I’m My Own Idea Czar

La Piana Consulting blog had a post a few weeks ago about how the dynamics of non-profits can crush new ideas and creative approaches to problems.

Their last suggested solution to avoid this is to appoint an “Idea Czar”:

“Appoint an “Idea Czar” from outside the senior management ranks. This person becomes a human suggestion box, an ombudsman for creativity. Anyone with a novel idea that might answer a current challenge is invited to share it with the Idea Czar, who periodically reports on what he or she has learned at management team or board meetings. Then use those reports to dive deeply into a specific question that piques the particular group’s interest or that the CEO would really like the board’s or management team’s best thinking on.”

I walked around most of today pondering whether this could actually work. I mean, it would require someone with enough seniority and experience to be taken seriously by management, but who also hasn’t been around so long that they are cynical about the viability of ideas. Even if the didn’t discount them immediately, they would need to be idealistic and energetic enough to effectively advocate for the idea in the face of a resistant board and senior management.

I recognized fairly early on that in my venue the idea czar would be our assistant theatre manager. (I am fairly idealistic, but she tops me.) This made me realize that it isn’t enough to appoint someone on staff into the position, if you really want to break out of a status quo, the hiring process has to involve actively recruiting people who possess idealism and strength of character to advocate in the face of a tendency to say No.

Apropos of this, Barry Hessenius posted this week about how one can be their own best/worst gatekeepers in terms of openness to “good ideas, new thinking and ways to actually be better managers, administrators and leaders; opportunities for new projects, collaborations and ways of seeing our world.”

Just as this problem of gatekeeping can manifest on both a personal and organizational level, the solution can probably be implemented on a personal and organizational level.

It probably isn’t enough to appoint a person to be the company idea czar if the board and administration are going to perpetuate an environment that is hostile to new ideas. Management and leadership should practice self-advocacy by setting aside time each week to entertain new ideas in the same way 3M, Google and Hewlett-Packard give employees time each week to develop new ideas and products.

Management and leadership might use this time to read websites they bookmarked, jot down what interesting ideas they have and then go back to ideas they jotted down in previous sessions. I think this last step is important because realizing you had forgotten some of the great ideas you had had weeks before serves to reinforce that fact you have the capacity to have good ideas.

Even if none of those ideas ever travel from the idea journal into practice within the company, the very act of engaging with new ideas, looking at them, turning them over a little, before putting them away, helps the mind practice accepting and handling new ideas rather than simply rejecting them.

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.

Brush Up Your Suetonius

The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace recently commissioned a study about the value placed on higher education by employers.

I initially only scanned the article, but listening to the Marketplace report on the radio on the way home brought me back to read it again when I heard the president of a technology company talk about how they make their new hires read Cato the Elder and Suetonius. He mentioned they were looking for people who could talk about the process of putting an idea forward, supporting it and problem solving.

“We do that because we ask them to look at the process – the abstract process – of organizing ideas,” Boyes says.

Sounds a lot like an argument for liberal arts education, at a time when more students are being told to study science and technology as a path to a career. Maguire Associates, the firm that conducted the survey, says the findings suggest colleges should break down the “false dichotomy of liberal arts and career development,” saying they’re “intrinsically linked.”

Or, as Boyes puts it: “We don’t need mono-focused people. We need well-rounded people.” And that’s from a tech employer.”

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about how college students need to focus on practical majors like business and STEM fields rather than wasting their time on Liberal Arts. But businesses keep saying they need well rounded problem solvers, not just people with technical knowledge.

Yet that technical knowledge and specific experience is becoming ever more important, predominantly in the form of internships. The Chronicle of Higher Education addresses that specifically in a separate section of their report. What I really liked about it is that it starts by relating a story about a student failing in her internship and learning from it. I think that is a hallmark of a good internship experience.

What I was a little taken aback by was the fact this woman had six internships. My concern is based on the fact that it takes considerable resources to support oneself while they are participating in an internship. Cost of college and the necessity of attending is certainly revealing the gap between the wealthy and those with fewer means. Now to learn that incurring the cost of internships is increasingly important for employment and to see that one woman has worked six of them presumably to make herself more marketable, is somewhat disheartening to someone like myself whose family didn’t have a lot.

