Strategic Planning Poll Results

This week’s Adaptistration poll on the value of artistic stakeholder input on an orchestra’s strategic planning process produced results that were both intriguing and not the least bit surprising…

It is likely no surprise that more than 90 percent of respondents
felt that it was either very important or critically important that an
orchestra’s music director be involved in the strategic planning
process. In fact, no one felt that the music director’s opinion wasn’t
important. When asked if the musicians should be included in the
strategic planning process, respondents didn’t feel that musicians were
as important to the process as music directors. However, more than 80
percent of respondents felt that their input was either critical or important.

The surprise came in the form of answers to the survey’s final
question. Although no less than 80 percent of respondents felt that
artistic stakeholders have an important role to play in the strategic
planning process, only 62.3 percent felt those same stakeholders had
any right to publicly express dissatisfaction with the plan if they
disagreed with the process and/or results. Given that outcome, I wish I had added at least one more question asking
respondents to identify if they are a manager, board member, musician,
conductor, or patron – an error I’ll do my best to avoid in the next

A few readers responded to poll results via comments and they
all shared intriguing interpretations. On reader, James, summed up his
analysis by stating that respondents felt that artistic
stakeholders "Should absolutely be involved in the process but still be
able to go public with complaints should it not be to their liking or
expectation." James rolled all of that into the following concise and
stylish adage: "I want to be on the bus unless it doesn’t head exactly
where I think it should."

I think that is certainly one way to interpret the results
although I had a different take on things. I responded to James saying
that I interpret the responses to say that artistic stakeholders should
be included but the ability to publicly express dissatisfaction helps
ensure a worthwhile process; ergo "I expect to the bus to head to the
stop it advertises and reserve the right to leave if it doesn’t."

At the same time, one of the more intriguing components developed via
some email exchanges with a reader. In those exchanges we discussed the
value of artistic stakeholder input in strategic planning and the reader asked if there
were any good examples of a strategic planning process orchestras could
examine as a sort of "best practice." I tend to think a strategic
planning process can only be as good as the people involved. Beyond
that, it is simply selecting one of the many varieties of process
"tools" available to get the job done.

Think back to events at the Louisville Orchestra from last
season. In that case, the orchestra experienced an organizational
melt-down that resulted from a proposal by the board to implement
massive budget cuts. In the previous season, the organization implemented
a strategic planning process that included the artistic stakeholders at
nearly every step. However, in the summer following the conclusion of
that process, the board decided to abandon that strategic plan in lieu
of a new plan that was crafted while the musicians were not in session
and while the organization did not have a music director. The result
was a very public, very negative series of collective bargaining negotiations where
both musicians and the board used the media to advance their positions.

Fast forward a bit and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra appears to
be following key elements from the latter strategic planning process. In Columbus, the
organization published a high-production quality 50 page strategic plan
that was crafted without ever notifying (forget about including) the artistic
stakeholders. Given the fact that the organization completed the plan
more than two months before it was officially released and more than
several months in advance of the next collective bargaining sessions,
the timing is a mystery. Currently, the proposed financial plan has
endured a significant backlash from the orchestra’s musicians, music
director, and even major donors (not to mention hundreds of public
messages from patrons) who are deeply displeased with the process and
the proposed 25 percent budget cuts.

We’ll be examining some of those details while attempting to
find out more about the planning process from those involved in the weeks to come. In the
meantime, what do you think? Is there anything in the poll results that
Columbus Symphony Orchestra board members should have taken into consideration when
they were in the preparation stages for the strategic planning process?
Would increased transparency and inclusion of the organization’s
stakeholders have had any impact on the final results? Sound off by
posting a comment below.

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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5 thoughts on “Strategic Planning Poll Results”

  1. Drew, I read your strategic planning poll results with interest. I had
    a few follow-up thoughts:

    – I’ve often heard, taken from Eisenhower, I believe, that strategic
    plans are worthless, but strategic planning is invaluable. It’s the
    process, not the thing.

