Mash Up: Capacity Building in a Time of Continual Flux

By Jennifer Edwards


There are least two levels of capacity building: practical usable tools, like technology and web-based platforms, and foundational skills, like adaptability, transparency, agility, and the ability to make clear decisions. Many organizations focus on the former–the usable tools–and assume that the latter will take care of itself, but time and again we see that is simply not the case. Many of the issues common in arts organizations, boil down to a lack of appreciation of and focus on developing the very skills vital to the health of any organization. As more information is transmitted to your audience through technology and the internet, there are increasingly more areas in which these two types of capacity merge. For example, Horace Dediu predicts on his blog that “the day when the tablet market (by units) will exceed that of traditional PCs will come sometime in the fall of 2013.” This means that a computing category that barely existed just two years ago has the potential to completely remake how Americans interact with technology–and your web content–by 2015.

In speaking with technologist / choreographer / consultant, Sydney Skybetter, he drew a clear picture of this intersection of adaptability, shifting culture, and technology. “I think this volatility frames a number of crucially important problems for the cultural sector, namely, that disruptive change in the consumer sector is increasingly consequential to ours. The event horizon for adaptation is categorically shrinking. Too many notable not-for-profits took as long as ten years to build websites after consumers got them. It took those same NFPs five+ years to begin adapting to online social networks. With mobile though, the stakes are much higher. Organizations have a window of about two years to remake their online presence before large segments of their existing content is rendered inaccessible to a majority of Internet browsers. The radical ramifications of mobile technology and the limitations of not-for-profit bureaucracy are crucial to understand as a field, and inform how decisions are made pertaining to everything from open source code to Facebook to hiring expectations to HR protocols to hashtags and much more.

In approaching this topic, it’s necessary that we understand that there is no one magic answer or blanket protocol that we can apply across a given discipline to help an organization thrive–I personally often wonder if there ever really was. I also wonder if the belief that there was a limited number of answers that worked led us down a road paved with standardization rather than creativity, that, perhaps, disabled the natural ability to take risks that arts organizations and artists must have in order to do our work.

In the following paragraphs we will explore how to approach building a specific gateway capacity: the capacity to fuel an organization that can face challenges head-on.

Approach your work as a process (also, manage expectations)

There is a process through which creative work is made. It stands to reason that there should be a creative process through which it should be delivered. In a recent conversation with Lisa Niedermeyer, Program Specialist at Fractured Atlas, she shared the following: “If I had to choose one thing that I think affects the field across the board in terms of capacity building it would have to be making time/valuing time to evaluate and assess. Assess an experiment, gather feedback, follow-up after an event. Look at the analytics, create tracking methods, feedback loops, reporting of metrics. And then take the time to learn from them. Take time for them to incubate and inform decisions and new directions. For profit organizations wouldn’t imagine not having assessment in their process. As an artist I find it an important part of the process. You don’t just create and be done with it. You create and put it out there to be tested, assess and reiterate if need be, or repeat if that makes sense. Or start all over again.”

A recent study authored by Holly Sidford’s (Helicon Collaborative) titled Bright Spots Leadership in the Pacific Northwest looks at arts organizations that are thriving. The study aims to uncover common characteristics and strategies these organizations might share with others. What Sidford and her colleagues discovered are five basic principles, that Bright Spots organizations possess, that differ widely from less successful peer organizations. As reported in the study, these elements are:

(1) Animating purpose: They have a clear purpose and a compelling vision, delivered through distinctive, relevant, high quality programs that excite people.

(2) Deeply engaged with community: They operate in and of their communities, and they possess a deep understanding of their interconnectedness with others and their role as civic leaders.

(3) Evaluation and analysis: They are sponges for information and are brutally realistic in assessing their circumstances, and yet they see possibilities where others don’t.

(4) Plasticity: They are nimble and flexible about how they realize their mission, and very little about the organizational form is too precious to change.

(5) Transparent leadership: They distribute authority and responsibility across the organization and practice transparent decision-making.

“The principles of being a good organization are no different from those of being a good person or a good neighbor. It is all about the fundamentals–treat people with respect, share what you have, do good work that matters, and so on. We all know all of this, but when we go to work as part of an organization we sometimes forget how to behave like a human being.” – Sandra Jackson-Dumont, Seattle art Museum (as quoted in the Bright Spots study)

Learn to ask WHY–and ask it often

In a recent article published in Fast Company titled “Why Small Companies Should Scrap Strategic Planning,” the author calls for strategic thinking–not planning. Perhaps there is no better example of how this works than the many start-up companies that have cropped up quickly only to experience huge growing pains as they expand and age. What helped them gain momentum was fast maneuvering and on-their-feet-thinking. What weighs them down is the sitting and planning for an uncertain future, in an uncertain climate, in a quickly changing market place. This is not to say that planning for the future is a thing of the past, it merely suggests that strategic plans must be developed with flexibility in mind and revaluation mandates in place. The question ‘why’ can be a driving force–as long and the answer is not ‘because–it’s in the strategic plan.

As a contributor to the Huffington Post, I have the opportunity to chat with many dance-focused folks–artists, administrators, presenters, and critics from around the world. There is a surprising word that has emerged from corresponding with the artists like, Ballet Next founders Michelle Wiles and Charles Askegard; hip-hop / spoken word poet and Director of Performing Arts at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Marc Bamuthi Joseph; Congolese dancer / choreographer / activist, Faustin Linyekula; and Trey McIntyre, Artistic Director and founder of Trey McIntyre Project. That word is JOY. People in the arts are working hard. The lines between the artist and the business of art have blurred, if not vanished. The life of the artist is now focused on work–long, hard days of polymathic, multiple-facing, highly entrepreneurial hustling. And from some of the top and most successfully flexible artists there is a resounding echo reflecting, “If I am not enjoying this–if it’s not filled with purpose and human connection–why the heck would I do it.”

