Examining Dallas’ “Bold Plan For Greatness” – Conclusions

Strategic plans are only as good as the people designing and implementing them. As such, a properly designed plan implemented by a core of capable executive managers, board leaders, and the music director can serve as a vehicle to limitless accomplishments…

Not long ago I published a piece about the abundance of “Best Practices” throughout this business and I’m sad to say that strategic plans could easily be lumped into that universal abuse. While researching this piece I sat for a moment and added up the number of strategic plans I’ve read over the past three years designed to guide their respective organizations for the next decade which have already found their way to the circular file. Unfortunately, I ran out of fingers in only a few seconds which just goes to show you the level of insincerity behind strategic planning these days.

Too many organizations waste time creating long term strategic plans for a variety of bad intentions, although it mostly comes down to a large scale diversionary tactic:

  • Most plans contain reams of figures and statistics but the numbers are poorly researched and are not capable of supporting future economic predictions.
  • Progress benchmarks are nebulous so as to preclude oversight and accountability measures.
  • They mask current financial problems in order to secure additional funding from large donors.
  • Ladder climbing executives use the plan as a tool for advancement which allows them to move on without fixing the financial problems before they leave.
  • They contain lofty goals the managers and board members have no intention of keeping. The plans are designed to keep musicians placated by focusing their collective attention on these empty goals and away from moving the organization in a direction they feel it should be heading.
  • Fortunately, I don’t think Dallas’ plan falls into the category of being a diversionary tactic.

    Another significant problem with flawed long term strategic plans is the lack of adequate measures to track progress. By the time most organizations realize they aren’t meeting their plan’s goals it’s too late to make sufficient adjustments or implement accountability. The result is increased financial strain and animosity among stakeholders as fingers begin to point.

    Nevertheless, a well designed plan will contain a number of quantifiable measures to track progress and make adjustments as needed in order to ensure success.

    Here’s a summary of Dallas’ plan:

    Arguably, one of the strongest points to Dallas’ plan is the recognition of a stronger endowment. The calculations presented in the plan indicate that they understand the level of renewable financial resources they’ll need by 2015 in order to enact stability and capitalize on planned artistic gains.

    In addition to advances in endowment support, the plan also realizes the need for increased numbers of full time musicians. Although Dallas already boasts a strong core membership, they are a bit shy of the number of players required to produce a world class sound. As outlined in Part 3, the artistic product produced by a full complement of 32 violinists simply can’t be matched by 26 violinists, each playing “a little louder”.

    Although the plan only calls for 41% of expenses to be directed toward “Artistic Excellence” at least it’s a small improvement over the approximately 38% they spent toward the same category in 2003.

    The good aspect of numbers is that they are easy to track. If you need $25 million and only come up with $17 million, then it’s not difficult to see that those responsible for reaching those fundraising goals fell short. As long as the stakeholders at Dallas keep their eyes on the numbers and work toward creating an environment where its executive leadership can reach the plan’s goals, then Dallas should find itself with full coffers, filled seats, and a first class artistic product by 2015.

    Throughout Dallas’ plan they make several references to how they propose to gauge their artistic progress and artistic leadership yet only one of them, the final point in this list, is really worthwhile:

  • number/quality of press mentions & reviews equal to top-tier orchestras
  • lauded recordings
  • survey of orchestra executives/conductors./critics
  • invitations for music director on subscription series of top orchestras
  • music director is a candidate for other top orchestra posts and based on assessments of orchestra executives
  • invitations to perform in other venues nationally and internationally
  • The first point actually made me laugh out loud. I imagined some poor entry level staffer having to slog through the daily newspapers of every major city with the task of cutting out the orchestra reviews and comparing them to Dallas’ reviews. Then I imagined they might keep a big marker board with a running tally of the number of press mentions between Dallas and Philadelphia.

