My ongoing analysis of the Orchestra’s strategic plan concludes here with part 4. My previous posts examined the Mission Statement and Executive Summary, Overview of the Current Situation, Achieving Financial Sustainability, and concludes with the “Vision for a Sound Future” section (does a “vision” make a sound?) on pages 24-33. And I’m sure many readers will be thrilled to note that this section is a bit more concise than the last one!
This section begins with a telling transition… once you make all the cuts promised (yet left unexplained) in the previous section, you will be able to do all the activities listed on the next few pages.
It is odd that you see these things so disconnected. It is, after all, the artistry that brings in the money that makes your financial goals possible. Cuts to the music—your product—will certainly have implications for your bottom line.
Let me put it another way. Making music isn’t the reward you get for balancing your books, it is the reason for your existence.
Prioritizing profits over your product sounds attractive, but it has repeatedly led to a death spiral for companies that have tried it—in an earlier post I looked at the sad fate of once-mighty Howard Johnson’s that bought into this mind-set. I think it provides an important cautionary tale for you.
This section is particularly disconcerting. Again, you are an arts organization, but as I pointed out, the art is relegated to pages 25 and 27 of a 33-page document. And when it does appear, it’s in a weak format that suggests—even more than its obscure placement—that you don’t have any idea what to do about it.
Let’s start with the title, “Artistic Programming.” You have chosen these words deliberately, but I’m struck by what you’re implying—that the planning is what’s important, not the actual performance or the final artistic product. The greatness of the Orchestra’s planning isn’t in question; the staff at Orchestra Hall designs thoughtful, creative seasons that do an admirable job of bringing in new works and beloved orchestral standards. But I’m curious that you don’t frame this section as “Artistic Excellence.” Right off the bat I’m struck that this choice of words allows you “succeed” simply by putting together a concert season that looks good on paper—and sells tickets—rather than performing great music… greatly.
It also suggests that a world-class conductor and world-class musicians are not, strictly speaking, critical to your success.
A few comments about the “strategies” that constitute the rest of this page. As with the other sections, you’ve scattered vague buzzwords around that allude to quality, but never make an effort to declare what you believe “quality” will look like. Or the steps you plan to achieve it. What does a “symphony orchestra of the highest artistic quality” mean? Who decides? How will you know when you have one? What’s your starting point, benchmarks, and ultimate goal?
Or, “initiate national and international touring strategies.” What does this mean? Are you going to convene a focus group? Compare airline fares? Brainstorm a way you could raise cash? Do you simply initiate a strategy… or do you successfully complete an actual tour?
“New concert formats” could mean anything from hour-long programs, streaming online, or a return to those infamous “carpet concerts” of the 1970s.
Again I urge you to look at SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based, as explained in my previous post) to help frame your strategies.
Look at your “action items” on this page. One key metric is (as it reads in its entirety) “touring.” Okay, but to where and to what result? How will you know if you’ve succeeded in touring, simply by arriving home safely? And for a document that puts such emphasis on finances, how do you propose to pay for these tours and what kind of return on investment do you hope to achieve?
Broadcasting—fine, but to what end? How many stations? How many households will you reach? How will this promote great artistry?
Let’s explore that last idea further. Another key goal is that you will “mark your first full season back in a renovated Orchestra Hall.” Great. How does that have anything to do with artistic excellence? You could put on a stinker of a concert that turns off audiences for the rest of the season.
Moreover, this activity does not, strictly speaking, have to have anything to do with artistic anything. You could throw a gala ball and give guided tours of the new facility. Such activities would mark the first full season back in the Hall, and fulfill your strategic goal without involving one note of music.
I think it is telling, and worrisome, that throughout this section, you don’t specifically refer to the Orchestra, your Music Director, or the musicians—the key components of your artistry who have to be engaged to put on a successful artistic product. Wouldn’t putting on a concert by a junior high jazz band fulfill your artistic goal? There is grave concern that you’re trying to push for more non-classical music at Orchestra Hall, because you perceive it will be more profitable. The fact that the Minnesota Orchestra is not, strictly speaking, necessary to complete your artistic goals only aggravates this concern.
And so it goes.
