Gatekeeper Processes

The annual program review is a process we go through at the college both to provide evidence for our accreditation and to measure the general effectiveness of the programs in order meet organizational goals. This process helps the school identify “gatekeeper courses.”

Some colleges and universities use gatekeeper courses to weed students out of certain degree programs by making it very difficult to pass.

For our purposes, the designation is used to indicate courses possessing some characteristic which makes it very difficult for students to acquire basic skills. Make no mistake, the professors will bridle at any suggestion that the standards be lowered in any manner.

Often the solution lies in things like re-ordering the sequence in which concepts are introduced so that the class builds knowledge toward a complex concept in a different manner or perhaps providing hands on demonstration of the complex concept. There are many strategies one can use.

In the arts we talk about very much the same thing when we speak of removing barriers to entry for audiences. We look for alternative ways to communicate, allow people to purchase tickets, find parking, etc–anything that facilitates the decision to attend and makes the experience of doing so more pleasant.

There are many aspects of the process an arts organization can’t and won’t compromise, but there are alternatives the organization can pursue or implement. For example, people may have to pay for parking, but the performing arts center can arrange to paint a distinctive logo on the columns of the municipal parking garage as a signal to patrons the best side of the building to park reach the lobby.

During our preparations for the accreditation site visit, I realized there are many aspects of an organization’s operation that can constitute a “gatekeeper” preventing full participation of all the groups you hope to serve and even hamper the effectiveness of the organization itself.

The organization may pride itself on its accessibility to the public but there may be portions of the art class registration process which you see as helping you collect data for your grants which cause segments of the community you are eager to serve to opt out of participation.

You may view the procurement process you have instituted as central to your attempt to control spending but your staff may see it so onerous it constitutes a disincentive to suggest and develop new programs and as a result, your organization is viewed as staid and unresponsive to changing times.

I have talked many times about marketing being the responsibility of everyone in the organization and that everyone needs to feel like what they do is contributing to the success of the organization and its mission.

But I think it is very easy for departments not in direct contact with those identified as the prime constituency -performers, students, audience members, gift shop customers, etc to feel divorced from the mission.

Human resources may say “we hire the people that make our audiences happy” but sees their purpose as making sure no one exposes the organization to any sort of liability, causing employees to be perpetually anxious.

The business office may say “we help acquire the resources to create the stuff of which dreams are made…” but view their mandate as not allowing the idealistic artistic staff to spend too much money.

Just like with the gatekeeper courses, no one would advocate that staff not be fully trained about sexual harassment and limits of labor laws or that purchasing practices not be properly documented and monitored. However, it is worthwhile to evaluate what parts of your practice are impeding the pursuit of the mission.

Can the material in the employee training program be communicated and reinforced in a different manner than a video at orientation and dire lectures on sexual harassment scenarios? If people are having a hard time remembering purchasing subcodes, is there a better way to organize and list the codes? Or maybe the codes should be an intuitive alphanumeric sequence instead of an incomprehensible series of numbers?

Most importantly is how that department defines their relationship to the overall mission. A change in philosophy will lead to the type of changes I mention. I read an example of this, I think it was in Peter Drucker’s Managing the Nonprofit Organization, about two state social service offices. One got much higher satisfaction ratings than the other because it started from a place where it saw itself as helping people access services while the other saw its role as denying services people weren’t entitled to.

Even if the first office had a lower standard for awarding benefits to clients than the second, but I don’t think an organization has to necessarily compromise the rigor of its standards to engender a sense of satisfaction from others. My choice of the phrase “started from a place…” was intentional.

The context from which you start reframes the whole experience for both the employee and customer even if the final answer is “No.” It isn’t that everyone feels happier because the interaction started on a positive note. Rather, decisions were made long before that customer arrived that effected changes to the physical environment and procedures the office felt were necessary to meeting its perceived mission.

Visitors to both offices might have to fill out Form 46B, but the visitor to the former one might understand the necessity and feel generally optimistic about the outcome, while a visitor to the latter may perceive it as yet another test of their worthiness based on capricious standards.

I have strayed a little bit back toward customer service with this example. But I really want to advocate for looking inward at the company policies and procedures that might be acting as gatekeepers and making employees jobs difficult.

I think arts organizations are generally cognizant of the importance of providing good customer service, even if they aren’t doing it well. Internal evaluation doesn’t happen as frequently and admittedly the true source of problems can be difficult to identify. In the classroom, test scores give a pretty good indication that something is wrong.

It is harder to recognize that inefficient delays in the production department can be solved by providing staff with a company credit card with daily spending limits–a move that empowers the technical staff to acquire minor resources so they can continue working while assuaging the business office’s fears of uncontrollable cost overruns.

