TikTok As A New Employee Training Manual?

Daniel Pink made a tweet today that I immediately bookmarked so I could go back to it.

I hadn’t noticed at the time that this was year-end summary type article that reviewed the best advice entrepreneurs had given in 2020. There are a lot of interesting bits of insights covered here, some of which are more applicable to arts organizations than others.

The “What Would Your Replacement Do?” question referenced in Pink’s tweet was one of those with broad application. It refers to a mental exercise Upstart co-founder Dave Girouard would use to keep himself from getting too complacent:

…what would happen if tomorrow my board got together and fired me,” says Girouard….And if they bring her in and she starts at Upstart — what would she do differently than what I’m doing? I think about that for a while, and then I tell myself, ‘Why the hell aren’t you doing those things?’ It’s just this weird game I play to get myself to recognize that while I’m doing some things okay, I can be lulled into a place of feeling good about myself when I’m probably not doing some other things very well.”

The first bit of advice on the list caught my eye because it was a list of 40 questions to ask on interviews. The list is obviously written for the commercial sector and pretty heavily geared for start-ups there were still quite a number that would easily suit non-profit arts.

Things like: “What’s something that would only happen here but wouldn’t at other organizations?”, “When you’ve done your best work here, what about the culture has enabled you to do that?”, “What would 1:1’s be like with my direct manager? What types of topics would we discuss?”, “What is the title of the most senior underrepresented person at the company?”

“If I asked your investors what they’re worried about, what would they say?” –this one caught my attention because I immediately thought to replace “investors” with “board” which got me thinking about how well the organization might be communicating issues with the board and if the board was paying attention.

An article about Job To Be Done (JTBD) also caught my attention based on the statement: “People don’t simply buy products or services, they ‘hire’ them to make progress in specific circumstances.” This is often the case with people and arts and cultural experiences. People value the experiences across multiple dimensions.

Sunita Mohanty, who was interviewed for the article said she often uses the following prompt in relation to product development.

Which she says translates into the following: “Peloton JTBD: When I need an option to workout, but I can’t go to my favorite studio, help me to get a convenient and inspiring indoor workout, so I can feel my best for myself and my family.”

Off the top of my head, the way this might translate for an arts situation might be: “When I am seeking opportunities to spend time connecting with my family and friends, but I have trouble identifying places we feel completely welcomed, help us see ourselves and our stories so we feel acknowledged and valued in the broader community.

There is a lot of really valuable advice about hiring, evaluation, office culture, and diversity and inclusion listed in the article. As tempted as I am to cover them all, I don’t want to make this post super long. Many of the ideas intersect with other posts I have made or other articles that are out there.

But one idea that never came to my attention before was use of asynchronous video tools as a form of communication and new hire training.

In the early days of building Drift, I was using WhatsApp all the time. It was easy to record and send videos quickly. And so I started to communicate to my senior leadership team mostly asynchronously through video and audio messages,” says Cancel. “If we have a problem, we’d make a quick video on what we sucked at, how we fixed it, the results, and what we learned.
But Cancel has also noticed other benefits. “It allowed me to really think through what I was saying, versus just getting in a room with someone or having a back and forth in text messaging or a phone call,” he says. “It was the sharing aspect that really made it an effective tool for us — all of a sudden we had old videos on different topics that we could share with people who were starting their journey at Drift in their onboarding process…getting everyone focused, and helping folks understand why we were making decisions, giving us an ability to be transparent in a way that we couldn’t before.”

Given that so many people feel comfortable making videos of every little move they make, this struck me as a pretty viable practice in arts organizations and one that might even inform creative works.

Decision Not To Grow≠Failure To Grow

An article on Daily Yonder making an interesting point came across my social media feed last week.  They noted that part of the reason why rural communities are characterized as being in decline is that those communities that eventually grow much bigger are no longer classified as rural, they become a metro.   It is almost like claiming that the life expectancy of caterpillars is getting shorter despite the increase in available flora without acknowledging that the abundance of flora allows the caterpillars to transition into butterflies earlier.  This is a form of survivorship bias.

“Rural America is reported as declining in part because we no longer count as Rural those counties that grew into a Metro classification. We are measuring those counties that stay Rural which, by definition, have not grown,” stated the report.


Those that remained rural are far from homogenous, but the report stated that “they often have some economic specialization or dependence. Counties that stayed Rural and lost population tended to depend on farming, mining, or oil and gas. Counties that stayed Rural and gained population (though not enough to switch to Urban) tended to be recreation-dependent and/or retirement destinations.”

The way rural counties are classified and reclassified contributes to a skewed image of “struggling rural America.” Policy makers should consider this as they look for ways to help rural counties succeed.

This reminded me of the frequent complaint that the success of an organization or company is predominantly measured in growth. Is the number of people served or funds raised/earned greater than it was in the past? A lot of us know it is the less easily quantifiable depth and quality of the experience that can create deeper impact and lasting impressions in participants.

Heck, at about 4 pm this afternoon I got an email at my day job saying our outdoor fire escape concert series has been nominated for a special Covid Cultural Award. I would argue that a primary criteria for that was just “able to do something this year” rather than anything to do with growth.

I strongly suspect there is a dynamic at work in the non-profit sector as a whole, and the arts and cultural industry in particular, similar to the one observed in the Daily Yonder article. There are rural communities that see growth, but remain rural but there is often no differentiation between them and those rural communities that are doing poorly.

