Category Archives: relationships

Leadership matters: Reflecting on the Yukon Arts Summit

My mind keeps returning to the Yukon Arts Presenters Summit. I had the rare benefit of debriefing with Michele Emslie, Summit organizer and Community Programming Director at the Yukon Arts Centre, over a few days and assisting in reviewing the personal and group action plans to which participants committed.

I am struck by the leadership capabilities that underpinned the success of the summit; qualities that go beyond being adaptable or seeking to be relevant to stakeholders.

Design thinking applied

Rather than define and solve a specific problem, the organizers held themselves to a different standard based on a broad goal: strengthening the Yukon arts presenting eco-system. Making such a broad goal central meant that much effort was spent on creating the conditions in which participants could discover and define the actions that were important to them. At heart of this design thinking approach lies understanding that a combination of empathy, creativity, analysis and synthesis as well as having explicit spaces for convergent and divergent thinking are essential. In short, by taking this approach, organizers succeeded in creating a space in which a diverse group of participants could learn, reflect, be inspired, meet and talk together and arrive in new places together.

Co-creating an intentional journey

There was no pre-defined destination, no agenda in terms of specific outcomes, no boxes to check off, no need for linear progression. Rather, there was an invitation to join together on a journey of discovering common ground and action priorities.

The organizers were focused on empowering participants from the start, knowing that the summit is its participants. They asked potential participants to co-create the content through soliciting feedback on hot topics and burning issues. 60 responses came in! Organizers listened carefully and found five key themes to address. An important  effect of this open, listening approach was that the tone of the summit, its ownership was already in the hands of participants well before they could even register for it.

Deep respect and trust in each person’s wisdom

The organizers showed a deep, easy respect for each person and their knowledge and experience. This was apparent in every facet, including activities like:

  • The Friday morning networking exercise using a photo, paper and markers to answer four questions: who are you/ what do you do, what is your hope for the future, what can you contribute to the summit, what do you need from it.
  • A gift exchange: each participant was asked to bring a gift that represents something about them, their work or their community (using their imagination rather than pocket book). These gifts were randomly distributed at lunch and then everyone read the brief note that was attached by the giver and talked about what significance this gift held to them. There were all kinds of wondrous giver-receiver match ups and the exchange made for a profound sense of connection and some fun. 100+ people managed to share in plenary over lunch while staying on schedule for the entire conference.
  • Each day’s opening reflections, ranging from an elder’s prayer to Haiku to Gramma Susie.

Wisdom comes from many places and, in particular, the spaces in between.

Action-oriented

The summit schedule was action-packed, not because of featuring talking heads or experts, but because of its focus on facilitation, conversation, meeting and thinking together, and action planning. (As a speaker, I felt I was well briefed heading into the summit!) As a result this summit produced several big ideas and actions through collaboration, rather than consensus. Perhaps most important, it resulted in the ownership of these ideas residing within the community itself, owned by various champions and those who gathered around these big ideas. Conference organizers didn’t get a long task list back, but rather received a strong mandate to remain stewards of the process, facilitate the next steps and to continue leading by encouraging leadership from within the arts community.

Using Open Space methods, participants pitched these initiatives for discussion.

Using Open Space methods, participants pitched various initiatives for discussion and to see which ones were strong enough to warrant concerted action.

A network = An action community

I believe we are seeing a profoundly different kind of arts presenters network emerge in Yukon. Not one that becomes a membership-based service model over time and that might suffer the eventual difficulties that have become so well documented for many membership-based associations; but a living, breathing, creative community that gathers around common actions (which require a just large enough group to be interested in working together), that is highly responsive to emerging and changing needs, and that delegates authority to all participants while benefiting from unhurried and effective stewardship provided by the Community Programming Director at the Yukon Arts Centre (YAC). Finally, YAC is ideally positioned for this role as it is a territorially created arts centre whose mandate includes strengthening arts as an important cultural, social and economic force in the Yukon Territory as a whole.

This close-knit, open network grounded in shared leadership and personal commitments, will show us how big ideas can be realized through concerted actions – unfettered from needing to establish narrow service priorities or delegating authority to a few (like a board of directors) – and thus able to grow and shift as the situation warrants.

Power of the People: Yukon Arts Summit makes change

Over 100 performing and visual arts presenters from across Yukon gathered during four days in November to develop concrete action plans for a strong, unified arts sector. The summit was designed to create a space where all participants would shape the outcomes – at once encouraging collaboration and inviting each person’s leadership. It was remarkable to be a witness – and contributor – to this process.