Passion About Your Work Is Hard Work

Apropos of my post a few weeks back about people thinking creativity as a lightning strike gift rather than a process of work over time is a piece on Harvard Business Review blog site in which the author, Cal Newport, makes a similar observation about the idea one should follow their passion when looking for a job.

Newport notes that following ones passion has become common career advice and includes a Google N-Gram charting the explosive rise of the phrase in print use during the 2000s.

“Why is this a problem? This simple phrase, “follow your passion,” turns out to be surprisingly pernicious…The verb “follow” implies that you start by identifying a passion and then match this preexisting calling to a job. Because the passion precedes the job, it stands to reason that you should love your work from the very first day.

It’s this final implication that causes damage. When I studied people who love what they do for a living, I found that in most cases their passion developed slowly, often over unexpected and complicated paths. It’s rare, for example, to find someone who loves their career before they’ve become very good at it — expertise generates many different engaging traits, such as respect, impact, autonomy — and the process of becoming good can be frustrating and take years.

The early stages of a fantastic career might not feel fantastic at all, a reality that clashes with the fantasy world implied by the advice to “follow your passion” — an alternate universe where there’s a perfect job waiting for you, one that you’ll love right away once you discover it. It shouldn’t be surprising that members of Generation Y demand a lot from their working life right away and are frequently disappointed about what they experience instead.”

The arts career path has long had a “paying your dues” period of near slavery labor for low or no pay internship followed by successfully transitioning to a near poverty level pay. I joke, but only because I don’t want to confuse the poor treatment many entry level people are subject to with the genuine need to actually go through an unsatisfying process of improving your abilities.

The dream of being discovered and making it big is what causes many to pursue a career in the arts. The fact that there are some who can make it big with no apparent effort is something of a plague on the arts industry.

Still for many people, this dues paying process gives people a realistic view of what is expected in the arts career path and they choose to leave it.

Pursuing an arts career with its abysmal pay can be something of a blessing in disguise as part of the dues paying process. The fact we have the stereotype of the actor who waits tables shows that many creative types are picking up other skills in the process of pursuing the dream.

Of course, the benefit of this all hinges on heeding the advice of our grandparents to do everything we do well. It is easy to fall into the practice of not taking a job seriously figuring your effort doesn’t matter since you will be gone soon enough. Then when you revise your career plans, you may suddenly find that as a result of your inattentiveness no one will credit you as having paid some dues.

One of my first jobs was doing yard work which involved everything from mowing and weeding to mucking out horse stalls and polishing brass and bronze pots. I don’t think it directly prepared me for a job in the arts, (though I did end up driving a farm tractor a lot the rural arts center I worked at), it probably instilled a work ethic, taught me about a lot uncommon practices like beekeeping and gave me many problem solving abilities. (Like the time I set fire to the…erm, well I have said too much already.)

Cal Newport calls for career advice to reference the inevitable sour period before you feel inspired by your work.

In some respects, I think the arts are blessed with the stereotype of the wait staff who wants to act. Even though no one believes they will ever have to work in a restaurant to support themselves, that waiter is in our collective unconscious and can’t be exorcised. Part of us always knows that possibility exists. Some may even be motivated to pursue excellence to ensure it doesn’t happen to them.

Still more discussion of that metaphorical waiter needs to happen to make people aware that the pursuit of their passion may not come easily or as directly as they imagine.

Many performing artists would acknowledge their awareness that the pursuit doesn’t come easily since many of them start working hard at eight or nine years old. The problem is that “practice hard to be a success” has been used to motivate them for all those years and it is not a foregone conclusion, especially in relation to orchestras these days.

Arts and culture industries needs to emphasize the fact that the path to success may not be as direct as it has been represented to encourage people to think about and be open to alternative routes.

Arts & Job Crafting

Apropos to yesterday’s Labor Day holiday there was a blog post on the Harvard Business Review site back in June about job crafting, basically changing aspects of your daily activity to make your job more enjoyable.

I thought many of the suggestions cited by the author, Amy Gallo, were particularly applicable to arts organizations. Arts employees are apt to feeling burned out and unfulfilled due to wearing many hats and having a large workload.

But compared to many other types of businesses, employees of arts organizations generally have a fair bit of freedom about how they accomplish tasks. Employing a little creativity in the process isn’t likely to be viewed as disruptive and might even be applauded.

One of the first suggestions Gallo mentions is examining oneself to assess whether the problem might be that you are simply prone to being dissatisfied all the time. Another is to think about ways to change your outlook about your job and perhaps form emotional connections with colleagues and co-workers.

