Running Together

“If you want to run fast, run alone.  If you want to run far, run together.”

–African Proverb

My wife had mentioned the above proverb the other day—she had heard it as part of a strategic planning session she had been to at work.  There is a great deal of wisdom in these words, but I was particularly struck at how it related to the ongoing Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute.

From my opinion, one of the cardinal errors that the Orchestra’s leaders made was deciding to solve the Orchestra’s financial problems on their own, relying on their own opinions, expertise and values to the exclusion of other stakeholders in the organization.  The musicians, for example, have in my opinion been treated as the problem, and been systematically marginalized in the search for a solution.  Leadership has been running alone.

The notion of running alone is evident in another way, too.  The individuals who make up the board and upper management are for the most part drawn from a single economic group and represent a uniformity of experience and vision—they overwhelmingly come from the ranks of business executives.  Obviously they are not all single-minded automatons, and it seems there are some that have disagreed with the board’s strategy and might be working towards an independent solution.  But thus far their similarities have overwhelmed their individual differences, and the board and upper management have functioned as a single player in this struggle.

To the other part of the proverb, this single-minded board chose to move fast.  Seeing the financial difficulties of the Orchestra as a structural problem—deeply embedded, pervasive and fundamental to the organization—they chose to eliminate it quickly and thoroughly, all at once.  They would immediately implement a new business model that would radically reshape the financial structures and eliminate an ongoing deficit in a single season.  Call it a “rip the band-aid off” strategy.

But would this dramatic action provide a solid foundation for future growth?  Would the dramatic action cause more damage than was needed, or even be sustainable over the long-term?  Based on my observation of the situation, I fear that the harsh demands made by management, and the tactics used to implement them, have caused a backlash from other members of the Orchestra’s extended family, including donors, audience members, community members… and of course the musicians.  All labor disputes brings tension by their very nature, but the horrified reaction from observers all over the country (as well as internationally) has been on another level altogether.  The Minnesota Orchestra has become a cautionary tale around the world.

How different the situation might have been if the board and management had chosen to run together, involving all the constituents of the Orchestra.

I point out that I have severe reservations about many of their forecasts (detailed here, and elsewhere), but I fully recognize the Orchestra took a huge financial hit as a result of the Great Recession.  That said, I realize it doesn’t matter if corporate philanthropy has returned to its pre-2008 highs (shown here), or that arts funding has regained all its lost ground (shown here) or that the arts scene in the Twin Cities is flourishing (shown here) if your organization is still struggling.  Similarly, even if McDonald’s is having a banner year, individual franchises can still be in financial trouble.

But still, let us assume for a moment that the management’s statements about the Orchestra’s finances are essentially true.  Let us suppose that in 2009 the Orchestra leaders realized they were on a crash course to financial ruin, with donations plummeting, ticket sales in the doldrums, and the endowment falling below the threshold where they could legally withdraw money.  On top of that, the leaders were well along on their plans to refurbish Orchestra Hall—in fact they had passed the point of no return and would have to go forward or return the accumulated donations.  How could they have acted to allow the organization to run far, to sustain itself over the long-term instead of searching for a short term solution?

Similarly, since they are still at a crisis point today, what could they do now?

Here’s my suggestions to let them run farther… by running together.

1. Be inclusive.  This is the core of my idea, that you have to build consensus and involve all stakeholders in solving the problem.  This maximizes the resources you have on-hand to solve the crisis, and ultimately helps to ensure that there is widespread buy-in to a solution.  And it’s not just me saying this… are you aware of the works of Scott Page?  His landmark work, The Difference, has revolutionized how we think in groups–and shows how collective wisdom often exceeds the sum of its parts.  Page, a professor of complex systems at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, has shown that diverse groups tend to outperform homogeneous groups, even if the members of the latter group are more capable or quantifiably more intelligent.  Again and again, he was able to prove that groups displaying a range of perspectives outperformed groups of like-minded experts—diversity yields superior outcomes.

My fear is that the board lacks the diversity of perspective and experience to tackle the problem of truly creating a new, sustainable business model for the Orchestra.  This is not at all to take away from each member’s skill, resources, accomplishments and experiences.  Not at all, they clearly are at the top of their game and could never have risen to their current positions without these things.   But they all so closely mirror each other that they aren’t able to come up with creative solutions, make seemingly “crazy” connections, see unusual patterns, or to effectively think outside the box.  What is needed is not just business acumen (although that is crucial), but experience in the art form itself, experience with different kinds of solutions, and an overall different perspective.