The energy in the room was unlike anything I have ever experienced.  The work that got done, the plans that were committed to, will transform the way the Yukon arts and cultural communities work with each other, and present themselves to their stakeholders, the rest of Canada and beyond. People here not only dream big, they make big things happen. It seems they can’t help it; it is in their nature.

The summit outcomes will prove their transformative power over the next weeks, months and years.

Yukon Arts Presenters Summit

Breakout sessions brought people together to reflect and to pollinate new thinking.

Several key elements came together to create a summit like no other I have ever seen:

  • An attitude that set out to “Help the Best get Better” and that delivered. Indeed the best had gathered together at this summit: 100% of First Nations Cultural Centres attended, as well as 86% of the First Nations in the Yukon, and the same proportion of all the communities across the territory. All participants had a voice and used it, shared experiences, told stories and offered new thinking that could create significant change. Both performing and visual arts were actively included, and many artistic disciplines within these were well-represented. Presenters, producers, practicing artists, funders, board members and consultants all worked together throughout. Just imagine such a truly inclusive gathering of active, ready-to-work participants in BC, Ontario or the Maritimes!
  • Action-oriented summit design. There were only 5 presentations/ workshops during the summit: place-based cultural tourism, collaboration, network development, marketing and funding. Each was followed by three local responders, rather than the often used Q&A format, who reflected briefly on each presentation (what resonated, what didn’t and action items) , followed by professionally facilitated breakout sessions designed to connect, reflect and plan.
  • Deliberate creation of spaces for reflection, and spaces for action planning. This was ingenious. The summit organizers invited participants along this journey, always stretching themselves along the way, and by day 4, the work had been done to achieve agreement on several major community-led initiatives: to establish a collaborative network of presenters, create a touring network, establish a network for First Nations Cultural Centres; and to put the arts and cultural sector into the driver seat in terms of their contribution to Yukon tourism.

As an outside expert I was asked to participate in the whole conference. For me that meant there was a great deal of casual, hallway type conversation about anything that was on participants’ minds, mixed with formal opportunities to meet whether in a MatchUp program or over dinner. As a result I formed much deeper, richer connections with carefully thinking, smart people from all parts of Yukon, who were exploring how to use their understanding, new information and leadership for their communities’ benefit and the greater good. Listening and asking good questions can be much more powerful than speaking or telling.

My hope is that this new kind of close-knit, yet open network, grounded in shared leadership and personal commitments for specific actions, will become a beacon for established and new networks elsewhere.

 

Northern arts has some great leaders

What’s Up Yukon published this pre-Summit profile on Michele Emslie, Yukon Arts Presenters Summit organizer and Community Programming Director at the Yukon Arts Centre. It’s great to see colleagues and friends acknowledged for their work, in this case over 25 years, and clear vision for their community.

Also fun is this line: “conference will include presentations by several heavy hitters in the Canadian arts and culture sector.” That one appears to refer to me and my fellow Canadian presenters who were invited to speak at the summit. I’m not sure exactly how one becomes a heavy hitter, but I for one do do a lot of talking about realizing a vision of “vibrant communities fueled by the performing arts and its community-engaged partnerships” that has grown out of the Value of Presenting study, and train more and more on contemporary marketing, research and more.

Arts Marketing … or Orchestras are not for everyone

I came upon this discussion of the state of orchestral music in response to Ivan Katz’ analysis  of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings entered by the Philadelphia Orchestra Association early in 2011.

I am entirely unfamiliar with the specifics of these proceedings. In particular the forum posts by a Thomas Alan Broido prompted today’s post referencing something I wrote about: “Imagine: creating a brand new genre of live music making today!

I implicitly suggested that the product/service – “live orchestral music” – would be targeted at a particular segment of the population. Taking a segmentation approach in the first place implies that ticketed (paid) orchestral music is not for everyone. That is not to say that classical music or orchestral music is not for everyone; putting a price tag on it, however, diminishes audience and market potential.

I continue to collect compelling evidence of the intrinsic values and benefits of arts and cultural participation. When the belief in these values and benefits are transferred directly to the ticketed performing arts things become murky. The unshakable importance of the arts as a public good is challenged when box office revenues must be achieved which restricts access which means the public good takes a lesser role, one balanced with revenue imperatives.

To peel back the onion on this conversation could yield new ways of thinking about the performing arts and about orchestras specifically. Thinking about what an orchestra or a theatre offers its paying customers and how to market that vigorously is qualitatively different from what an orchestra would consider if the public good, the health and well-being of the community, was of foremost concern.