Note that these artists didn’t say “fun.” It’s not always fun to cut through internal and external red tape, fear or judgment. But the need to feed one’s self and one’s community through art is at the core of the work these companies do and therefore a larger vision supports every project. It’s also worth noting that some of these artists make hard-hitting, deeply personal work–when you are true to the mission, be it individual or organizational, even emotionally painful work can be enjoyable.

In a recent interview with Jacob’s Pillow Executive and Artistic Director, Ella Baff, she credited the boards of the organizations coming together, the Pillow and Mass MoCA, to present visiting artist, Chunky Move. Baff’s advice in order to do the kind of work they do, on their own and in collaboration, is that organizations and their boards must, “have a clear understanding of [their] mission and keep a hand on the rudder.” As we spoke, her enthusiasm was palpable. I often speak with leaders and they talk through tight lips and grinding teeth about their boards, constituents, company members, and coworkers. The limited willingness to truly bend and collaborate with one’s team is akin to what is known as a limiting agent in chemistry, or an element that once used up prevents change or transformation from occurring. You could think of it in terms of starting a fire in a vacuum–once all of the oxygen is used, the lack of oxygen prevents the fire from continuing to burn. Generative questions to ask may be: What drives our organization toward change (or stokes our fire)? What elements stand in the way of trying new things? How can we reduce our adversity to risk-taking by continuing to fuel the fire? And lastly what new energy, or sources of oxygen can we introduce into this process?

Harkening back to the Bright Spots study, the authors conclude:

“We heard repeatedly about what keeps organizations from succeeding: fear of failure and the unknown, lack of discipline or will to change, unclear priorities, ignoring facts that challenge a preferred view of the world, and inadequate cooperation with others internally and externally. These behaviors are the inverse of the qualities we discerned in the bright spot organizations.” They then went on to write, “bright spot cultural organizations are exquisitely attuned to their core purpose, use their assets inventively and maintain relentless focus on achieving tangible results. Like alchemists, they combine ordinary materials in unconventional ways in order to make something exceptionally valuable.

Build a Culture of Value

A recent American Psychiatric Association (APA) report found that, “half of all employees who say that they do not feel valued at work report that they intend to look for a new job in the next year.” Additionally, the survey found that, “employees who feel valued are more likely to have higher levels of engagement, satisfaction and motivation, compared to those who do not feel valued by their employers.” An organization is only as effective as the humans who are working for it. By building an organization fueled by trust, respect, and appreciation of your employees, your supporters, and your community, you build a sustainable company. Additionally, taking risks and trying new things with the support of a group and within a community who has helped create a plan or program is markedly less scary than doing it on your own, under the weight of a team of naysayers.

In order to capture and engage an audience–be it show-goers, funders, advertisers, or collaborators–you must first harness the energy of your employees. The APA also found the following: “Almost all employees (93%) who reported feeling valued said that they are motivated to do their best at work and 88 percent reported feeling engaged. This compares to just 33% and 38%, respectively, of those who said they do not feel valued.”

Last fall I participated on a panel for a digital marketing bootcamp for performing arts marketers, hosted by Capacity Interactive (CI). In a conversation with Erik Gensler, digital consultant and CI’s president, and digital marketing staff from both Carnegie Hall and BAM, we spoke about capacity building for digital. The buzz-word was trust. When hiring someone to manage your online presence trust yourself to make a good hire and then trust your employee to do a good job. Long chains of approval slow down what should be a fast process. Lisa Niedermeyer, in our recent conversation made a salient point: “Have the faith to let go of people who are not competent or a good fit with your goals. Because, in the arts, we are often asking favors and paying minimum levels for people’s time we put up with a lot because of how much energy it takes to find someone new to replace someone. Having someone who isn’t great isn’t better than not having anyone at all.”

Any performer will tell you that the way to capture an audience is to let them in. Offering ever a small amount of genuine openness and vulnerability into your performance gives viewers space to connect with you and a level of comfort where they too can bring themselves to your work. The same rules can be applied within organizations. When upper managers can admit that they do not have all of the answers and create an environment where everyone can learn together, and where everyone’s input is received equally, a foundation of trust and respect can be solidified. Particularly in today’s world of active participation where we are invited to give feedback and companies pay attention, if your employees do not feel that same level of importance and involvement, morale will plummet.

In conclusion, the way to survive and thrive in the current climate while preparing for the future is to take thoughtful risks born of and supported by your organization and your community–both geographic and online. In the words of New York based Choreographer and owner of Gibney Dance Center, Gina Gibney: “You have to be willing to apply your creativity and resourcefulness not only to your work but to the business of your work. Economic challenges and the rapidly changing focus of funders require constant adaptation. Adaptation may sound healthy from a business perspective, but for an arts organization it zaps time and resources that would be better applied to making art or implementing programs. If you believe in your work, you can’t stop–but you may have to constantly refocus and regroup in order to survive.”

This article appeared in the May 2012 issue of In Dance.

Jennifer Edwards is a founding partner and consultant specializing in group facilitation, and organizational development at Edwards & Skybetter/Change Agency. She is also a choreographer and the Artistic Director at JenEd Productions. Her advice on managing stress at work has been featured in publications including Martha Stewart's Whole Living Magazine, Forbes, and the New York Times. She is currently designing a stress management app called home/body for dancers. Edwards often contributes to publications including The Huffington Post and Dance/USA's From the Green Room.