I’m writing this from the second general session of the National Performing Arts Convention, which features an address from Jim Collins, author of Good to Great. Collins is a former professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and has a book that came out a couple of years ago called Good to Great and the Social Sectors.
- Who knew, he’s a new music fan! He’s talking about how he was just at the Ojai Music Festival and became totally transfixed by an opera and Steve Reich’s Drumming (strange to think that I have friends who were involved with that performance). Later he name-drops Tan Dun.
- “An America without great performances would be impoverished, no matter what our GNP.” Jim Collins said it, so it must be true, right? I have to hand it to him, he knows how to give a speech. Feels a little like a stump address, but he’s a performer for sure.
- Apparently the #1 performing stock among all publicly traded stocks from 1972-2002 is Southwest Airlines. I suspect this might involve some cherry-picking of dates (what’s the best-performing stock from 1972-2008?), but it’s still surprising given the industry. He’s trying to make the point that choices have more significance than circumstances.
- He says that the answer to the performing arts field’s problems is not to become more like a business. He’s making the point that there’s mediocrity in all fields (yes!) and that just because a practice or habit comes from the corporate world doesn’t mean it’s better. The important difference (as he puts it) is between “good” and “great” and the key factor is a culture of discipline. Momentum takes a long time to build, even for so-called “overnight successes.”
- Hammering home that we each need to think about our own role in this puzzle, not just sit back and say to ourselves, “yeah, we should totally change the way we do things as a field” and then assume that other people will take care of it. Applicable to any desirable social outcome. That said, his insistence on calling us the “performance arts” is a little grating.
- Now saying that concentrated executive power, as we seen in companies, is actually the special case, not the general case. In the social sector and in society at large, it’s much more common to see diffuse power maps in which many parties have enough negative power to kill action. So the most effective leader (a “Level 5” leader in his taxonomy) in the social sector is not the one who can just make the right decisions, but the one who can create the conditions in which the right decisions can happen. In other words, a facilitator more than a despot. Man, maybe I need to read this book.
- Since money is merely a necessary input to the social sector, rather than a signal of success, Collins suggests a hybrid approach to measuring impact in the social sector, particularly in the performing arts. He likens it to a trial: building a case for impact, using a mix of quantitative and qualitative factors. “Thou art guilty of great results!”
- Points out the differences between values and practices. Practices can change, values cannot. As much as traditions are revered, they are not values, they are practices. The challenge is to adapt by changing practices while holding values constant.
Occasional over-the-top motivational speaker moments aside, a good speech and a good session. Later, I attended seven different panels for about fifteen minutes each thanks to NPAC’s inexplicable decision to pack all of the four-day conference’s dozens of breakout sessions into one three-hour period. My divide-and-conquer strategy wasn’t all that successful, since I only caught little bits of each event and couldn’t manage much context from it. The most interesting sessions I saw were “The Not-So Distant Horizon” featuring Artsjournal.com‘s Douglas McLennan and “futurist” David S. McIntosh and “Stop Taking Attendance and Start Measuring the Intrinsic Impact of Your Programs” with WolfBrown and officials from the Clarice Smith Center at the University of Maryland. The former attempted to put in one place all of the broad cultural trends affecting the performing arts, while the latter demonstrated a novel approach to measuring emotional and spiritual impact by borrowing techniques from psychological research.