    – I took the poll and was stymied at what to say about those who
    disagreed and might want to complain about the result. If it’s the
    process, and if the process is well facilitated, I figure that major
    disagreement may be a sign the process broke down. The process should
    hopefully have brought everyone on board.

    As a facilitator, I can’t guarantee everyone will be on board, but
    part of a facilitator’s process is designed to enable people to get
    important issues out on the table in the group dialog. If people are
    heard there, they may be much less inclined to complain in other
    forums, and the organization will benefit from their insights.

    – With reference to the last point, I realize that musicians, especially
    in non-full-time orchestras, don’t have a lot of time, and that may
    hamper the ability to facilitate good process, but “hamper” is not the
    same as “eliminate.”

    – Did the Louisville or Columbus boards test their proposals for massive
    budget cuts? How? Without a way to conduct a dress rehearsal of
    their plan, bringing in all the stakeholders might have been akin to
    an orchestra only talking about a major new piece before the concert.
    Orchestras rehearse their music; what about orchestras and their

    That’s where the modeling you and I have done can play a role.

    Such facilitated modeling work can help a group understand the current
    situation they’d like to change better. Often the act of modeling
    uncovers significant disagreements between stakeholders on how their
    world works, and it can focus the conversation on understanding rather
    than on winning an argument. It also helps the organization
    understand the causal factors that brought them to this point.

    With the model in hand, the process then offers a way to test various
    (not just one) strategic alternatives to see how the current situation
    might respond. While there are no guarantees, it’s often the case
    that such work, done well, can help an organization figure out what’s
    more likely to work. In the process, they might find a better
    strategy than they had imagined. They may also find out from the act
    of building and using the model what’s important for the success of
    their chosen strategy in the real world.

    Of course, it’s the insights and the people that count, not the model;
    the model is simply a tool. Yet I’ve seen that be an amazingly
    effective tool in providing insights and in changing the tone of
    business discussions.

    Those are my early morning thoughts. I’m curious to see what others

  2. Paul, gladly, or at least I’ll try.

    Instead of starting from scratch, though, I’ll point you to my 2007 TAFTO article. In that case, Drew was / is trying to get more people to attend concerts through a particular set of activities.

    I started by creating a simple computer model that describes how people tend to get attracted to buy new things (in this case, concert tickets). Some are influenced more by advertising and the like, while others are more influenced by word-of-mouth advertising and the like.

    I first created a model that approximated, at least loosely, what exists today, and I used it to explore what factors might be key to achieving success.

    Then I added the TAFTO program on top of the current situation to see the effect it might have. It was noticeable but not huge (it’s worth doing, but don’t expect it to fix all the problems symphony orchestras have).

    Finally, I explored how the various factors involved in structuring TAFTO might play into its success and determined which factors are likely key to its success.

    The key in this effort wasn’t that I can tell you with any certainty how many new concert-goers might show up as a result of what Drew does each year in TAFTO; it was that I can indicate, at least provisionally, whether TAFTO might be a good idea (seems so) and which factors are likely most important to its success (anything Drew can do to create more people who will be strong word-of-mouth influencers for classical music sounds like a good idea, all else being equal).

    Is that the last word on TAFTO? Not by a long shot. For one, I did that model all alone, without the benefit of the insights from others in the business who could help understand what’s actually going on. Normally, this would be a very collaborative effort.

    What it does show is a method to reduce some (maybe a lot) of the uncertainty regarding what results certain actions will likely cause in some very complex situations such as strategic planning. In one published example, I applied this to fixing a recurring overspending problem in an organization. We used a model to understand the cause of the problem and to test potential fixes. When we applied the selected fix in the real organization, the problem was cut by 95%, making it a non-problem.

    If you want more on the approach, check out some of my publications, or search the Web for the field of system dynamics.

    Does that help?

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