Same Old Song, Different Tune

I love dinner parties; they always an opportunity to meet some absolutely fascinating people. I recently attended a dinner party where one of the guests was regaling my little section of the table with an account about how they were working against what they presented as a very disheartening state of affairs. The more I listened to the details, the more I realized their problem sounded familiar; in fact, if you changed some of the names and settings, it was down right deja vu…

In particular, my fellow dinner guest was lamenting about having to work against someone who was attempting to take a heavily flawed quantitative study and present it as though it were qualitative research. In English, that means someone was attempting to take a hypothesis based on subjective and/or coincidental data and present it as fact before any sort of detailed examination could gather raw data to support or disprove a hypothesis to begin with.

This situation dealt with the field of medicine but the parallels this anecdote has with the orchestra business is clear. I’ve observed that more than a fair share of research in this business tends to originate from an ideal and/or opinion and work from that starting point as though it were an undisputed fact, which is just about the worst place you should start when conducting any sort of study.

Typically, this isn’t due to malice aforethought per se; instead, some who administer foundation and government grants tend not to be so enthusiastic about pumping money into good old fashioned (yet necessary) qualitative research. Nevertheless, it’s this type of essential research which gathers information used to determine which questions need to be asked (or form a hypothesis). Simply put, qualitative research isn’t sexy, flashy, or exciting unless you have just the right people doing it who know how to sell the value of raw data.

After my dinner party companion finished their narrative, I made a few short comments along the lines of what’s covered in the paragraphs above and they appeared relieved that someone finally understood their predicament. I asked my dinner companion why they were having such a difficult time in light of the obvious flaws in their antagonist’s scientific approach and they eluded to the fact that the other person launched an effective PR campaign aimed at just the right audience; as a result they have to overcome that PR campaign first, then they can deal with the antagonist’s flawed scientific plan. In other words, they have to pay for the same real estate twice before they can take ownership of the high ground.

Later that evening, I decided that this was just another anecdote to support the old saying “Same Old Song, Different Tune”.

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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