How Vs. Why

How important is process an organization uses to achieve a goal? I’ve been putting some extra thought into this question lately because an increasing number of nonprofit organizations have been doing one of two things: improving the internal relationship between constituents via an inclusive shared process or damaging those relationships with a faulty process.

The size of the goal influences the scope of the process as well. There’s a distinct difference between a process required to achieve selecting a new music director as opposed to hiring a marketing intern. Or should a goal override a process in all matters? Does the end result really justify the means? Are there any components of an organization’s goals which exceed the need to have an inclusive process?

The past year has been filled with some excellent examples which demonstrate just how important a process is in determining success or failure.

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

Arguably, the most expensive example of how a bad process can lead to problems is the NJSO’s $16 million purchase of string instruments once owned by Herbert Axelrod. The orchestra rushed into the buying process lured by the possibility of propelling the institution to “greatness” by becoming the owners of an allegedly “priceless” collection of rare string instruments.

But as it turns out (according to an article in the New Jersey Star Ledger) Herbert Axelrod artificially inflated the value of the instruments, misrepresented their heritage, and in some cases deliberately altered their authenticity.

The NJSO board and management got themselves into this mess by rushing through the process of due diligence and allowing the light of possible glory blind their vision. Numerous examples in their purchase process point to these problems, such as exaggerated claims by then NJSO president Larry Tamburri on the collections merit by string instrument expert Charles Beare and the board’s inability to hire the services of enough qualified instrument appraisers and authenticators.

Even now, the orchestra is conducting an “internal” investigation into the process of how they decided to acquire the instruments (but remember there’s a good reason why our governments insist on independent investigations into matters of impropriety).

Philadelphia Orchestra

The extension of Christoph Eschenbach’s contract caused a great deal of consternation among the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The musicians maintain that they were never properly included in the process to make that decision.

They were so upset that they sent a letter to their board chairman, Richard Smoot, stating,

“we are deeply disappointed and disturbed to receive your announcement … that you had unilaterally determined to bypass the full Board of Directors and had failed to solicit the expertise of Orchestra members in making a decision that will impact the artistic integrity of the Philadelphia Orchestra for years to come.”

Management later claimed that they did solicit input from some musicians, but in an informal process and not from members connected to the executive committee, which is charged with overseeing matters such as this.

Here we find a faulty process that led to a strained internal relationship between constituents and negative press. The process lacked the needed validation to produce a reliable mandate to make a critical decision decisive.

Concert Halls in Nashville and Richmond

There have been striking examples of how an inclusive process in determining how to build a new concert hall has made the difference between garnering public support or not.

In Nashville, they’ve gone out of their way to create a detailed process that includes all of the musician’s opinions regarding the physical and acoustic elements of their new concert hall. They’ve built mock-ups of the stage for the musicians to rehearse on in order to ensure it meets their needs. Management also took they musician’s advice and did not include a separate rehearsal hall so there would never exist the possibility that future managements would “bump” the orchestra out of the main hall for rental opportunities.

The Nashville management sent out numerous surveys to determine what the players wanted, encouraged the players to hold meetings among themselves, and conducted frequent meetings between all constituents to discuss recent developments in the planning and building stages.

But in Richmond (VA), the management included very little input from the players. They never distributed surveys, never polled section leaders, and never shared details of the design process.

As a result the musicians became so frustrated with the process that once details of the hall were finally made available (at a point which management claims changes can no longer be made) many musicians openly expressed their anger through local press outlets.

In this case, a process which centered on secrecy only served to create hard feelings and distrust among internal constituents of the orchestra and damaged external public relations.

Interlochen Center for the Arts

A bad process isn’t limited to orchestra organizations. Yesterday, I published an article about the recent decision by the Interlochen Center for the Arts (ICA) to fire a multitude of their long time summer faculty.

The process ICA administrators used to support that decision is fraught with problems which include having less experienced faculty conducting performance evaluations of veteran faculty, selective exclusion of broad faculty input in designing evaluation criteria, and deliberate disregard for a multitude of support letters from recent and past students.

As a result, the ICA administrators have terminated over 35 faculty members, some with over 40 years of service to the organization. This faulty process leaves ICA open to a tidal wave of negative backlash from alumni and even possible age based discrimination legal action from dismissed faculty.

Conclusions An inclusive process requires one crucial element: time. The more constituents involved in a process the longer the process will take. And that increased inclusion of constituents also reduces that amount of power any group of individuals have in controlling the final decisions, but which some individual egos won’t permit.

A rushed process inevitably leads to excluding some components of an organization’s stakeholders. This leads to miscommunication and disillusionment among those members left out of the process.

Pride, vindictiveness, and narcissism reside at the heart of many bad processes. The desire to control and consolidate power inevitably leads to a steadily building resentment among excluded stakeholders. This discontent will continue to grow and manifest itself throughout every aspect of the organization until all major decisions are bogged down in one unproductive quagmire after another.

Communication, inclusion, and a willingness to share all information and solicit a variety of opinions are the way to avoid a bad process. But like many things in life, those involved in the process must want to include those features before any positive progress can be made.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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