If you make a conscious choice to stay small or only grow large enough to provide sustainable salaries to staff and then reinvest resources into providing better and better experiences, you end up in the same category as groups that are just entering the field or entering your size classification.  As a result, the perception of your organization is shaped by sweeping generalizations about your category.

If others in your category are struggling to deliver quality programs or lack the capacity to do good work, then by default the belief is you are as well despite having developed an extremely stable foundation over the course of decades.

This dovetails with my frequent discussion of how economic impact is a bad yardstick by which to measure the value of the arts. Just as the authors of the study of rural communities say different measures and different solutions should be applied to rural communities, a single standard of success is not appropriate for all arts organizations.


Don’t Feel Obligated To Sink More Into Bad Choices

I am not saying anything new when I note that there are a lot of arts organizations which are incapable of taking much action due to Covid related legal restrictions or lack of resources. My assumption has been that those who are able to make plans or take action are exploring opportunities that require relatively low investment of time and resources — basically taking advantage of any option that allows them to stay nimble and muster the most leverage.

Much to my surprise, as few resources and time people have at their disposal, I have already started to witness people engaging in behavior reflective of  the sunk cost fallacy. This is the practice of feeling you have to continue down a path you recognize as a bad choice based on the fact you committed so much effort to this point. The Wikipedia article I linked to has some good examples – staying in a bad relationship because you have invested so much time and emotional energy in it, getting a membership to an expensive gym in order to force yourself to exercise, continuing a war because otherwise the sacrifice of lives would have been in vain.

One particular example given is applicable to the arts if you substitute a performance/visual arts experience in for deciding whether to stay or leave a ball game you aren’t enjoying:

The economist will suggest that, since the second option involves suffering in only one way (wasted money), while the first involves suffering in two (wasted money plus wasted time), option two is preferable. In either case, the ticket-buyer has paid the price of the ticket so that part of the decision should no longer affect the future. If the ticket-buyer regrets buying the ticket, the current decision should be based on whether they want to see the game at all, regardless of the price, just as if they were to go to a free baseball game.

Many people, however, would feel obliged to stay for the rest of the game despite not really wanting to, perhaps because they feel that doing otherwise would be wasting the money they spent on the ticket. They may feel they have passed the point of no return. Economists regard this behaviour as irrational. It is inefficient because it misallocates resources by taking irrelevant information into account.

One particular recent example I had in mind when writing this post resulted from sharing our research on livestreaming options and equipment after a successful execution with colleagues. What we had found was inexpensive and simple to use, especially in light of the fact that the cameras would communicate well with each other which made switching between camera angles very simple.

Despite our colleagues admitting that this sounded like a simpler option than the one they were working on which required more expensive and complicated equipment and software, they turned down our offer to lend them the equipment because they had put so much effort into researching their option. (I am pretty sure they hadn’t purchased everything they needed at that point.)

It should be acknowledge, there is probably no one out there that doesn’t make irrational decisions which are not in their best interest. I would bet Dan Ariely who studies irrational behavior for a living has succumbed a number of times. It isn’t terribly surprising given the times we live in that we make poor decisions based on gut or emotion, but all the more reason to pay very close attention to what is motivating your actions because there is so little margin for error.

Don’t Forget Lessons Learned About Business Insurance

One of the panel sessions at the recent Arts Midwest-Western Arts Alliance virtual conference was on Reopening. The one panelist that really caught my attention was Anna Glass, Executive Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH).

She said when the Covid emergency hit, the Cultural Institutions Group, a collection of major arts institutions in NYC area which had been organized some years prior, provided a great resource for information sharing during the crisis.  Apparently there were group calls seven days a week for the first two months to discuss the issues and they have scaled back to four times a week now. The group organized itself into various working groups to help figure out solutions to problems and organize advocacy efforts.

Glass is the co-leader of the insurance working group and spoke about the rude awakening groups like hers had when they discovered how lacking their insurance policies were.  One thing they didn’t realize was that there were caps on the amount of money their policies would pay out. So while DTH face the cancellations of events that annually brought in over $1 million, their policies were capped at $30,000. On top of that, while they were so sure that they could make a business interruption claim based on government action due to Gov. Cuomo’s executive order, they learned their policies would only cover them if there was physical damage to their buildings.

Glass said her insurance working group provided a lot of information to the greater Cultural Institutions Group membership about how to read their policies, make claims, etc. The working group encouraged everyone to make a claim even if they didn’t think they had a chance of having it approved just to make some noise about the issues with business insurance.

Glass said she paying greater attention to her insurance policies and really pushed back on her (previous) insurance broker for “not working for me.” She is determined not to make the same mistake twice.

The brief silver lining Glass sees in all this is that arts organizations in the NYC area are cooperating, collaborating and advocating as a unified groups in a way they hadn’t before. She hopes that becomes an ingrained habit/practice moving forward.

I wanted to bring this up in general for the broader lessons about cooperation and advocacy this has for us all, but specifically to remind people to pay attention to things like insurance policies and contracts moving forward. I am sure it will be nigh impossible to get appropriate coverage for epidemics, but you still need to think seriously about what types of coverage you need and what you will or won’t accept from a policy. There is so much other crap going on right now, it will be hard to effect change but eventually there will likely be a movement to reform insurance coverage.

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