Managers of all sorts, including arts managers, frequently have to decide about complexity. When we select technology tools, rent/build/buy buildings, make policy, build teams, or develop work processes, we’re calibrating how complex those things need to be against how much time, attention, and money our audiences and organizations actually have to navigate them. If a solution is too simple, it gets flummoxed when it meets reality. If it’s too complex, it unnecessarily exhausts the organization with entangled demands.
Think, for example, about ticketing. If your organization works entirely through day-of-event, walk-up attendance – without a need to capture names and cultivate donors – a basic point-of-sale system is entirely fine. Even a cash box and a card table can do the trick (although credit card processing is probably a baseline). Choosing a system that does a lot more than that would only add drag and distraction for the audience and the staff. But that same approach in a high-volume, donor-driven, loyalty-optimizing arts organization would be unworkable.
The same is true for arts facilities. If perfect acoustics, sightlines, assigned seats, complex stage rigging, sound systems, catering space, and beyond aren’t essential to the work or its meaningful connection to an audience, they are, instead, cost factors in time and money that pull your focus.
At such decision points, it’s tempting either to overreach or entrench. Overreach sounds like “we don’t need all these features or details or processes, but we might someday.” Entrenchment sounds like “sure, there’s growing friction and frustration in our current system, but it’s been serving us well for a long time.”
The Goldilocks response – not too much, not too little – lives at the shifting intersection of two ideas:
Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.Attributed (probably incorrectly) to Albert Einstein
Any control system needs a repertory of responses at least as various as the system it seeks to control.My restatement of W. Ross Ashby’s “Law of Requisite Variety“
The first idea calls us to reduce every system to its most essential requirements: what do we really need this system to do and what is the absolute minimum structure, scale, complexity do we need to do that? The second idea calls us to interrogate that baseline against our lived experience: of the billion complexities a particular aspect of the world contains, which do we actually care about, and how must our system be responsive to those?
These bracketing ideas encourage us to find the “simplest possible” system – when selecting or building a policy, practice, technology, physical space, analysis/evaluation approach, and such – while adjusting what “simplest possible” means as our efforts or environments change. If you are drawn to highly complex and shiny systems, this tension can pull you back to reality. If you are drawn to steady-on, muddle-through, the-old-ways-work entrenchment, this tension can nudge you forward.