An Un-Strategic Plan Part 1: Beginnings

In honor of Labor Day, I’m delighted to take part in The Minnesota Orchestra Cross-Blog Event.  It’s a collection of more than a dozen bloggers, musicians, patrons, and administrators writing about the Orchestra’s devastating work stoppage. You can find all of the contributions in the following list and the authors encourage everyone to participate by sharing, commenting, or publishing something at your own culture blog. 

Thanks to all the writers for taking part—there’s some very good reading to be had!

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As of Labor Day 2013, the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute has been going on for 11 months—and an ultimate resolution seems as far away as ever.  One of the reasons this labor dispute has been so difficult to resolve is that more than a simple dispute about pay, contractual duties and such, it represents a clash between two fundamentally different view of what the organization should look like.

What should it do?  Who should it serve? How can it be supported?

It has been clear for some time that the MOA (Minnesota Orchestra Association) leadership wants to move the organization into a new, and some say radically different direction.  What do they collectively want?  What’s their overall plan?

Fortunately, we don’t have to guess.  The MOA leaders have given a clear indication of their intentions—a multi-year strategic plan listed on the front page of the Orchestra’s website.  It spans 33 pages and lays out their vision in several key areas, including the organization’s finances and the art itself.

I have to say, I’m not entirely impressed.

I’ve worked at several non-profits in my time, including many years at the Orchestra itself, and I’ve done my fair share of strategic planning.  Based on my experiences and background, I’m beginning a multi-part analysis of the document, looking both at its stated intentions and its unspoken undercurrents. As the document is reasonably long, my analysis requires more space than I can provide in a single blog.  Subsequent parts will appear throughout the week.

Some basic thoughts.  From my perspective, the plan presents several problems—many of which recur throughout the document.  In particular, I see five general weaknesses:

1. Too Generic.  Your strategic plan should be so closely associated with your organization, that if someone saw it without the coverpage or any identifiable markings, they could still tell it was yours simply by reading the text.  That’s not the case with this plan; too often it feels like the goals and tactics could be cut and pasted into the strategic plan of any other arts organization in the state.

2. Too vague and… well, obvious.  Too often, your big ideas are ones that every arts organization should be—and is—doing.  “Increase Board giving.” “Expand corporate sponsorship.” “Conduct market research.”  How are these different now from what you used to do?  What will change?  How is this different from, say, the Minnesota Opera?  I recognize that you’re trying to be concise in this document, but you need to give some sort of details.  This is the battle plan of your entire organization for the next few years.

3. Buzzwords rather than substance.  Repeatedly this document relies on strong action words we’ve all been taught to use on our resumes:  create, implement, initiate, maximize, etc. Worse is when these words are strung into catch phrases—you know, those business jargon phrases that everyone uses in pretty much the same way, without giving much thought to what they truly mean.  “Initiate national touring strategies” is one that comes to mind.  “Initiate” is a strong word, but it could mean anything from making a few calls to drawing up a budget or bringing in a focus group.  Also, what does “vital summer and holiday concerts” mean, especially since this phrase lacks a verb?  Will the Orchestra perform them?  Present other groups?  What makes them “vital?”

4. Too backwards looking.  Despite liberally adding such terms as “innovation” and “new,” there isn’t much here that’s different or points to a truly new direction.  Not that a strategic plan has to, heaven knows, but you’ve positioned this particular plan as a roadmap to future greatness—a roadmap that is necessary because the old way of doing things was unsustainable.  But nothing is new, nothing is fresh… it feels like you’re going to do the same things. With more feeling.  Worse, you never articulate any future goal that you’re striving for, let alone give any indication of how you will know once you’ve achieved it.  It feels more like a simple justification for making budget cuts in the present rather than reaching for the future.

5. There’s no art.  It is astonishing how tangential art is to your strategic plan—you are, after all, an arts organization.  It’s not just that it gets shunted to the end of the plan, it isn’t woven into the plan.  Why are you going to all this trouble, if not to make music?  How do issues of governance, marketing, fundraising intersect with the music? Why isn’t your art evaluated in the same way the finances are?  You should have a plan for creating great art, with objectives and benchmarks to know you’re succeeding… what you measure is what you are likely to pay attention to.