On recent travels on Canada’s east coast, I have been discussing his very thing, and I realize that we pay for many pubic good, hydro, food, snow clearing – without them becoming a lesser public good. In the arts, it creates a bona fides marketing scenario, that other areas experience in different ways and in some areas less so. Snow clearing happens through taxation. Hydro development, too, even where there is competition for delivery and such. Food is super competitive, but the staples much less so. Arts, professional arts, actually need to be excellent at break-through marketing and attention getting engagement to command a serious ticket buying commitment. And I know it can be done. (See Cirque du Soleil).

I have been talking about some case studies in the arts demonstrating integrated marketing strategies. Amazing how language I used corporately in the 1990s is so top of mind now in the 2010s. Perhaps it’s just my way of integrated thinking. 🙂

This is a link to the Atlantic Presenters Association newsletter discussing my East Coast presentations and workshops, in early March. So happy to see this amazing feedback. I got to connect with 110 Atlantic arts organizations in one trip. Just amazing.
http://us1.campaign-archive1.com/?u=98ddd3c7538d70d3aa9945907&id=041f96aa01&e=3ce7dd33bd

We can do so much, when we combine the best from all disciplines that help us connect art and audiences. Including full-on Marketing.

Social web strategy for the performing arts

“Many arts institutions even allow their audience members to write their own critiques on the organizational website. This is a scary trend.” Michael Kaiser, President at Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts, blogging on HuffPost, a while back.

It’s not clear to me whether he thinks the ability of people to engage with each other is positive or negative for the performing arts, but he definitely says it’s scary. (He might have meant that with regard to the demise of news-media critics and the rise of patrons providing their opinions online.)

In any case, in 2011, year 16 of the commercial internet, this amazes me.

It is neither scary nor new that arts patrons share their thoughts, reactions and recommendations about performing arts events.

Yes, the speed of this sharing is near instant – and potentially widely distributed – in the age of mobile technologies. Smart companies would want to harness this user generated content (UCG) on their own platforms as much as possible and indeed, they’d participate.

Imagine a social web strategy for a performing arts organization predicated on authentic relationships between their organization, artists and audiences: They might thank audience members for feedback, positive reviews, questions and being interested. The artistic director might comment back when they see a reaction that they want to shift to a different place. They could have a conversation and share information and perspectives. They might answer those “what were they thinking!” questions that people post on Facebook, Twitter or on blogs. Marketing staff could retweet and amplify the positive reviews you get. The company could give the behind the scenes insight, tell the back stories and facilitate creators, actors, musicians, dancers to speak for themselves (many do). They would not abuse these relationship for quick ticket sales, but they might occasionally highlight upcoming shows in their venue and in others. They might rally everyone around the love of the arts and spread it.

Can you imagine the power of these interactions for your company – your brand – in the long run?

For years, user generated content has been coveted by consumer companies and entire strategies have been thought up to get it – using contesting, short codes, value added info, exclusive perks. I used it as part of a place branding project for a city in Eastern Ontario back in 2007 with great results. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty put an interesting spin on the genre. Today user generated content (the social media) has become ubiquitous through social networks (that’s the platforms) and the real challenge is not the generation of it, but the harnessing of the conversation real people are having about you, your services, your products. (Real people is key, because there are all kinds of spam engines, and fake UCG where companies or their agents act as imposters – this is not social and it is not what I am talking about.)

The true irony might lie in what great art has the power to do:

It is supposed to be a conversation; an exchange between orchestra and audience through music; an exchange of ideas in theatre; a kinetic exploration through the body in dance; an entertaining experience (in the best sense of the word). It aspires to be: emotive, beautiful, thought-provoking, stimulating or even transforming. It examines the human condition. It can connect people both to each other and to a higher plane of being in whatever way they choose. It can foster greater understanding across cultures or socio-economic groups. And it does it by carrying on the conversations outside of the performance space.

I think, those arts organizations who have figured out to become part of the conversation are to be congratulated and celebrated. That’s why I celebrate the vision and smarts at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, or Shell Theatre in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. (Please add others who do it well in the comments below.)

They may just have realized that the conversation goes on without them anyways. And they can build authentic relationships by inviting audiences not only inside their theatres but inside their web presence, too.

Finally, new audience engagement modes reflect a generational as much as a technological shift. Back in 2006 even Time magazine had figured out the signs of the times by declaring You, yes, YOU, its Person of the Year.

By the way, Twitter and Facebook were in their infancy in 2006. Notably, Time’s Person of the Year for 2010, was Mark Zuckerberg. The speed of business has increased tremendously and it demands nimbleness and adaptablility more than ever.

Imagine: creating a brand new genre of live music making today!