From years of working on strategic plans for arts organizations, I know how hard it is to create concrete goals around art. And I’m certainly not advocating you put down something like “Our concerts will be 20% more inspirational.” But there are ways to gauge this; qualitative analysis is nothing new.
But think deeper for a moment—what do you want the artistry to do? Why is it important? What will greater artistic quality lead to? There are questions that should be at the heart of every arts organization that wants to engage the community. Please put greater care into how you can measure it.
In summary, because you are so vague in this section, you miss a powerful opportunity to really explain your art here. This is your strategic plan, isn’t it? Great! What kind of music do you want to perform, or which will receive your greatest emphasis? Why have you chosen this particular form? What is your competitive advantage in a crowded marketplace? What are the roles in the process—who does what, when and how? What do you strive for in doing this kind of music…
…what is your artistic goal, and how will you know you’ve achieved it?
Again, this section seems to suffer from the fact that that you don’t really know what the goal community service truly is. Why are you doing these activities? What do you hope to achieve? How will the specific actions you list bring about your ultimate goal?
In honesty, looking at this spread leaves me with the distinct impression that community and educational outreach are about good publicity, rather than achieving a clearly-defined goal that will strengthen the organization.
I think it’s great to partner with local school districts… but why are you doing it? Is it to build an awareness of the process of music making? Develop good music listening habits? Demystify the concert experience? Which students, where? Will you work at the school district level, or individual schools? Or classrooms? With limited time and resources, how will you focus your efforts?
These are not idle questions. You have made it clear that a significant reason for changing the labor contract with your musicians is being done to make education and community outreach easier. So here’s a chance to explain why you are pushing so hard for these changes. How will the organization be stronger? How are the benefits going to outweigh the added burdens to staff and musicians? How many students will you reach, how many adults? How does this align with finances—is it a net gain in that it increases the number of ticket buyers? Is this a long-term investment, or do you hope to see immediate gains?
I applaud your efforts to emphasize community outreach—the fact that this is included in your multi-year strategic plan shows admirable foresight. Unfortunately, this foresight is undermined by the fact that there are no tangible details, clear goals, or any kind of metrics. There is great danger that you’ll just start doing a whole bunch of well-meaning projects that are fun, but don’t advance the organization in any meaningful way.
And I can’t help but notice that community service gets equal space to artistry in your strategic plan. Does that mean that community and educational outreach are by definition going to be given equal time, attention and resources as your core artistic endeavors?
I hate to keep repeating myself, but… well, it bears repeating. This section again perfectly encapsulates the problem with this strategic plan.
First, let me point out that you rely on a bunch of “exciting” key words without giving an indication of what you mean. What is an “interactive” interior? How is an interior “dynamic?” In honesty, this suggests futuristic building materials that somehow change shape and color, or otherwise respond to human stimulus.
But leaving wordsmithing aside, you’ve listed several laudable items as part of your “Vision for an Expanded Orchestra Hall.” But once again, they are vague and unrelated to your ultimate vision, and the ultimate purpose for refurbishing the building.
Simply put, why did you renovate? This is a strategic plan… so, what’s the strategy here?
For example, you list “iconic design” as a part of your vision. Great, it will have an iconic design. Why is that important? What will that result in? How does it get you closer to where you want to be? What does an iconic design get you that a non-iconic design won’t?
How will the building design provide a better customer experience? I don’t doubt that it can, but talk about these things in concrete terms, and how they help. Specifically. Will this enable personnel to move the audience members through in a more efficient manner, allowing for a smaller staff? Will it allow more people to patronize the bars, leading to increased revenue?
With this page, your strategic plan comes to a close. I want to reiterate that all of these things are important, but I have grave concerns that you can achieve them.
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A final word about your strategic plan. I recognize that it might be unfair to subject strategic plans to this level of scrutiny—they are often for internal consumption only, and are meant to be the start of an ongoing conversation. But I remind you that it is posted on the front page of your website, and you have invited the public to review it to learn about your hopes and aspirations for the future; you have also indicated it gives a rationale for why the lockout of the musicians is necessary.
Well, I have answered your invitation to look at your plan, and have found that beyond any problems I may have about incomplete data or unfounded assumptions, I am troubled by the thinking behind it.
I find that it raises more questions than it answers.