With those broad comments in place, let me turn to the strategic plan itself and discuss some of the particulars, beginning with the preliminary materials:  the mission statement and the executive summary.

 * * *

THE MISSION STATEMENT

This is been the source of much controversy, and in some way there seems little to be left to say.  I am pleased that you have changed the statement since this document was produced.  For reference:

As listed in your strategic plan:  “The Minnesota Orchestra Association inspires, educates and serves our community through internationally recognized performances of exceptional music delivered within in a financially sustainable structure.”

Now: “Our mission is to enrich, inspire and serve our community as a symphony orchestra internationally recognized for its artistic excellence.”

I appreciate the changes, but for me, they hardly end the controversy.  And I am not sure you understand why this is such a big concern, so let me explain.

For those who are upset with the removal of the terms “orchestral music,” and its replacement with the phrase, “financially sustainable structure,” the change isn’t just a tiff regarding semantics.  Rather, this gets to the heart of the labor dispute and vividly reveals the clash of competing visions.  Read literally, there is nothing to indicate that the Orchestra should perform, or will perform, classical music—the form of music for which it was created and is best able to supply.  The Orchestra, in fact, wouldn’t need to perform at all, or at least to perform live.  This mission statement could equally serve an organization that provides music archiving services—one that provides access to historic CDs.  Or it could serve a house radio band playing somewhere in a basement studio, or a pop band. Or a jazz trio.

And what on earth is meant by “financially sustainable?”  That is a sliding metric that can be achieved in any of a bewildering number of ways, from filling the stage with cheap high school performers to quadrupling the ticket prices.  Every business and organization has to stay financially solvent in order to exist, so this point is both obvious and redundant; it is roughly the equivalent of replacing those words with the phrase, “within legally acceptable bounds.”  Let us also note that if you really wanted to save money, you could do so by eliminating rehearsals, selling the Hall and performing concerts in some public space, with only one volunteer musician playing a song that is in the public domain.  According to this document, such a performance would still be in line with the mission of the Minnesota Orchestra.  Would it qualify as an orchestral concert?

In general, a mission statement should cover the following questions: Who are you?  What do you do?  Who do you do it for? What sets you apart from others… what is your competitive advantage?

Do you think your statement does so?

By your own account, the mission statement was re-worded as a goodwill gesture to bring musicians back to the table.  I’m sure you mean well, but that in and of itself raises red flags.  This is your mission statement—the clearest expression of what you do and what you hope to achieve.  Isn’t it slightly disconcerting that you agreed to change it as part of a negotiation tactic? Are you going to re-reword it next week?  Does it have any deeper meaning for your organization?  What about those employees who had already begun to shape their job-related duties based on that earlier mission statement?

With respect, this small change telling it suggests a lackadaisical approach to thinking about your organization right from the beginning.

* * *

THE EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

From your document:

The Minnesota Orchestral Association has many assets:

     •rich history of artistic excellence

     •strongly supportive local community, Board and management

     •established local, national & international artistic reputation

Our organization faces economic barriers that prevent us from taking full advantage of  these assets.

  Current opportunities to create a sustainable model include:

     •focus on artistic excellence and community service

     •renovation of Orchestra Hall, to be completed in 2013

     •new agreement with musicians in 2012

     •opportunities for growth in income streams

The overall goal of this plan is to create a business model that supports exceptional artistic quality with financial viability.

A plan that got off to a questionable start really runs aground here.  Let’s start with the list of assets you provide, particularly the first and third bullet points:

*rich history of artistic excellence

*established local, national & international artistic reputation

One thing that immediately jumps out about these that they are looking backwards.  Yes, the history of excellence is important, but when did this excellence occur?  Was it in the early 2000s?  During the tenure of Eiji Oue?  Dimitri Mitropoulos?  Has it continued up until now and you hope to prolong it?  Do you see the organization entering rebuilding phase now?  Or will it do so soon?  You are careful wordsmiths, so I’m surprised this point is so vague… it feels like boilerplate, or a marketing tagline.  This may seem like a petty semantic detail, but I fear it’s symptomatic of a larger problem of vision.

