Putting ideas into action

ADDED LATER: I want to make something very clear — that the organization I’m talking about here is quite terrific, both artistically and in the way they’re run. Which made me thrilled to work with them, even before the work began. I talk a lot in what follows about strategic planning, and about how not to jump into certain innovations until there’s a strategic plan for the innovations to be part of. This organization, in my contact with them, does a better job with strategic thinking than some major institutions I’ve worked with or otherwise been close to, or at least they think more strategically about innovations than some major organizations have.

So when I cautioned them about holding back on certain changes, that wasn’t because they were about to jump into deep water without any planning. I was just giving them advice. The innovations they did before I worked with them seemed like exactly the kind of thing you could safely do without strategic planning — innovations that make sense standing on their own, and that don’t commit you — or your money! — to any path you might later have to back away from.

I put forth a lot of theories here, and a lot of ideas. Some are based on experience, some are thoughts that haven’t yet been tried out in action. So when I find myself working as a consultant, I’m in a fascinating place. When is it right to urge my ideas on someone else, as something they might  — or should — do?

Of course, nobody hires me as a consultant without knowing where I stand, so I can take for granted that there’s interest in my ideas. But still that doesn’t mean that every idea of mine would be appropriate for the group I’m working with, and it also doesn’t tell me how, for this group, my ideas might be implemented.

Recently, in a consulting job, I found myself even urging the group to put on the brakes. Or at least to do extensive planning before they took action.

Here’s the story, or some of it. I’m not going to name the group, or give any information — where they are, what they do — that might help identify them. That they worked with me is their own business, for them to disclose (or not) if they choose to. Not that it’s any great secret, as far as I know. And not that the group hasn’t already shown, by things it’s done in public, that it wants to change. Still, discretion is the best policy.

So here I had a classical music organization that really did want to change. It wanted to be livelier, to make its audience less passive, to sell more tickets, and, conceivably, attract a younger audience. Already it had given a concert in which steps toward all these things were taken — successfully, I thought, at least for an initial effort. The audience — and, very important — the board seemed to like what had been done. The board was behind these ideas. My job, it seemed, was to give some external validation (“it’s not just you; other people have talked about the kinds of things you have in mind, and done them, often with success”), and also, if I could, to focus the group’s efforts. What should it do next? What — among all the ideas it had — should its priorities be?

I met first with the group’s artistic and general director, next with the director, the administrative head (who’d done some expert marketing), and finally with the board. One pregnant moment came at the start of the board meeting. “What should we discuss?” the director asked me. (Experienced consultants, and those who’ve worked with them, won’t find anything new in what I’m about to say. But others might find it useful.) That was a crucial moment in defining my role. “I can’t tell you that,” I answered (or words more or less to that effect). “It’s your organization. You should talk about what you think you need to talk about, and if I think I can be helpful, I’ll join in.”

That way, of course, I could (among other things) see where they were in their discussions, and form a much better idea of what they needed than I could if I took over. (Consulting 101.) I did give them a framework — told the board (most of whom hadn’t met me yet) a bit about who I am, and told some stories of initiatives classical music groups, including big ones, had taken to change the way the world looked at them. Not, I stressed, because these were paths I wanted this group to follow, but just to show them that what they’d been discussing had been done before. (And often in dramatic ways by very and famous groups. I told them, for instance, about the Hamburg orchestra’s splashy Brahms performance, with the musicians scattered around the city and the conductor high up on a famous tower, with the whole thing mixed and presented on the web. Again, not because the group before me needed to do anything like that, but to show them that even a long-established German orchestra had taken a wild initiative.)

So one thing that emerged from the board’s discussion proved very helpful to them, or at least I thought so. They’d described the new directions they thought they’d go in as a way of rebranding themselves — “rebranding” being precisely the word they used. But what did that mean? They weren’t sure. They started talking about it, exchanging thoughts about rebranding meant. And what emerged, to me was that in fact they did know. After listening for a while, I read back to them a list of words various board members had used in describing the rebranding — “livelier,” “more accessible,” “more suprising,” and other things along that line — and suggested that in fact they knew the answer to their question. Since no one questioned these descriptions, the discussion, I thought, was really over. They’d answered question one, and could move on to implementation.

And this is where I began suggesting that the group should — for the moment — put on the brakes. Too often I’ve seen classical music institutions, including very big ones, launch an initiative without quite knowing why. Not that the initiative (which in some cases was something I got hired to do) might have been a bad idea. But it wasn’t part of a larger plan, and wasn’t launched with any thought about how to measure its success.

(Or, closely allied to that, how long the initiative should run before the intstitution should decide whether it was a success or not. For instance, suppose you luanch a new concert series, designed to attract a new, young audience. Suppose you decide on an informal measure of success. The series should attract 1000 people to each concert, and at least come reasonably close to break even at the box office. So now how many years should you reasonably take to reach that goal? Five years is surely too many, one would surely be too few. After two years you might review your plans, seeing if you’d sold more tickets and lost less money in the second year — remembering, though, that your plans can only be tentative, because if you’ve never done a series like this before, and have few models in other institutions to look at, you learn about how the series actually works only by trying it out. Too few institutions, at least in my experience, think all this out in advance.)

