It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.Søren Kierkegaard
Anyone who teaches, trains, or develops managers in the arts – or anyone who strives to improve themselves in the work of Arts Management – faces a trick and a trap. The trick is that defining and describing what arts managers do, and how they might do it better, is necessarily built on “understanding backward” – making sense of options, approaches, and actions out of context and after the fact. But the trap is that management, itself, is a process of “living forward” – a context-entangled, confused mess of inputs, insights, muddling through, and making do.
Says Russell Ackoff (1979) in one of my favorite quotes on management:
Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes… Managers do not solve problems; they manage messes.
Understanding backward leads us to make distinctions, to categorize, to sort, to connect, and to filter. It leads us to believe that the world is separable into discernible chunks (production, marketing, finance, accounting, management), and that the majority of our engagement with that world is conscious and considered. Living forward leaves us to pattern-match and predict an unfolding reality that doesn’t present itself in distinctions, categories, connections, or ordered sorts and filters – rather, we are assembling reality on the fly, drawing from available patterns of experience. When moving through each moment, our conscious and considered selves are more passengers than drivers, with our sensory and evolutionary selves taking the wheel – or at least taking it first.
The trick of developing professional practice is that we can’t avoid understanding backward, and we need to teach that way. But the trap is that we can forget or ignore the radical difference between past-tense reflection and present-tense action. It’s too easy to present the work and world of an arts manager as ordered and rational, even when all of our lived experience insists that it is not.
Organizational theorist Karl Weick (1999) flagged this disconnect between backward-facing theories and forward-facing practice, suggesting that:
…one reason we theorize poorly about what matters most is because we use discourse that makes it hard to capture living forward. Living forward is a blend of thrownness, making do, journeys stitched together by faith, presumptions, expectations, alertness, and actions – all of which may amount to something, although we will know for sure what that something may be only when it is too late to do much about it.
Weick had a particular interest in high-stakes, high-intensity teamwork – as one example, among “smokejumpers” who fight forest fires (Weick 1993) – where the disconnect can and does lead to deadly results. But his work also speaks to slower-pace, lower-stakes efforts in any endeavor.
Our general impulse, when trying to teach people to succeed in complex domains, is to start with the clean, clear, and linear – the context-free “best practices” within discrete categories of action (management, marketing, finance, development, governance, etc.). But this reductive approach can trap people into narrow, rigid, and detached perception and action. Or, it can lead to straight-up confusion on the ground when lived reality doesn’t align with the ordered reality they were taught (a core discovery of Cognitive Flexibility Theory, Spiro et al 2019).
This disconnect is especially true for “ill-structured domains,” where “individual cases of knowledge application are typically multidimensional and there is considerable variability in structure and content across cases of the same nominal type” (Spiro et al 1996). To me, that sounds a lot like arts management.
So, in this gap between thinking backward and living forward, how do we develop professional capacity through teaching, coaching, writing, or other means? That’s becoming my focus for the coming semester, as I rethink and rewrite my Survey of Arts Management course, and the supporting materials I use to teach it. My guess is that it will require many ways of thinking, knowing, seeing, and doing. And it will require full engagement with the mess, rather than a detached and segmented analysis.
I will keep you posted as I work through it with my students.
As an essential frame, I keep returning to Audre Lorde (1977), who wrote:
When we view living, in the european mode, only as a problem to be solved, we then rely solely upon our ideas to make us free, for these were what the white fathers told us were precious. But as we become more in touch with our own ancient, black, non-european view of living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with, we learn more and more to cherish our feelings, and to respect those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and therefore lasting action comes.
Ackoff, Russell L. “The Future of Operational Research Is Past.” The Journal of the Operational Research Society 30, no. 2 (February 1, 1979): 93–104. https://doi.org/10.2307/3009290.
Lorde, Audre. “Poems Are Not Luxuries.” Chrysalis, a Magazine of Women’s Culture, no. 3 (March 1977): 7–9.
Spiro, Rand J., Paul J. Feltovich, and Richard L. Coulson. “Two Epistemic World-Views: Prefigurative Schemas and Learning in Complex Domains.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 10, no. 7 (1996): 51–61. https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1099-0720(199611)10:7<51::AID-ACP437>3.0.CO;2-F.
Spiro, Rand J., Paul J. Feltovich, Aric Gaunt, Ying Hu, Hannah Klautke, Cui Cheng, Ian Clemente, Sean Leahy, and Paul Ward. “Cognitive Flexibility Theory and the Accelerated Development of Adaptive Readiness and Adaptive Response to Novelty.” In The Oxford Handbook of Expertise. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198795872.013.41.
Weick, Karl E. “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster.” Administrative Science Quarterly 38 (1993): 628–52. https://doi.org/10.2307/2393339.
Weick, Karl E. “That’s Moving: Theories That Matter.” Journal of Management Inquiry 8, no. 2 (1999): 134–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/105649269982005.
Jim O'Connell says
This is great, Andrew! Thank you.
Since I began teaching eight years ago, I have referred to my introductory and capstone courses as “context courses,” as distinguished from “concept” or “content courses.” My colleagues in Business, Communication, and the arts disciplines introduce theories to and develop skills in my students. I try to provide them with a sense of how to apply those understandings and techniques in the professional maelstrom into which they hope to dive.
I appreciate your offering an intellectual framework that encapsulates that thinking.