2. Don’t be afraid to lose control of the conversation. Along with this, there is often too much fear that a diverse group made up of people with different viewpoints will be inefficient.  Or be uncontrollable.  I’ve written before that this is not the case—that all kinds of studies have shown that conflict can be healthy and helpful for groups.  This idea was powerfully explored in an article in the Harvard Business Review, “How to Pick a Good Fight,” and has been borne out in many subsequent works.  In short, managers who try too hard to control a discussion and trample dissent are doing themselves a disservice; innovation and creative solutions germinate and thrive in a give-and-take culture where ideas—even preposterous-sounding ones—are fully vetted, and fully debated.  No one is advocating a toxic environment of backstabbing and personal bickering.  But healthy conflict leads to better problem-solving; arguing over ideas ensures that options, potentialities and consequences are fully fleshed out.  As a result, an organization can move forward with its eyes wide open.

3.  Increase transparency.  To truly bring people into the discussion, you have to give them the information they need.  For this problem, this means being even more open about the Orchestra’s financial health.  I know, management claims they are the “most financially analyzed orchestra in the country’s history” (which might surprise those like Philadelphia that went through bankruptcy).  I know, management claims they have provided 1,500 pages of documents to the musicians.  But I point out that you haven’t provided 1,500 useful documents.   As the musicians have indicated, you need to provide a fuller financial analysis that looks holistically at revenue and expenses, but also projections, capacity, and future expenses with a high degree of specificity.  Without these, it is impossible to accurately respond or make helpful suggestions.  This is why nearly every outside observer has urged you to provide an independent financial analysis.  This information is vital to have before someone can actively participate in finding a solution.   Remember, if you want the musicians to be part of the solution, you have to give them the information they need.  If they don’t think they have enough information, then they don’t have enough information.  They are not stalling, they are trying to understand.  Increased transparency will help them understand.

4. Brutal honesty.  This is not a time for subterfuge, for niceties, or hidden agendas.  If you want a real solution to a problem, and to truly engage people in finding this solution, you have to be honest.  But this is important—you can’t just speak honestly, you also have to listen honestly.  Do not be afraid of hearing a painful truth, and don’t try to stop someone from speaking it.

If the financial situation was as dire as the board has said, there should have been a much clearer reach to bring everyone on along together.  Structure a meeting where everyone was invited—not just the board members but the musicians, audience members, donors, corporate partners and staff.  But there’s no reason to stop there—bring in key representatives from outside the Orchestra’s principal sphere, including representatives from other orchestras around the country, or other non-profits here in town.

To win this race, you need to run together.

* * *

Let me offer another, more concrete example of how all this could work in practice and will effectively allow you “run together” as the proverb says.  There is a fascinating technique used to pull large groups together and to explore broad-based, organization-wide solutions to pressing problems:  Open Spaces Technology.

Open Spaces

Open Spaces Technology is the brainchild of Harrison Owen, who hit upon the idea, as he says, “at the bottom of his second martini.”  It springs from two sources of inspiration, with the first being from attending large-scale conferences. Owen noted that most of the truly valuable conversations and discussions took place in the “free” spaces—the breaks, the lunches and after-hours social events in the evenings. These informal, open times, provided a space where issues that individuals really feel strongly about could be raised and dealt with amongst similarly interested, though not necessarily like-minded people, who naturally gather together and who want to be there and listen and contribute. This is usually the opposite of the formal presentations, which were carefully staged and formalized.  The lesson was that people are better at raising issues relevant to them than experts, in the time and place of their choosing.

The other source of inspiration came from time he spent working as a pastor and community organizer in West Africa.  A West African village has developed a social mechanism to deal with village issues, where anyone is free to place in the public forum issues that are urgent or burning for them. A social “market place” of a particular kind then operates which gathers people around those issues and deals with them.  This provides a mechanism to shape and direct Open Spaces towards a particular objective.

Based on these inspirations, Owen created a new meeting format that focuses on interactions where people self-segregate themselves into groups that take on specific tasks or questions.  Open Spaces’ heart is a marketplace of ideas where people “shop around” for the topics and discussions that are most interesting to them, within a framework of tackling a larger issue. Open Spaces has taken off as an technique for facilitating discussions—it has been embraced for its ability to develop innovative solutions, build buy-in from across an organization, and empower all stakeholders to become more deeply involved.  It is used by people in a variety of fields, from arts administrators to engineers at NASA.

Owen notes that there are a few key “indicators” of where an Open Spaces discussion will be particularly effective.  Essentially, there must be:

  1. complexity, in term of the tasks to be done or outcomes achieved;
  2. diversity, in terms of the people involved and/or needed to make any solution work;
  3. real or potential conflict, meaning people really care about the central issue or purpose; and
  4. urgency, meaning that the time to act was “yesterday”.

I think we can agree that the Orchestra dispute contains all of these.


