What’s The Problem?

Moneyball is one of those movies that never gets old and one of my favorite parts is the “What’s the problem?” scene where Brad Pitt, who played Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, is frustrated with his scouts when they refuse and/or are incapable of thinking differently about their core problems.

Nutshell: it’s the setup for the film’s overarching story of calling BS on conventional wisdom and the struggles involved with implementing change.

It’s tough to miss how the old white guy mentality the scouts embody so much of the decision-making class that comprises our field. If you removed the baseball references, I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking this was a group of decision makers talking about music director candidates.

The takeaway here is the way Pitt’s character challenges those tasked with solving the problems to define what the problems are at the most basic level.

All of this came to mind when I read the recent post from League of American Orchestras President and CEO, Simon Woods, with his thoughts on the what the field needs to address.

Let me say at the onset, I think it’s a great post and Woods touches on several critical issues the League should have started paying attention to a decade ago. I’m especially glad to see there’s movement in a positive direction. Having said that, the level granularity is pulling focus away from the real problems. As it turns out, the orchestra field’s problems are pretty similar to the problem Pitt’s character explains to the scouts: they’re trying to win a game against teams with exponentially larger budgets.

Our game is getting butts in seats and we’re trying to do that by paying our professionals a fraction of what similar positions earn across sectors that are courting the same, diminishing, people. That problem becomes compounded by giving those professionals a fraction of the budget they really need to accomplish this task and they have no plan on how to equalize that marketing performance once a steady flow of buyers is secured.

The ability to address all three of what Woods labels as his three defining issues needed to fuel artistic creativity and financial success hinge on this larger problem.

In case you aren’t already familiar with the story behind Moneyball, it is the nonfiction account of the Oakland A’s effort to ditch conventional wisdom for data driven decision making to be competitive with limited resources.

Unfortunately, the orchestra field doesn’t have the luxury of data mining an untapped talent pool of marketing, education, communications, and development professionals to find undervalued stars. Instead, the learnables here apply to having the understanding and courage to value and reward professionals that demonstrate which parts of conventional wisdom need to be left behind and are capable of producing results in the form of attracting and retaining new audiences.

Even a small injection of additional resources can produce exponentially greater results if the conventional wisdom gatekeepers are removed from the equation. I could go on and on, and have in fact been doing exactly that since 2003, but it’s worth revisiting many of these ideas from a more contemporary perspective.

Stay tuned…

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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