I have been waiting for some time to write about this fascinating blog post by Greg McKeown from the Harvard Business Review: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. It is in the tradition of Jim Collins’ Good to Great. Indeed, Mr. McKeown’s graphic looks a lot like Collins’ Hedgehog Concept graphic. He suggests we identify our core passion, that at which we are best (talent)–not merely good but best, and that which is most needed in the world. What we do should be narrowly defined at the intersection of all three.
Mr. McKeown also cites another of Collins’ works when he identifies a source of corporate difficulty being “the undisciplined pursuit of more.” The solution is focus arrived at by understanding what is ultimately important, the essence of the “business.” There are far more good ideas and worthy efforts than there are resources (financial and human) to implement them. (This is especially true in the not-for-profit world.) Collins wrote of creating a “stop doing list.” I have spoken of planning processes providing “The Gift of No.”
On the surface, these concepts do not appear to have a direct connection to community engagement. Indeed, as I have often heard, where community engagement is seen as an add-on, they appear to warn against it. Apart from the fact that I would (and do) argue that engagement is (or must become) the core business of most arts organizations, the principles have a direct application to undertaking an engagement agenda. If engagement is crucial, a valid question is whether all the work currently being done is truly essential. Are there elements of programming or management that we continue due to habit rather than because of their effectiveness? Could these things be jettisoned to make way for activity that is more meaningful to the community? Do the public school field trips really foster future arts lovers? Are the pops concerts really resulting in community connections and translating to deeper engagement? Are annual performances of Nutcracker really the best programming choice? (OK. This one may be, but let’s ask the question.) Is yet another production of The Foreigner really necessary? You get the idea. Just because something has been done forever does not mean it’s necessary.
Also, the reminder to include what is most needed in the world (in addition to the criteria of our passion and talent) is critical. We have a tendency to focus on the internal criteria of passion and talent without sufficient concern for what is needed from points of view outside our own.
Finding focus is healthy in and of itself. It can also be an asset for organizations beginning to pursue community engagement as a central element of their work.
Engage . . . and focus!