So I suggested to the group I was consulting for that they make at least an informal plan, before trying anything new. Once they did that, they might get more ideas for new things to try. And, just as important (if not more important), they’d have some idea of what priority each new idea might have. For instance, if you think it might be fun to put a little pop music into your classical programming — not necessarily something the group I worked with was thinking of — should you do it right away? Maybe not, if the first step in your larger plan is to sell more tickets to your core audience. And if you want to program pop in part to attract a new, young audience, then maybe you want to wait until you”ve pla

nned how to tell that audience about your group, before you program pop to reach them.

But on the other hand, if you’re programming pop because the people in the group really likes the music, then maybe you want to do it now, despite everything I’ve said. And if you don’t like pop — this is a crucial point — then almost certainly you shouldn’t program it, no matter how good an idea it might otherwise seem. Only do things — as you spread your wings in new directions — that are close to your heart artistically! Otherwise you forfeit the entire reason for your existence.

My final suggestions had to do with the group’s website. It needed work. Everyone agreed on that — the director, the board, the administrative head, everybody. And people had ideas about what a new website might be like.

Even so, I counselled waiting. Again, the group should figure out, at least in outline, what its larger plan might be. That, once again, might tell it things about what should be on the website. And, again crucially, about what the priority might be for various things to put on the site, and also for the resdesign as a whole. Maybe you don’t need to do it just yet. If your first priority is to sell more tickets to your core audience, then the website you have might be good enough for that, and you only need to redesign it when you’re moving to attract new people. If you plan to personalize your group by featuring its musicians, then fill the site full of statements from them, and videos in which they tell the world who they are. But if this isn’t your plan, or if it’s something you’re only going to do further down the line, then hold off on these videos and written statement, fun and tempting as they might otherwise be.

Which let to my final thought about the website. Redesigning the site could be a lot of fun, if the group had ideas, and a good designer. It also gives an immediate payoff — there’s our new website! We love it! But a harder, less immediately rewarding job is to get people going to the site. How do you do that, no matter how wonderful the site might be? And what’s the use of having an exciting new website, if nobody visits it?

Maybe the plan to get people to the site involves doing new, surprising, attention-getting things out in the physical world. If that’s the case, then figure out what those might be before you redesign the site, or at least concurrently with the redesign. And since attracting people to the site is very likely a more difficult discussion than the redesign, make sure to have that conversation — and make those plans — before the redesign, or (again) at least concurrently.

Those were some of my consulting thoughts. Much less exciting than many of the things I talk about in this blog, but just as important.

I’m available, needless to say, for consulting work with others. E-mail me to find out more. 

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  1. Maura says

    Thanks for this. I see the value for this advice both at the level of my personal work and in my company as a whole. I think arts organizations sometimes worry that they are behind the times and it can make us desperate in our attempts to recruit new audiences.

    You mentioned avoiding ideas for their own sake, especially if they clash with the artistic integrity of the group. How would a strategic plan and/or defined mission play into that?

    I’d think that the plan would take for granted that everthing in it would fit the organization’s artistic mission. But I also think it’s important to make sure everybody knows this, because so often there’s a temptation to do things soley to get attention, or to get people to buy tickets. Your goal, instead, should be to get people to pay attention to the things you love doing, the things at the core of your mission, and for people to buy tickets to see and hear you doing those things.

    This doesn’t mean, though, that there won’t be gray areas, especially when groups are branching out in new directions. This very question came up yesterday when I was talking to students at the National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland. I suggested that people might relax about the dilemma, and — unless their gut tells them for sure that something conflicts with their artistic principles — just try things, and see if they work. As long as you don’t fatally compromise yourself, you can always pull back from something that, when you do it, turns out not to feel quite right.

  2. richard says

    Well, I think classical musicd organizations need to look at underwriting clubs like “Le Poussin Rouge”. Fat chance, but a guy can dream.

    I’d hate to see LPR start to depend on mainstream classical music money, because with that would surely come mainstream classical music control. The mainstream institutions, in my view, should start their own clubs, and learn from their own experience what works in a club environment.

  3. says

    good counsel — and perhaps examples which will help others understand a bit about what the strategy part of strategic planning involves.


  4. says

    Greg – great post. I happen to work for an organization which could easily be the one you described here but its not and, as you say, discretion is the best policy.

    I just wanted to throw in my two-cents worth of total agreement. A few key questions early in the planning (especially for online initiatives) can go a long way. Why are we doing this? what is similar/different about what other site/organizations/people do? Do we know that our fans/audience/members want this or use this? when will we evaluate this project? how will we measure it to have an idea about it’s relative success/failure six-months or a year later? and on and on and on….

    As I still (barely) hang on to my youthful demographic, and work in non-profit land, it can be very frustrating to see all the misfires as organizations make strides down the “interwebs.” I’m happy they are doing something… but not always very happy about how they are doing it.