I have written about internships a fair bit over the course of this blog discussing the laws that apply to them as well as some interesting ideas for giving arts majors more practical skills through the design of their training programs.

As I read and listened to the sections of this report, it occurred to me that arts training programs need to insure their education and internship opportunities are providing is relevant and valuable. But it also occurred to me that arts organizations offering the internship opportunities would benefit by marketing them to students outside the arts.

The interns from other disciplines can gain the practical experience and educational “leavening” they need to become more well-rounded. The arts organization can benefit in turn by having someone with a non-arts perspective working for their company.

True, this may reduce the number of internships available for people pursuing arts careers, but those students can also benefit from working for a non-arts company to become well rounded in other areas and pick up skills they can bring back to the arts.

Let me tell you, I wouldn’t have thought doing semi-farm work as a teenager would have translated into anything useful for the arts until it came time to drive a farm tractor around while setting up the grounds for an outdoor arts and music festival.

The Chronicle article mentions much the same thing:

Such exercises don’t always ensure connections, at least at first. Jacquelyn M. Lomp, who graduated from UConn last May with a B.A. in English, initially wasn’t sure how her internship, in which she wrote newsletters for the university’s pharmacy department, related to her studies. “I’d go from dissecting different pharmaceutical research,” she says, “to studying Norse mythology.”

Only after college did she come to recognize that both her academic work and her internship required intense focus and the ability to analyze language for deeper meaning.

The title of this post, inspired of course, by the song from Kiss Me Kate:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJIpp2Jj8AQ&w=420&h=315]

Caring, Rather Than Money, Makes The World Go Round

There was a Slate article today covering research on motivating employees that seemed well-aligned with the non-profit work environment. The research essentially verifies the importance of providing recognition and a sense of meaning to employees.

Researchers found that small gifts, rather than money, motivated people to work harder. They told one group of workers they would receive 7 euros more in pay than they had been promised when they were recruited. Another group was given a gift wrapped water bottle worth 7 euros and the control group was given no bonus. The cash bonus didn’t inspire any improvement, but those receiving the bottle were 25% more productive than those in the other two groups. The article notes that this increase in productivity more than paid for the 7 euro expenditure.

(my emphasis)

It’s not that the workers particularly loved their bottles—in fact, in a separate experiment in which catalogers were offered the choice between a bottle versus 7 euros, 80 percent took the cash (and still worked a lot harder). Rather, it was the thought that counted, and simply handing out a few more euros hardly takes much thought. Even offering the option of a gift showed that the employer cared.

An intriguing final version of the experiment underscored the importance, in the eyes of the employees, of the thought and effort bosses put into their gifts. This time, the cash was delivered as a 5-euro note folded into an origami shirt and a 2-euro coin with a smiley face painted on it. The origami money-gift generated the highest increase in productivity of all…

The study isn’t without its limitations. It’s hard to imagine that the average Wall Street trader would work harder for a pink Cadillac than a six-figure bonus. The motivational effects of cash surely become more important when the stakes get higher, and gifts probably work best when tailored to the particular set of employees. That’s how you really show you care.

And that, more than gifts versus cash, is really the study’s takeaway. Many employees toiling away in stores, factories, and cubicles are desperate for a sense of meaning in their work lives. Even the smallest gesture of kindness that shows they’re part of an organization that actually cares can give them purpose—and that leads to motivation.

It is widely recognized that people who work in non-profits do so because they valued the purpose and meaning they find in their work. Invoking the obvious disclaimer that it shouldn’t be a substitute for paying people a living wage, a boss providing some validation that what motivates that employee is valued and recognized can keep that person energized.

It probably isn’t a coincidence that the gifts that exhibited the most effort on the bosses’ part elicited the strongest effort on the employees’ part. For all the technology that may separate us, the work environment is still a communal experience and each person wants to know that the others are expending effort and thought on their behalf.

In many respects, this goes back to the post I made last week about the early warning signs that things are amiss with your company. When the board, upper management and lower echelons are each convinced the others are invested and working hard to keep the organization viable, that knowledge permeates that whole organization without anyone giving voice to that fact.

And the absence of that unity will begin to manifest itself in some intangible way as well.