The Unanswered Question (and the only one arts administrators need to ask.)
Why? It’s possibly the most annoying question in any language. But it is also one of the strongest tools we have to cutting through the excess that slows down our organization’s work. Think of “WHY?” as organizational Drano®. Asking this question can clear the way for your organization’s course of action to achieving your mission. It can also be used to improve workflows, staff efficiency, and relieve tons of negative energy and feelings your staff may be working under. It can change your working conditions in ways that inspire members of the organization to fully commit themselves to your organization’s cause.
Use WHY? to weed the garden.
If the focus of this whole process is to better serve your constituency or audience—then ask yourself why do they need your organization? What do we provide that cannot be obtained through another organization? If your organization has a mission statement, then now is the time to look at the sacred mission statement and shine the burning light of WHY? onto it. Let’s take a look at an example. If you are an orchestra and your mission is to present concerts to audiences of every age, then you might be asking the following questions: “If our mission mentions nothing about music education, then why do we spend a third of our budget on teaching artists in the schools?” “If the founding mission of this organization states that we are to present concerts of to audiences of every age, then why are we not equally programming concert experiences for the very old as well as the very young?” As you can see, the use of WHY? allows you to determine dissonance between your organization’s stated mission and your actions. If you can’t make a cogent answer to the question, then you know that an action taken by your organization or some part of it is not on board with the organizational plan.
I should mention that missions can change over time. However, changing your organization’s mission is nothing to take lightly. You must have good reason and strong support to do it. It is very common in the arts world for organizations to expand their missions in order to be able to apply for more funding for various projects. It happens frequently with education divisions in orchestras. Organizations who do this risk what I call the “Jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none” Syndrome. They become lukewarm at all of the things they do, and quality suffers across the board. We are not servants to the organizational budget, and the bottom line is not the ultimate importance in what we do. It is better for us to view ourselves as stewards to the people we serve. Our primary directive in all that we do is to consider the mission that was laid out in the charter of the organization. When we realign ourselves with our core mission, we can begin to reconcile mission and budget in ways so that one fully supports the other.
Your next step is to ask WHY? to everything and everyone, but also to yourself. Your actions and your intentions must also be examined. Do not judge whether a policy, and employee, or a process is bad or good based on whether or not they can back up their WHY? At this time, you are using the question as a way to gain a bird’s eye perspective of your organization—not to reenact the Spanish Inquisition. You are gathering data. In my next post, we will talk about how to analyze the data you’ve gathered to take your first action steps to changing your organization. We will learn how to remove the obstacles that slow down or obstruct your art from getting to the people you serve.