Reflections on Strategic Planning in Arts Organizations

from Arts Professional
November 2003
By Adrian Ellis

A few years ago I was talking to the Director of Arts and Culture of a big city in the North of England – discretion being the better part of consulting, he and his city shall go nameless. Anyway, I asked him whether he could place the piece of work he had commissioned us to do in any wider strategic context. It didn’t make much sense to me in isolation and I thought we could probably do a better job if he could tell me why he wanted us do it rather than simply what he wanted us to do. He was stumped for a few second and then he grinned and said: “Didn’t you know? We’re post-strategic around here!”

‘Post strategic’ – I love that expression, ironic, dead-pan and compact, it sums up a perspective that says life is so complicated, and the impact that you can have on it so small and unpredictable, that you are best served by accepting that we stumble around from task to task improvising wildly, our criteria for success a series of ad and post hoc rationalizations. There’s no point is having a strategy (that is, a set of congruent, linked longer term goals) if you can’t affect outcomes, and planning itself only has meaning if you can influence your organisation’s destiny. Strategy and purposeless are incompatible; so are planning and impotence. ‘Post strategic’ is a euphemism for purposeless impotence.

For much of the past five years I have been working with arts organizations and their funders in the United States. The same sorts of organizations as I worked with for the previous eight in the United Kingdom – orchestras, museums, theatre, opera and dance companies, and the foundations and public agencies that fund them. I encounter much the same sorts of problems in the US that I do in the UK – undercapitalised, over extended organizations trying to balance the conflicting exigencies of mission and market. The differences – the fiscal framework, the resulting differences in the balance of public funding and private philanthropy, America’s roller-coaster boom-bust economy, etc. etc. – are significant and well rehearsed but ultimately minor compared with the similarities. Except one. There is one major difference between the US and the UK, which has been revelatory. It concerns the place of strategic planning in the management of non-profit organizations in general and the cultural sector in particular. And whilst I am generally highly circumspect about advocating one continent’s solution on the other – and especially America’s solutions in Europe these days...– I think in this respect the Yanks are broadly right and the Brits are broadly wrong. In Britain, too much planning in the arts is ersatz; pseudoplanning undertaken to legitimate the case for additional for resources to third parties, usually public funding bodies. The result is usually disingenuous, systemically overoptimistic and tangentially related to the issues that truly engage the leadership of the organisation in question, as opposed to the funder at which the plan is pitched. They do not inform decision making or provide criteria for allocating scarce resources.

Those that write them are not planning but bidding, to paraphrase Stevie Smith. (For a longer polemic on the insidious dangers of overly tactical descriptions of culture’s purposes for funding purposes see AEA’s previous report entitled Valuing Culture)

The idea that periodically an organisation should, collectively:

  • Take stock of the environment in which it is operating – trends in funding, demographic changes, changes in the nature of its competitors, suppliers etc;
  • Take stock of its ultimate ambitions and then agree the programmatic priorities that best support them;
  • Think through rigorously the organizational and financial resources required to support them, and cold-bloodedly assess the practicability of securing them; and
  • Articulate who needs to do what in what order to move from the status quo to the future it has mapped itself

seems to many post-strategic British arts organisations simply utopian, premised on a level of existential autonomy that they do not believe themselves to enjoy, mired as they are in the daily preoccupations of survival. Securing a degree of overt consensus about these issues amongst board and staff is seen as too self-conscious, awkward and exhausting a prospect and one for which senior management feel they have neither time nor tools.

The best they can muster are sporadic ‘away-days’, occasionally overseen by external process consultants with a strong bent for cathartic psychological games but with little insight into, or opportunity to learn, the underlying organisational and financial problems of the outfits whose processes they are ostensibly facilitating. These occasions tend to generate airy discussion of high level issues but no mechanism for the granular follow through that is required to inform meaningful choices about resource allocation. The result is temporary planning euphoria followed by planning fatigue and scepticism about the very idea of planning, as the organisation pings back into the status quo like old elastic on return from its bucolic retreat.

