Creative Solutions

An article appeared recently in Slate—the noteworthy online magazine devoted to current affairs and culture—that speaks indirectly, but powerfully, to the ongoing Minnesota Orchestra dispute.

In the article “Inside the Box,” Jessica Olien makes the case that although we as a culture repeatedly say we value creative thinking and creative thinkers, in practice… we really don’t.  Some of our greatest heroes are those who come up with not just new answers to questions, but to different questions.  People like Van Gough or Steve Jobs.  But a slew of recent studies have shown that when we are actually presented with new modes of thinking or out of the box ideas, we instinctively recoil.

Moreover, we have deep-seated distrust for “creatives” who see the world differently or engage in creative activity.  Olien notes:

“Even in supposedly creative environments, in the creative departments of advertising agencies and editorial meetings at magazines, I’ve watched people with the most interesting—the most ‘out of the box’—ideas be ignored or ridiculed in favor of those who repeat an established solution.”

While the constant rejection and marginalization is painful for creative thinkers, Olien notes things are not all grim—this rejection can be liberating, too.  A study by Cornell shows that if you suspect you might not belong, the act of being rejected confirms your interpretation. The effect can free creative people from the need to fit in and allow them to pursue ideas that might be even further outside the box.

In the end, Olien clearly shows that while innovation is a current buzzword, and everyone says they want it, no one really wants it.

This has interesting implication for the ongoing dispute between the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) and its musicians.

On the one hand, I think there has been a trend to belittle or devalue the musicians as being flighty and erratic—somehow as being out of touch with reality.  This built-in prejudice shows up in many ways, even among people who should know better.

But there’s a deeper problem as well.  Let me explain.

I concluded some time ago that the MOA leadership (particularly the upper echelon of its leadership) is no longer fighting to resolve the situation, but are merely fighting to win at all costs.

But surely not everyone on the board feels that way.  Looking over the overall list of the board members and the administrative staff, I firmly believe that there are many who are not fighting simply to crush the musicians or their union, and really do want the organization to thrive as a world-class symphony orchestra.  These folks are accomplished, intelligent, and have histories of running complex organizations.

So why are they supporting the deeply flawed business plan?  And why are they at least implicitly supporting the destructive strategy being used to implement it?

I think Jessica Olien points at one reason for this—that when faced with a serious problem, we become much more cautious and jettison creative thinking as somehow being risky and dangerous.

I’m convinced that’s what’s happening here.  The sad truth is that looking about over the difficult financial situation the Orchestra was facing, many board members and other leaders hunkered down and decided to adopt a cautious, defensive approach.  Specifically, they’ve fallen into the following traps:

  • We’ve Come Too Far to Turn Back Now!”  They became fearful that they had already had too much invested in the situation to retreat now.  And further, that they had to keep pushing ahead or everything they had done up to that point would have been in vain.  This has locked in their thinking and given them no room to maneuver.
  • Become Too Risk-Adverse.  They have adopted a defensive strategy that is predicated on desperately holding on to what you have.  While possibly helpful in the short-term, this strategy doesn’t address the long-term structural issues that live music, and classical music in particular faces.
  • Overly Reliant on the Familiar.  An instinctive reaction—once they found themselves in an uncomfortable, difficult situation, they fell back into an area where they did feel comfortable.  Specifically, they fell back on strategies they felt were tried and true based on their own businesses.
  • Limited Access to Information.  They felt that they needed a unified front, so access to information—and an ability to actively partake in discussions—was severely limited.
  • Pigeon-holed People.  Sadly, they have locked people into fixed roles, assuming that musicians knew nothing about finances or strategic planning, arguing instead that only the business-minded members of the board had sufficient skills in these areas.  Problem-solving was hampered by homogeneity of thought.
  • Rally Around the Flag!”  They fell into the trap of believing they had to act with common purpose—once a decision was reached, they had to act, and act decisively.  As a result, there was a forced consensus that marginalized dissenting voices.  Musicians, staff, board members and even Osmo himself were forced to toe the company line… or else.

There is a problem with all of these things.  As Einstein is reported to have said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” In the face of large-scale problems facing the Orchestra in the years ahead, we desperately need to new ideas and truly creative responses.

And I’m sorry—having the Orchestra play more pop music is not a creative response.  It is just another example of the defensive, overly-cautious group-think.

We need to foster creative thinking at all levels of the organization, and develop creative solutions to the problems we’re facing.  Here’s a partial list of suggestions to do so:

Break the existing organizational structure.  As part of new direction for the Orchestra, and to ensure greater diversity of thought at all levels, we should have people cross train or take on tasks outside of their traditional roles.  For example, put musicians on the governing structure of the board.  Or, have them involved in marketing or development task forces—their success with producing their own concert series shows they have more than a little savvy in these areas.  Also, what about having board members being directly involved in these areas as well?  Surly there are some rising stars who would love to offer their expertise in a more practical way.  Or maybe partner a board member with a musician for a couple of weeks to experience what life is like for a performer… or to get a crash course in playing an instrument.  Anything that can blur lines and keep people from being locked into a single organizational role.

