Toward Better Organizational Self-Evaluation

I have been thinking a bit more on my post about when you get your first hint that things aren’t going well for your organization. I haven’t thought up any more interesting warning signs, but I have been thinking about the “after action” conversations between staff members I mentioned.

It isn’t necessarily a sign that things are going downhill, but I do think at least a semi-formal post mortem discussion that leads to action is necessary for the health of the organization. If people gather around the water cooler, talk about how great the show was, sigh “if only more people were in the audience” and then go back to their desks leaving it to the marketing department to fix or hoping things are better next time around, that isn’t really constructive.

I have worked for companies where a post mortem discussion focused on the technical issues that needed to be fixed/learned from the next time around, but I have come to realize that development, marketing and audience services need to be given equal time. And they need to be at the same meeting with the technicians.

I will be the first to admit I don’t do this to the extent I am envisioning it should be done as I write this.

There may be smaller meetings prior to the post mortem where each department collects their thoughts so they can summarize their victories and challenges and keep the meeting short. But if you are going to embrace the idea that responsibility for marketing and development are shared across the organization, then every department probably needs to be largely present.

It is too easy otherwise for those who are not present to feel disconnected and uninvested in the central goals of the organization, inhibiting long term progress.

It can be easy to address concrete technical problems like broken equipment and missed cues. It is more difficult to figure out intangible things like how to attract audiences and motivate volunteers. When the decision is made to have a cabaret in the lobby prior shows in order to engage audiences as they arrive, it is better that the tech people were in on that entire discussion and know the motivation rather than being told they now needs to support a cabaret before every show.

Probably annually there should be a discussion about whether what the organization is doing is working. The ultimate decision will be up to the board, but the staff are all experts in their respective fields. They may be best positioned to say whether what the organization is doing is working. If the season is programmed out of a sense of obligation (seven shows, Shakespeare in the Fall, Musical in the Spring) rather than as an acknowledgement of the current operating environment and community, then the impetus for change and the supporting evidence may need to come from the organization’s staff.

Admittedly, it is difficult to move against the inertia of an organization’s history and business model for both staff and board. I don’t know that a staff would initiate a radical change. On the other hand, if they were regularly involved with providing feedback and saw it was often acted up, who know what people might feel empowered to suggest.

The impetus for this post came not only from thinking about the warning signs post from last month, but also thinking about a post I did from a year about about founding arts organizations with planned expiration dates. Though I thought expiration dates are a great idea, I wondered if anyone would have the fortitude to do it.

From there my thoughts turned to the concept that any business should always strive to do things a little better the next time around. I figure there is a better chance of arts organizations putting a self-evaluation process in place than planning for their own demise. Given that, I started thinking about what practices need to be in place to allow an arts organization to be responsive to changing times?

What I would really be interested in is knowing if anyone works for any sort of organization or business that has institutionalized a really effective self-reflective process like this. What about the corporate/organizational culture has made it so effective?

People will avoid the mechanical imposition of this sort of structure so there needs to be some whole hearted investment by the employees. I would bet that any organization that does a good job examining themselves also has a highly effective personnel review process.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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