Yes, But When She Said It, It Sounded Brilliant

Vu Le posted this week about a well-observed phenomenon he termed “Outsider Efficiency Bias.”  He defined this as basically having an outsider like a consultant come in and be lauded for making the same observations and recommendations that internal constituencies have.

Because this is a common experience, I figured someone would have already coined a term for it, but I couldn’t find one. Though logical fallacies like appeal to authority, appeal to accomplishment and appeal to novelty all intersect.

He points out this manifests in the hiring and contracting decisions organizations make and beyond just bringing consultants in for a week or two.

•Board members insisting on hiring an external candidate to be the ED instead of promoting a qualified person within the organization
•EDs/CEOs doing the same thing, hiring a staff from outside, often neglecting internal candidates
•Foundations hiring people from academia or the corporate world, who have no experience in nonprofit, to be the CEO
•Organizations hiring consultants from outside the geographic area instead of contracting with local consultants who live and work there
•Organizations hiring local consultants instead of just listening to their staff
•Conferences booking national and international speakers instead of working with local speakers

Le said he experienced this situation with his own board when they suggested bringing in an outsider to advise them about how to write blogs and articles better. If you aren’t aware, Vu Le is in fairly high demand as a speaker and panelist based on the content of his blog posts and use of social media to advocate for equity.

He acknowledges that an outsider perspective is important to the growth of organizations and is not discounting the need, but he lists many ways in which a bias toward outsiders can undermine the short and long term health of an organization.

I would have to copy and paste a significant portion of his post to include everything so I encourage people to read the original and think about how the bias exists in your organizational culture.

Since the Bible talks about a prophet being honored everywhere except in his own town and among his friends and family, this behavior is pretty deep seated but can be avoided with the investment of some thought and attention.

What’s Been Learned So Far About Offering Virtual Theatre

American Theatre released results of a survey about virtual theatre offerings during Covid this week. Respondents represent 64 organizations from 25 states.

As you might already imagine, the bad news is that virtual programming was not financially viable for nearly all organizations.

Many experienced a promising initial swell of audience interest in the early months of 2020, but also a disappointing and steady subsequent decline in interest over the past year or so. Companies that sold tickets at pre-pandemic prices almost uniformly experienced a significant dip both in number of tickets sold and box-office revenue compared to the outcomes of similar in-person plays produced during previous seasons; some companies experienced only moderate drops, while for others, the change was drastic.

[…]

Theatres that conducted their own surveys to gauge audience feedback on virtual offerings found that while the quality of the work was typically quite appreciated, audiences consistently expressed a strong preference for live, in-person theatre and saw the virtual version as a better-than-nothing alternative to no theatre at all.

Some theatres found their production costs were less than live performances, mostly due to having smaller casts, production and support crews. Others found it was actually more expensive to create virtual content.

There were some upsides reported, including expanded and increased access:

Many noted that virtual offerings served as an important way to engage their core audience base and maintain donor interest during a time when this would not be possible without the internet, producing ripple effects that cannot always easily be quantified: Most theatre companies reported increased donor support in the early months of the pandemic, and it’s possible though hard to measure whether a sustained virtual presence may have bolstered donor interest. Other companies who may not have seen an overall increase in ticket sales nonetheless reported a promising increase in viewership from younger virtual audiences.

…more than a third of respondents praised virtual theatre for increasing accessibility for those not able to attend in person, whether due to disability, health issues, transportation barriers, or living in rural areas far from the nearest theatre company. As Liz Lisle (she/her), managing director of Shotgun Players in San Francisco, put it, “For us, it is not an economic question—it is an accessibility and engagement question.” Measuring by revenue is “the wrong frame. Virtual theatre brings greater engagement.”

There is a great deal more detailed observation discussed in the article that can offer insight to organizations of multiple disciplines. One thing that seemed to be clear to most respondents is that providing virtual content isn’t simply a matter of putting cameras and sound equipment near a performance executed in a generally conventional way. The quality often compares unfavorably with professional video & film production.

Many respondents seemed to feel the best course was to provide content which supplemented or complemented a live performance. The value added element seemed more suited to achieving goals and fulfilling expectations.

Though that approach leaves people who have difficultly accessing physical spaces without the option of experience the full production. There is certainly an opportunity for those with the resources and expertise to meet an unmet need of providing virtual performances to this segment of the population nationally and perhaps internationally. I wouldn’t be surprised if people are already pursuing further experimentation with the virtual theatre form.

The American Theatre piece bears the title “The Jury Is In on Virtual Theatre,” but I think it is a little too early in the process of exploring virtual theatre offerings to make that claim.