Strategic planning gets a bad press for a number of reasons. The four most compelling are that:

  • Many of the tools and devices of strategic planning were devised in the context of vast private sector companies and need radical adaptation and simplification to make sense in the context of tiny non-profit arts organizations. [True, they are over-engineered and need to be adapted. Even the largest arts organization is a micro business. So adapt them.];
  • Whilst mission is and should be the starting point in all planning for cultural organisations, discussions of mission can dissolve into tetchy, time-consuming, politicised word-smithing. The financial and organisational implications of decisions about programming priorities and resourcing are left under-examined and underarticulated in planning processes, because everyone runs out of steam before they get there. [True, the process of planning needs managing and the management needs to extend into implementation.];
  • There are different philosophies and fashions in planning, and because people make their living pedalling them, they tend to over-emphasise what is distinctive about each one and under-emphasise what they have in common. Drucker, Porter (competitive advantage), Schwartz (scenario planning), Handy, Kaplan (balanced scorecard) all have their unique selling propositions and their fan-clubs and have sought to apply their insights to non-profit organisations.[True, the similarities outweigh the differences but in the fight for brand-recognition, few planning gurus want to admit it];
  • The world is speeding up and the assumptions that inform plans need to be open to constant re-examination. Most arts organisations are run by energetic, expedient, tuned in, tactically canny social entrepreneurs whose antennae and instincts and intuitive understanding are more robust than the insights generated by some formal process. [False by virtue of non-sequitur between first and second sentences. The leadership of most arts organisations suffer from solipsistic delusions about the quality of their work, the impact it has, the regard in which they are held and the wider environment in which they operate. Some of these delusions are ‘functional’; that is, they goad them and their colleagues to heroic, if occasionally delusionary feats. Others as dysfunctional and lead them down blind alleys. Planning is not an alternative to vigorous, focussed executive leadership but a way of ensuring that vigour and focus are well directed.] 

So below are seven observations that will serve you well if you want to undertake a planning process, irrespective of the precise planning methodology you adopt.

First, there are two outcomes from a successful strategic planning process: 

  • a consensus within the organisation about what matters and what does not, where the organisations is going and how it’s going to get there; and
  • a document that records this in sufficient detail both to persuade third parties that have not been intimately involved in the process and to act as a road map for implementation.

The process needs therefore to generate both a compelling synthesis of a range of opinions and analytically robust set of propositions about an organisation’s destiny and direction. Equal attention needs to be paid to both these aspects of the process.

Second, a substantive consensus is more likely where there is a procedural consensus. Whatever the favoured planning process, make sure that those that matter have bought into it, and make sure that there is some integrity and rigor in its execution. Lay out the timetable and the outputs clearly; circulate papers in advance and minutes quickly; make sure that the process is not seen to be managed by a cabal with a vested interest in a particular outcome; and make sure that each of the following areas are addressed systematically in the process: environment, stakeholder views, mission, programmes, organizational capacity, financial stability and budgeting, and implementation.

Third, make sure there’s time in the process to get unstuck in the event that you get stuck but no so much time that the process has no momentum or sense of urgency – twelve to sixteen weeks seems to be about right usually. Any less and things get rushed, any more and people lose the thread.

Fourth, garbage in, garbage out. Make sure that for each of the summit meetings or away days or retreats that there is solid analytical material to inform discussion. At some point early in the process, you usually need: a short history of the organisation; an environmental scan of some sort; data and analysis of financial trends – income, expenditure, balance sheet, etc.; stakeholder views; audience or visitor data; and an annotated agenda that attempts to flag the four or five key issues that are going to critically affect the organisation over the next few years. Later on you need

to generate a draft plan that shows the organizational implications of programmatic imperatives. This means that planning absorbs staff time and failure to recognize this puts unreasonable demands on line management.

Fifth, develop an implementation plan that individuates responsibility – tasks have names against them! – and includes deadlines and criteria for success (a.k.a. performance measures). This is usually an irritating, fiddly exercise that no one has much appetite for. But without it, the plan tends to have no solid ‘purchase’ on the organisation and everyone just gets on with his or her own thing without any sense of the relationship between the giddy rhetoric of the planning process and the daily grind.

Sixth, monitor both implementation and assumptions about the environment that informed the plan so you are ready and able to revisit the plan if and as the assumptions on which it was based change. A plan is not straightjacket; it is a tool. The point is not that you never deviate from the plan but that you know when you are deviating and why. Every three years or so you need an explicit revisiting of the plan, but that is less traumatic if you have been monitoring things on an on-going basis.

Seventh, many successful planning processes that I have been involved with end up with a conclusion that the organisation should do fewer things, but better. A planning process that does not generate tough, impolite, contested decisions about allocation of scarce resources has not dug deep enough into the strategic choices facing your organisation. Or you are very lucky.