Yes, as if it was brand new. Where would you start? 

I would start with looking at my potential audiences and what they thrive on today. I would look at my community, its demographic make-up, its values, attitudes and beliefs and I would segment. I might identify those huge numbers of people who listen to music electronically, primarily using ear buds, irrespective of genre. I would examine deeply where they find their music, what they are listening to, how they listen to this music, when they listen to it, whether they share it with others and how, why they listen to their music, what music gives them, and what music gives them that nothing else in their lives does.

Then I would find out how they spend their days, how much time they spend being social and what they gain in their social interactions. I might see that there are grave pressures and stressors in people’s lives, and a wide range of worries and concerns that express themselves in various ways, including making people sick, feeling isolated and alone. I might think about how their current consumption of music via ear buds enhances these issues or alleviates them.

Then I might realize that the highest potential revenue is available in the 30 to 59 year age group – according to Statistics Canada data. I would use an existing geographic segmentation tool to understand demographics, values, attitudes and beliefs by postal codes, allowing me to see many dimensions of potential audiences.

I might determine that there are two different generations in this 30-year age span – Boomers and Gen Xers – who hold different generational values. I might decide that Gen Xers would be the sweet spot as they are less individualistic in orientation and I could foster and keep them as customers longer because they are younger. I would do this knowing that they tend to be more independent-minded even as they value communal spaces and social connections.

I would see that my target Gen Xers create, participate and engage in every dimension of life (socially, environmentally, politically, economically, artistically). I would see that they are sophisticated consumers who research, explore and sample online and by recommendation (both peer and paid recommenders). They are curious about new experiences and are excited to try out things they haven’t done before. I would see that they tend to look to be entertained in a friendly atmosphere rather than simply accepting others authority and doing as they are told without knowing why.

Then I would find out where this generation spends time and what their days, evenings and nights look like. Are they indoors in front of large screens or having family and social time, are they on the run using mobile devices as a primary interface while working hard, are they hanging out in coffee houses, bars and restaurants to get face-time, as they also chat and engage in social media to share with their wider community, are they in Yoga studios and fitness studios, spas and aesthetics shops where pampering is the order of the day and image is honed? Or do they work and worry about having enough money and resources to make ends meet? Different segments, micro-segments, would dominate in various activities and I might decide that I want to provide my solution – live orchestral classical music (ha!) – to all of them or some of them.

Then I might ask myself: how can I connect my brand new idea, never been seen before type of music making requiring perfect harmony among 40 to 100+ (!) musicians to these Gen Xers? How is my idea, that thrives on delicate sound (both in the highs and lows – qualities that are harder to appreciate and hear in compressed digital files), complex structure and intricate music making with a bewildering array of instruments, going to make these sophisticated, busy Gen Xers’ lives better, richer, more complete? What is the value Gen Xers would gain from such a formidable live experience? How is that value greater in comparison to other activities in their lives? How do I connect this live experience through online/mobile channels and make it irresistible? How will I secure true participation in the live music making?

Then I would decide what the business model is going to be, after all, getting that many musicians to play together will take considerable resources especially in the mid- to long-term. In essence, I would think about whether there can be economies of scale in my business model and what they are. For instance, I might realize that the live performance doesn’t scale well and I might search for ways to extend the live aspects to further monetize them. I might borrow from the playbook of other live events, whether its sports or pop and rock music.

I would look to other music experiences for inspiration, from the house concert to the stadium rock concerts. I would also look to the video game industry because it is highly participatory, the high-end spa experience because it does so well at pampering and getting me beyond my daily concerns, and the travel industry, both packaged and independent travel. And I’d think about styles of performance a lot.

This would eventually get me into the weeds of decision making: Would I put the musicians in a closed music making space, a concert hall, or would I put them outside or in community contexts? Would I have musicians be perfect technicians playing all the notes just so, or would I think about all that’s needed for an awesome performance experience for the audience? Would I ban the enthusiasm of my audience to the ends of long pieces, or would I encourage spontaneous outbursts of joy, delight, feedback? Would I dress musicians in black tails or would I allow their personalities to shine through with more than their hair styles? I would deeply consider the trade offs in each decision, talk to musicians and audiences and figure out how they would shape my brand.

Building such a bold idea from scratch would be awesomely exciting.

Finally, I would figure out how to build-in “creative destruction” mechanisms, so that the audience experience stays fresh and vibrant, rather than becoming narrowly defined by my initial magic formula. Everything tells me that there will be significant disruptive factors of all kinds, most of them outside my control, so that I might as well build in change and evolutionary leaps into the DNA.