Next is to look at restructuring the job itself:

“Spreitzer and Wrzesniewski suggest using a job crafting exercise to redesign your job to better fit your motives, strengths, and passions. “Some people make radical moves; others make small changes” in how they delegate or schedule their day,…For example, if your most enjoyable task is talking with clients, but you feel buried in paperwork, you might decide to always speak with clients in the morning, so you’re energized to get through the drudge work for the rest of the day. Or you might save talking with your clients until the end of the day as a reward.

If it’s not the work you dislike but the people you work with, you may be able to change that too. Wrzesniewski says she has seen people successfully alter who they interact with on a daily basis to increase job satisfaction. Focus on forging relationships that give you energy, rather than sapping it. Seek out people who can help you do your job better”

In some respects, the fact that just about everyone performs multiple functions in an arts organization can be an asset to job crafting efforts. Lacking concrete job boundaries, people can swap some of their duties a little bit. What is mind numbing to one might provide a refreshing respite to someone else. One thing I have appreciated about the arts jobs I have had has been the ability to get up and away from one task to do essentially all of the things Gallo mentions.

I have been able to attend artist outreaches to see the impact of our work on people in the community. I can talk with colleagues and patrons and develop connections with them. I have been able to get up from my desk to stick my nose in on rehearsals and classes to get some inspiration. Walking around to inspect facilities and equipment or setting my hand to some physical task often provides the distraction my mind needs to find a solution that wasn’t coming sitting in front of my computer.

Creativity A Euphemism for Extreme Thrift?

Apologies to regular readers of the blog. I started using a new ticketing system and started training a new staff person in the same week which has not be conducive to blog entries. But things have evened out a bit and here I am.

I read a report over the weekend on the perceived lack of qualified workers in non-profit settings. A study done by people at Johns Hopkins of all non-profit sectors, including performing arts, found that, in general, it wasn’t as difficult to find qualified people to fill positions as some recent newspaper articles have made it out to be. Most organizations were also mostly pleased by the quality of the people they did hire.

There were some areas that were harder to recruit for than others. Organizations that served the elderly had a slightly harder time than most finding people. Fundraisers and information technology staff were among the toughest positions to fill. Trying to achieve greater minority representation was also quite difficult. The report did note that few organizations made special efforts to attract minorities, though.

For the arts in particular, there were some details that boded well and others not so well. On the positive side, “…turnover and hiring activity was somewhat lower…among theaters. On the negative side, both theatres and museums were the group most dissatisfied with the diversity of their applicants and with their ability to meet the salary requirements of their applicants.

I had mixed feelings about the results the survey found regarding staff turnover. Eighty percent of those surveyed had turn over in the year prior.

“Surprisingly, however, the proportions claiming negative effects from this turnover were less pronounced than might have been expected, and were often offset by roughly similar proportions claiming positive effects.”

In the accompanying chart on page 5, the only categories in which the positive responses outstrip the negative are in organizational budget and staff creativity. The negatives were much higher than the positives in productivity, morale and burnout.

The positives about the budget are obvious. Not having to pay someone helps save money. I am uneasy about the staff creativity result because I think the go to position for so many non-profits when they face staff shortages of any sort is to smile and determine to work harder and smarter.

I suspect creativity claim is actually a ploy to cope with the increased workload and is a facade for the damage to morale and feeling of burnout. Having been in similar situations, I imagine that the creativity manifests itself in penny pinching steps akin to my grandmother washing aluminum foil and hanging it on the line to dry so it can be reused.

Everyone stands around and congratulates each other on how clever they are to be so thrifty. Then go back to their offices and skip lunch so they can get all their work done, their hunger pangs temporary dulled by the recently shared optimism over how creative the staff has become.

The areas where the negatives and positives were close were ability to fulfill mission, quality of programming and quantity of programming. I would be interested to know if there was a correlation between those who felt the staff became more creative and those who cut programming and reported the quality of the programming increased. I know I sound cynical, but again I suspect that people soothed their concerns about cutting back on programming by convincing themselves that they had succeeded in providing higher quality with fewer resources.

I have had the same conversation internally and among staff at a number of places. So yes, you can accuse me of projecting my biases, but I can’t imagine those dialogs are anywhere near atypical.

When I read in the report about how resilient these nonprofits are, I think about the fact that it is actually individual people who provide the resiliency by redoubling their efforts out of dedication to a cause. I am pleased that many organizations are able to satisfy their personnel needs. But the situation still bears watching because the individual’s determination to soldier on may be masking a problem that will suddenly emerge with mass burnout or retirements.