again from source to processes to products. Says he:
The point is not to argue for an upstream point of view of leadership at the expense of processes, capabilities, and execution, but to conceive of the whole field of leading and organizing as a single living entity, one that is grounded in and constantly renewed from the source of attention and intention at the center…. The center does not exist without the periphery, and vice versa.
So, if you find yourself feeling short of breath, after hours of attention on the products or the processes of your organization’s work: stop. Take a deep breath, and invite your colleagues to breathe as well, to return your attention to the reasons you’re there in the first place. Then let your change or improvement efforts flow back out from there.