Likewise for the last bulleted asset; an established reputation is a good thing, but it isn’t enough.  Not for any company.  Brand loyalty can help you weather transitions, but there are certainly limitations—especially when your present-day product is lacking.  In an earlier blog I wrote about how Howard Johnson’s serves as a cautionary tale of a company that assumed that customer loyalty and patience were infinite. As a result, this once-mighty business behemoth is no longer with us.   Need a more current example?  The New York Times just ran a series of articles about Steve Ballmer’s tenure at Microsoft, noting that it so jealously held on to its past successes that it refused to face the future.  A line from the story tells it all:  “Past success can obscure new opportunities when emerging markets or technologies don’t operate by the same rules as a company’s tried-and-true products. And Microsoft has suffered from that kind of corporate myopia.”

These two assets listed here, however, imply that you are perfectly content to rest on your laurels, and are not overly concerned about maintaining standards.  They also imply you are not afraid of getting rid of the expensive things that make up today’s excellence, because people just trust your brand and won’t notice a difference.

Let’s also look at that middle asset you mention—the support of the community, board and management.  These areas of support are critical for success, to be sure.  But I can’t help but notice glaring omissions:  the musicians, the music director, and the staff.  You have assembled a world-class collection of musicians playing at the top of their game.  That is an asset.  They are involved in community outreach, fundraising events, teaching and other activities that keep audiences engaged.  That is an asset. Osmo has brought international acclaim and world-wide attention to the Orchestra.  That is an asset.  Osmo has brought BIS to record CDs at Orchestra Hall, greatly expanding the reach of its music.  That is an asset.  The Orchestra Hall staff, mirroring the on-stage accomplishments of the musicians, is one of the greatest groups of arts administrators in the state.  That is an asset.

The fact that your list only includes the community, the board, and the management is shockingly short-sighted, and telegraphs your intentions vividly.  It is no surprise you have shown such indifference to the musicians, Music Director and staff during the dispute—they are obviously incidental to your plan.

Before moving on, I want to point out something obvious seems to be missing in your list of assets—the present-day artistry of the ensemble.

Right now, in the words of Alex Ross this orchestra is one of the finest anywhere, playing at the highest level.  Right now, it is in a golden age of artistic excellence.

That is an asset.

As an aside, you famously own your own hall.  The problems with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra should convince you that having your own space can be a huge asset.  You acknowledge this by your efforts to refurbish the facility… so why isn’t this listed as an asset?

After the list of assets, you list your current opportunities.  The items you mention are good, if straightforward, but there is one more issue I take with your plan at this point.  In the very last line, you mention you want to achieve exceptional artistic quality along with financial viability.

“The overall goal of this plan is to create a business model that supports exceptional artistic quality with financial viability.”

I’m pleased that artistic excellence gets a shout out here, but up to this point—both in this specific document and in your public statements as a whole—there is nothing to indicate what you think artistic excellence looks like, how it is defined, or how it will be achieved.  Do you even need the Orchestra, or any orchestra, to deliver it?  I recognize this is the executive summary of a summary document, but the term is so briefly and carelessly tossed out it seems like an afterthought.  Or, again, as marketing boilerplate that is devoid of meaning.

* * *

Thanks for reading—Happy Labor Day!

Next up:  Assumptions that Assume Quite a Bit

 

Xochipilli

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13 thoughts on “An Un-Strategic Plan Part 1: Beginnings

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  5. You are right – it’s amazing the most concrete assets of the organization (the hall, musicians, director, staff) are excluded from the assets list, and what remains are the most fluid. How’s that strongly supportive local community doing after you locked them (the community) out for the year or so? I would say the established artistic reputation is still true, but the meaning has changed totally since this was written. The reputation was for excellence in performance, artistic quality – now it’s a reputation as the most toxic orchestral environment in the country which will haunt recruitment and fundraising for years, or until some of the more toxic elements are removed.

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