What are the guiding principles of an Open Spaces event?

First is its total rejection of pre-determined ends or solutions. The key idea of an Open Spaces discussion is that while there are some guiding rules, it has an overall free-form structure where all things develop organically in response to the conditions on the ground and the makeup of the group.  Self-organization is its defining feature.

Equally important is the lack of hierarchy.  All the stakeholders of an organization, business, team, or so forth are welcome to participate, and they do so as equals.  Position and rank mean nothing in Open Spaces—what is truly important is a person’s experience, perspective, knowledge, passion vision, and problem-solving skills.  In other words, the participant’s wisdom; it is assumed that the wisdom to solve the problem at hand is in the room.  It is also important to note that everyone within the organization or team is free to attend or to not attend—maximum participation is encouraged to ensure diversity of thought and background, but no one faces implicit or explicit pressure to attend if they don’t want to.  Forced participation either at the event as a whole, or individual parts of it would undermine the work and pull focus from those who do want to be involved.

How does it work?

The format for Open Spaces is that all gather a centralized meeting point in a circle where all participants have an equal position and can all see each other freely.  The theme of the event and is explained (i.e. how to balance artistic and financial stability).

Then, something extraordinary happens—the organic creation of the day’s agenda.  Participants who are so inclined are encouraged to move to the center of the meeting and publically pose a question that they want explored or have been thinking about, within the framework of the overall topic (i.e. how can we increase attendance at new music concerts, or what’s the future of social media-based marketing). These “askers” don’t need to supply the answer, but simply to bring the question forward for discussion.  The asker then announces a time and place where a breakout session will convene to discuss this topic; all people interested in this breakout are welcome to join.  Other people similarly move and propose questions and meeting locations until all group’s assorted questions have been asked and assigned a breakout locations.  Ideally, there will be a wide range of breakout sessions set up tacking the larger issue from many different angles.

At this point, the main group divides, with all participants self-selecting which discussion they want to attend, either as a person interested in the question or as someone who has particular insight into the topic.  These breakout sessions usually last an hour or so, but are not bound specifically by time and can end early or be extended based on the feedback of the people who are participating.  If no one attends a breakout session, the asker can simply move to another group or use the time to reflect alone on the topic—usually having an hour dedicated to deep thinking about a topic is valuable in and of itself.  A list of all breakout sessions with their times and locations is kept at the main meeting point, and sessions continue throughout the day, or longer depending on the length of the Open Spaces event.

At each breakout session there is a scribe who writes down the key ideas.  At the end of the day, the full group reconvenes to debrief about the various topics, give time for further discussion and allow for the formulation of next steps.  All the accumulated notes are transcribed and offered to all interested participants.

In his User’s Guide, Harrison Owen has articulated “the principles” and “one law” that are typically quoted and briefly explained during the opening briefing of an Open Spaces meeting. These explanations describe rather than control the process of the meeting. The principles and Owen’s explanations are:

  1. Whoever comes is the right group for the job.  The group doesn’t need the CEO and 100 people to get something done, but only people who care. And, absent the direction or control exerted in a traditional meeting, that’s who shows up in the various breakout sessions of an Open Spaces meeting.
  2. Whenever it starts is the right time.  Spirit and creativity do not run on the clock.
  3. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.  Once something has happened, it’s done—and no amount of fretting, complaining or otherwise rehashing can change that. Move on.
  4. When it’s over, it’s over. We never know how long it will take to resolve an issue, once raised, but that whenever the issue or work or conversation is finished, move on to the next thing. Don’t keep rehashing just because there’s 30 minutes left in the session. Do the work, not the time.

The “law” in question is law of two feet: if at any time you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else. In this way, all participants are given both the right and the responsibility to maximize their own learning and contribution, which the law assumes only they themselves can ultimately judge and control. When participants lose interest and get bored in a breakout session, or accomplish and share all that they can, the charge is to move on. The “polite” thing to do is going off to do something else. Often, a person moving from one session to another can help cross-pollinate ideas and provide a different perspective that is of value for another group looking at a problem from a different angle.

 * * *

This is just an idea, obviously explained in the most basic, skeletal way (there are many, many web resources about Open Spaces, and of course many works by Harrison Owen for those who want to know more).  But I think it offers a useful way of bringing the Orchestra—or any organization, really—together to effectively solve the huge, outstanding problems it faces.  If nothing else, it’s a fresh idea in a dispute that seems to have run out of them.

You’ve been running alone for some time—perhaps you should consider a different approach that lets you run together.



2 thoughts on “Running Together

  1. Scott-
    Thoughtful and measured as always, but this assumes that all parties are interested in running in the same direction, which increasingly seems to be not the case.


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