Repetition & Establishing Good Habits

I was recently involved with a strategic planning session for a non-arts group where  staff and representatives of community constituencies  were intermingled at different tables.

When we were asked to brain storm solutions to serve a greater segment of the community, I mentioned the need to go out and learn about the unfulfilled needs of the community rather than focusing on the quality and range of services the organization wanted to offer. I suggested possibly conducting community listening sessions.

People at the table thought it was a great idea and wrote it down on the paper on the easel. When it came time to report out, that idea wasn’t mentioned but we only had a couple minutes so it was no big deal.

But as the other tables repeatedly mentioned going out to new areas to talk about all the great programs the organization had to offer without ever mentioning making an effort to learn if any of the programs were relevant to community needs, something inside me started to rebel and protest.

That is when I realized I had really started to internalize the ideas that research, different advocacy and policy groups, and individuals like Trevor O’Donnell have been communicating for awhile now.  I have mentioned this before – The focus can’t entirely be on your organization and how great you and the stuff you do are. It has to be about how what you do fulfills expectations your potential patron/participants have about a product or experience.

In the case of this blog’s readers, that experience is related to arts and culture.

While I have written about this idea a fair number of times now, I will freely admit my practice in implementing this concept is far from ideal.  Still, I see the fact that I bridled internally upon hearing proposals that ran counter to this concept as a positive step.

The experience has also reinforced for me that making progress is probably going to be a long term process of repetition –both to myself and aloud to others as I had in the strategic planning meeting.

Intellectually, we know repetition helps to establish good habits, but it is easy to forget this when faced with tepid progress. Lack of immediate investment by others isn’t necessarily an indication that the idea isn’t good. Merely that the presentation wasn’t effective and needs to be refined or that the people listening haven’t heard or considered the idea enough times for it to make sense as a valuable course of action.

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 ( 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. (

My most recent role was as Executive 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.


2 thoughts on “Repetition & Establishing Good Habits”

  1. The irony is that your suggestion didn’t meet their expectations 🙂 That is, they were immune it it mattering because it wasn’t even close to their radar, so it was, basically, impossible to SEE.

    My suspicion is that you can’t make that point intellectually, or simply by giving them your position. You need to DEMONSTRATE it for them, somehow. Most people learn to see outside the box more easily by doing.

    Next time you are invited to give your opinion on this topic you should bring something with you to share that will defy their expectations. Just to make the point. Could be anything, and it might depend on the audience, but choose something unfamiliar to them that they specifically do no already have a programmed desire for or interest in.

    Part of the expectation you can choose to challenge might be as simple as the context. Bringing a six-pack of beer might be carrying the demonstration too far, and some would fail to see beyond the affront to their righteous sensibilities, but you could try shopping in an international market for the most outlandish and unappealing sounding things. Or bring a deck of cards and ask them to play. Anything just to put them in the position of being ‘sold’ to. They need to see what it’s like having the shoe on the other foot. (Their foot)

    The big issue is that we perpetually stick to the framework we are most comfortable with. In this case they are the sellers, so in this context they can’t even begin to see what it’s like being sold to. You simply need to remind them.

    Do you recall the essay you wrote several years ago where Japanese businessmen (I think) were no longer using Japanese to conduct meetings, but English instead? The idea being that the hierarchies built into the Japanese language were damaging to the aims of their meetings, and they needed to sidestep the habitual patterns.

    What you are trying to get them to see is as BIG as that. They are too swept up in their own assumptions to see beyond the comfortable stereotypes.

    • All good insights Carter. And you are right on the nose with your recollection about the Japanese office. The biggest problem in this case was that I didn’t know I was being invited to provide feedback. Some of my colleagues and I thought we were just attending a progress report type presentation. If the situation occurred again, I wouldn’t know to come prepared. Though maybe I would be better at asking for clarification about expectations.


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