    The fact that multiple artistic assessment criteria rely heavily on quantified opinions of orchestra executives and music critics is a somber sign. All of this makes me wonder if the plan is geared more toward the career advancement of executive administrators as opposed to advancing the DSO’s artistic product.

    After reading the plan, it became apparent that the artistic goals and related criteria didn’t include any DSO musician input and after interviewing several players involved in the plan’s design stage that assumption was verified. Although this is a severe error, it can easily be rectified by updating the plan to include some relevant criteria from the musicians’ professional viewpoint.

    In order to determine whether or not the DSO is a destination orchestra for musicians, the plan calls for measuring the numbers of musicians auditioning for positions as well as ascertaining their background. I’ll save them a lot of time and energy right now: there will always be numerous musicians applying for positions and they’ll come from the same conservatories they always do. However, they obviously don’t need this advice as the plan also includes the fact that the organization already maintains high numbers of musicians who audition for open positions as one of their current strengths.

    In Appendix II, the plan calls for measuring whether or not the DSO is a destination for artistic talent by a national survey of musicians voting the DSO as a top place to work. I’m not currently aware of any such national survey among orchestra musicians and unless Dallas plans to institute the survey themselves I find it hard to imagine that this could ever be accomplished. Instead, they should rely more on the type of criteria presented in Part 3  with regard to retaining their top players even after they win positions in traditional “Big 5” ensembles.

    Is Dallas’ plan capable of charting a course to the “Big 5” sea? It’s difficult to say. On one hand its strengths in realizing the need for an augmented endowment capable of supporting necessary artistic growth is one of the strongest assets. At the same time, much of the criteria for artistic success are veiled in hazy language created without adequate input from the organization’s musicians.

    Furthermore, although the plan realizes the need for finding a new music director capable of unifying the ensemble’s musicians, it is marginalized by utilizing a music director search process which has shown serious defects when implemented by peer organizations over the past year. If the DSO doesn’t enact measure to improve morale among the musicians on their own and if the identification of a new music director is even the slightest bit flawed, the ability to maximize the potential from this significant event may very well derail the plan.

    With regard to audience development, Dallas’ low average attendance rate must improve. Fortunately, the plan does include several reasonable approaches to fix this problem but they’ll need time and continuous cultivation; all of which give Dallas very little room for error.

    Last and certainly not least, leadership among the executive administration and board is paramount to success. If you examine some of the more recent examples among organizations which have successfully moved from one distinct level to the next, there have always been one or two strong individuals at the center of the efforts capable of almost willing the event into shape.

    Examples of executive leaders who have, and are, successfully engaged this process include Bob Jones at Indianapolis, Ann Koonsman at Fort Worth, Peter Pastreich at San Francisco, and Alan Valentine at Nashville (which is only yards from the goal line). Amidst those individuals are a small collection of board members who took it upon themselves to take the necessary personal and professional risks to make these strategic dreams a reality. If Dallas can manage to harness this level of leadership, then they should be in a good position to turn their dream into reality.

    Ultimately, in order to ensure that Dallas’ plan realizes its goals, the organization’s stakeholders will need to maintain a vigilant eye on their executive leadership. Straying too far from the path for too long will only result in Dallas’ “Bold Plan for Greatness” to become just another dusty pile of papers in the circular file.

    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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    1 thought on “Examining Dallas’ “Bold Plan For Greatness” – Conclusions”

    1. Thanks for this. This is an excellent overview of the situation in Dallas. Many things are in place, but some critical decisions need to be made correctly. The leadership of the DSA, both executive and board level, must stay “on message” and review the real amount of success in achieving the goals set out in the plan.

      There are a number of very well meaning people deeply involved with the future of the Dallas Symphony (not the least of which are many of the musicians) let’s hope all their collective efforts achieve the goals. Of course, that goal should be to provide the Dallas community and anyone who hears the Dallas Symphony with the best possible classical music in the most exciting and fulfilling way. John Kitzman, Principal Trombone, Dallas Symphony

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