Bring in the right personnel.  Jumping off the point above, there is a troubling trend in non-profit administration that you list all the top companies in town and invite the highest-ranking member from each to sit on your board.  The natural assumption is that this is the only way to secure corporate dollars.  There’s a kernel of truth there, but since every organization in town tries this same technique, there is a mad scramble for a few key people that may become so overly booked that they can’t give each organization the attention it needs.  So, what about approaching this situation in a different way…asking these corporations for a list of young, rising stars to be board candidates instead of highly-placed veterans?  Sure, they may be youngish, but they have the skills needed, and probably have a better connection with one of the demographics the Orchestra is trying to pursue: younger professionals.  These folks will also probably give the Orchestra more time and attention.  Also, I’m sad to point out that there are now a great number of musician slots to fill.  When making a hire, the Orchestra obviously needs to make musicianship the top priority.  But the Orchestra has also made it a point to look at the person as a whole, to see what he or she brings to the organization.  This should be continued, and even amplified to see what kind of soft skills new recruits bring to the table.

Bring in outside allies.  One of the more inspiring things to happen as a result of the ongoing lockout is that audience advocacy groups have sprung up, stepped up to the plate and taken an active role in the health of the Orchestra.  The days when music lovers did nothing but buy tickets, sit back and enjoy the music are gone.  Embrace this change.  How can this be used to build audiences, ensure greater artistry, or otherwise engage in the community?

Look to others’ success.  There are orchestras thriving across the country.  Look to them for models, but don’t simply adopt these models uncritically.  What were the local conditions that helped them succeed, and what parallels are there here in Minnesota?  What programs have been successful, and why?  What seemingly great ideas have crashed and burned?  Don’t just talk to the leadership… what do the worker bees who actually implemented these ideas think?  The Minnesota Orchestra has a wealth of experience, wisdom, and ideas… but so do our peers.

Don’t be afraid of conflict.  A while back, I wrote a blog about a Harvard Business Review article that focused on the benefits of healthy conflict within an organization.  Embrace that there are many solutions to a difficult problem.  And rather than simply presenting a united front and doubling down when confronted with the fact that our ideas may be wrong, we have to explore options and challenge group think.

Look to the bigger picture.  Success cannot be judged solely by one criteria, such as finances alone.  That limits ideas and leads to narrow thinking.  We have to think about the Orchestra’s challenges and strengths in more holistic terms, which will invite more creative ideas about the future.  Some months back I wrote about the “triple bottom line” as a useful tool for developing a strategic plan.  The benefit of balancing multiple goals is that it forces you to come up explore several different perspectives, make interesting connections and formulate innovative solutions rather than to simply chart the path of least resistance.

For some time, I’ve felt that the leaders of the Minnesota Orchestra have hunkered down and adopted overly cautious, overly-simplistic solutions in response to the organization’s challenges.  And to Jennifer Olien’s point, even people who have no particular axe to grind with the musicians have fallen into this trap.

In a way this is understandable; it is not, however, what is required.  I’m convinced that at this point, a cautious “stay the course” strategy will be fatal for the organization.  If the Minnesota Orchestra is to thrive again, we’re going to need innovative solutions and bold action.

Let’s end the lockout and begin this process.  It’s time for some creative problem solving—with everyone involved.


Mask From Teotihuacan


4 thoughts on “Creative Solutions

  1. There is also the “solution” of believing that the musicians would cave in a matter of weeks under withering board righteousness. Strangely enough, that didn’t happen, and no one was creative enough to have thiught of plan B.


  2. Right on, Scott! (as usual!) I’ve been thinking for quite some time that the lockout and proposed contract with huge cuts to musician costs is actually the most UNCREATIVE solution imaginable, and completely unsustainable in the long run, especially when one considers the “triple bottom line” (which I’ve heard referred to as: people, prosperity, and the planet). The lockout of course has already caused some of the best people to leave the organization, alienated large swaths of the community, and gouged 2/3 of the orchestra’s revenue stream (i.e., donations and ticket sales). Working together (yes, I’m still hopeful of this!), musicians and management will have a lot of work ahead to rebuild these two pillars of sustainability.

    As for the third pillar–the planet–I wonder how many symphonies have been inspired by nature? Undoubtedly there have been many (Beethoven’s 6th, Sibelius, Dvorak…), so one idea is to have nature-themed concerts, perhaps even partnering with environmental organizations like the Nature Conservancy or the Wilderness Society to raise awareness of particular environmental problems. Heck, maybe even play in front of an IMAX-like backdrop! This could be a win-win by growing “audiences” in both non-profit sectors. I’m sure environmental themes would be a big hit at kinder concerts, too.


  3. Even though we have to assume most board members were hand picked by Henson, I have been totally mystified why at least some of the members have not come forth to challenge the actions of Henson and the Executive Committee. Certainly, they cannot all be in lock-step agreement on this 14 month mission to destroy the orchestra.

    Scott: your commentary on this whole sorry situation has been invaluable.


  4. The damage this management and board have done to the orchestral association, to the musicians, and to Music itself, can never be forgotten or forgiven. “Uncreative” does not begin to describe it — “criminal” comes to mind. The newly renovated Orchestra Hall interior will forever remind us of the financial hell some of the players have been put through during this endless and unethical lockout: Dark-gray tiers have replaced the original rose-colored panels, as though dark clouds have overtaken the room, which is certainly the case at the moment.


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