When It Comes To Work, What Is The Cost-Benefit Between Lethargy And A Sense Of Belonging

Dan Pink pointed to a study (warning, ad heavy page) that suggests while office interruptions may be disruptive to one’s workflow, it ultimately creates a sense of worth and belonging for people. This is something to be considered both in terms of the conversation about shifting to working remotely and digital vs. in-person arts experiences. There seems to be an indication that as social creatures, the negatives of in-person work and play interactions may be outweighed by the positive.

The study which appears in the Journal of Applied Psychology was conducted at the University of Cincinnati:

Study authors surveyed a group of 111 employees twice per day for three full weeks. Each time, employees answered questions about their experiences at the office that day. More specifically, participants recorded if they had endured any interruptions, how mentally tired they felt, their sense of belonging, and their overall job satisfaction.

Those polls led the research team to conclude that while work interruptions in a vacuum can certainly lead to feeling more lethargic and dissatisfied, the social interactions that usually accompany those intrusions produce feelings of belonging and increased job satisfaction.

“Our study revealed that by providing this avenue for social interaction with one’s colleagues, work interruptions led to a greater sense of belonging. This sense of belonging, in turn, led to higher job satisfaction,” Dr. Puranik adds.

I am not necessarily advocating for returning to the office-centric work environment of yore. I felt like this was a relatively honest discussion of the dynamics of in-person office work. It would be interesting to see a similar study conducted with a larger sample size in a year or so when remote work has a chance to exist as a norm that (hopefully) is not necessitated by the existence of a pandemic. (It didn’t escape my notice that the researchers apparently interrupted people at work twice a day to ask them how they felt being interrupted at work.)

What I fear is that people will become acclimated to a lack of social contact and not value it as much as they do now. The lethargy and dissatisfaction people may experience when interrupted shouldn’t be discounted because a sense of belonging and job satisfaction are somehow more important or valuable. People may find the working from home uninterrupted raises their energy level and satisfaction and that is a good trade off for feeling disconnected.

It also bears considering that a work environment can be created where it isn’t a zero-sum between feeling a sense of belonging and lethargy. Those options haven’t really been explored.

But ultimately people feeling that a lack of social contact is an acceptable trade off is a bad situation for museums and live performing arts events. Digital offerings can prove a good substitute and keep people engaged when they are in a situation where they can’t be present in person, but it flattens the experience. It provides too much latitude to avoid and look away from even the least inconvenient, unchallenging situations.

I have discussed how I am definitely an introvert and have no problem being alone. There are times I don’t really want to go forth from my house, but am grateful I did after having an experience.

On Sunday, after locking up the building at 9:30 pm after our visual and performing arts event, I stood outside for 90 minutes talking to a kid that had been energized by the experience. I had already worked 8 days straight and done two 12+ hour days and had to be back at work the next morning, but I realized interacting with this 22 year old was going to be valuable for both of us. Even as I was talking to him, I was thinking that had we had this conversation in a Zoom meeting, it would have been so easy to open up other websites and watch videos/read other things or just sign off from the conversation rather than devote attention to each other for 1.5 hours.

While I would certainly be comfortable in a world absent of demands for me to be personally present, I can recognize that isn’t wholly constructive in the long run.

Sometimes You’re The Wind, Sometimes You’re The Weathervane

Seth Godin made an interesting post that intersects somewhat with the questions arts organizations are having about putting content on digital platforms. Alas, I don’t know that it provides any of the answers being sought but he makes a crucial point about not confusing distribution capacity with influence and power.

He start with the following statement:

To be powerful, a medium needs two things:
The ability to reach people who take action
The ability for someone in charge to change what those people see and hear and do

Then he provides a number of examples which illustrate that impressive statistics about the extent of reach can be essentially meaningless. This is something to keep in mind when people cite number of impressions for websites, broadcast or print media outlets. But on the other hand, he notes that sometimes the people with control are exerting it haphazardly without any sense of how to focus it effectively:

People in the music business are flummoxed by the number of new acts that are showing up out of nowhere and becoming hits on TikTok. They’re talking about how powerful this company is.

But it’s not. It’s simply reporting on what people are doing, not actively causing it.

The folks with the power are the anonymous engineers, tweaking algorithms without clear awareness of what the impact might be.

The last bit he writes puts me in mind of my ongoing discussion about how the criteria we use to measure the value of something is frequently irrelevant, but people will be convinced of it measure’s importance.

Google and Amazon used to invite authors to come speak, at the author’s expense. The implied promise was that they’re so powerful, access to their people was priceless. But the algorithm writers weren’t in the room. You ended up spending time with people who pretended they had influence, but were more like weatherpeople, not weather makers.

[…]

There are still cultural weather makers, but they might not be the people we think they are.

Certainly that last line applies to those of us who work in the arts and culture industry. Sometimes we are the weather makers and no one gives credit, but sometimes we think we are the weather makers and don’t recognize what is really moving the winds and tides.

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