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  • benjaminnewman01

Mod. 12.1 - Thought Leadership Piece




Author: Ben Newman

CL 7410: Creative Leadership Capstone

Faculty Advisors: Diane Ragsdale & Nina Simon

MA in Creative Leadership

July-August, 2023

With immense thanks to Diane Ragsdale for her continual care and

model of how teachers can apply the Agile principles of flexibility and adaptation through her care and stewardship of my goals writing and submitting this paper past the requested deadline…



In today’s business age fueled by constant change, technological advancement, and political and social disruption, the need for companies to be adaptable and flexible in how they think and act is essential. In the nonprofit sector, and specifically arts organizations, this is a massive challenge as the vast majority of companies lack both the human capital and financial resources needed to support research, development and experimentation of different models to help them stay competitive in the cultural marketplace currently being dominated by streaming services and global pop stars world tours with $1,000 ticket prices. And while the target demographic for arts organizations is older and differs enough that they don’t generally compete with Beyoncé or Netflix, performing arts audiences have been slow to come back to the concert hall following the pandemic, leading arts leaders to look for new ways to attract audiences and retain strong support for their companies while being mindful of the competing entertainment offerings available to audiences.

These issues are not new in the performing arts, but the pandemic magnified the existential pressure many arts organizations face regularly to even higher levels and opened the door for arts leaders to consider adopting alternative frameworks, business models and practices to the traditional model that has governed arts organizations for the better part of a century. I believe there are three models that arts leaders will benefit greatly from considering as they explore these different possibilities. First, the role of Artistic Directors and/or Music Directors as ambassadors of change. Second, the value of applying Agile business principles within the administrative operations of performing arts companies. And third, using the landmark 2020 handbook Ideas, Arrangements and Effects from Lori Lobenstine, Kenneth Bailey and Ayako Maruyama, at the Design Studio for Social Intervention to thoroughly examine what ideas, arrangements and effects govern their companies and are critical for building a strong backbone of support for their companies long term.

Recently in the Orchestra world, Music Directors (a company’s artistic leader and principal conductor) like Gustavo Dudamel of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Yannick Nézet-Séguin of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera are modeling new forms of artistic leadership rooted in a spirit of fraternal collaboration with the professional musicians they perform with and lead from the podium in concerts and openness to audience interaction. Their approach is a stark contrast to the historic model of artistic leadership represented by some of music history’s most revered conductors who were famously perceived to be shrouded in enigmatic mysteries, frightening genius, and ruled their orchestras with an iron fist. The rising generation of conductors is breaking down the traditional barriers established by previous generations of arts leaders by embracing audience applause between movements (a traditional social faux pas at classical concerts), wearing less formal clothing while conducting from the podium instead of the traditional tux with tails, and programming more diverse musical repertoire and presenting non-classical performing artists in programs that fuse pop with classical music, give rappers a chance to collaborate with a professional orchestra, and introduce audiences to music from other countries and composers from across the globe. These endeavors aim to change the public perception of Orchestras as stodgy and elitist, to that of a vibrant, living musical organization filled with local opportunities for personal exploration and cultural connection.

Music Directors like Gustavo Dudamel and Yannick Nézet-Séguin are paving the way for a sea change among American orchestras, but behind these Music Directors’ efforts to shift the paradigm in how orchestras are perceived and operate, the internal structures and systems supporting them retain the traditional, outdated practices and principles that have sustained their companies, but also contribute to the public’s perception of elitism and inaccessibility, rather than a temple dedicated to the exploration of creative and musical possibility. This tension between old vs. new, traditional vs. innovative, tried and true vs. disruptive and experimental, is common to all sectors of business, but the classical music industry’s traditional roots reinforce their place as static museums conserving cultural relics of centuries past, thus mitigating any opportunity for them to change, grow, and adapt with the times like other businesses must do in order to remain competitive. But as arts leaders look to the future and see their audiences getting older and dying, it’s only a matter of time before they will have to either close up shop, or find an alternative approach and mission to keep operating.

This eventual inevitability is why I believe arts leaders need to consider adopting Agile business principles into their internal operations and organizational models. At its core, Agile principles emphasize adaptability, collaboration, flexibility, and continuous improvement. Ironically, these are the same principles that govern orchestra musicians and the Music Director in rehearsal and allow them to come together and perform amazing concerts day after day, yet they are mysteriously absent from the administrative suite of workers supporting the musicians behind the scenes. In a 2017 report “Written collaboratively by the McKinsey Agile Tribe” called The 5 Trademarks of Agile Organizations the authors make a distinction between “the Old Paradigm: organizations as machines” as the traditional model, and “the New Paradigm: organizations as living organisms” that reflect Agile practices in their approach. They identify five trademarks that appear consistently across every organization that have successfully adopted Agile practices: Strategy, Structure, Process, People, and Technology. Reading the report, I realized that these five principles could be mapped on to the current organizational structure of most performing arts organizations in order to transform the way they operate.

By creating a business strategy infused with shared purpose in tandem with a non-hierarchical structure of empowered staff who rapidly iterate and learn, the internal culture of performing arts companies would change drastically by encouraging rapid experimentation, iteration, and learning among staff that would add meaningful value to their work and reap untold benefits for the company long term. While the traditional hierarchy of orchestras might resist the shift towards collaborative decision-making, clear communication and effective change management from leadership will build support as Agile principles become the company’s new reality.

To practically illustrate what kind of changes a shift to Agile might create, let's look at the model of an American Orchestra again. In the traditional model, musicians and administrators operate in silos away from each other. Musicians practice at home before attending closed rehearsals before performances while administrators work in an office under a 9-5 work week, plus attending weekend performances. Staff are traditionally forbidden from attending rehearsals to allow the Music Director and musicians to focus and maximize their rehearsal time. As a result, the two groups operate concurrently yet distinctly separate from one another except when they come together during performances, and even then, they retain their respective silos. Musicians function as back of house staff and administrators as front of house. The two groups come together in the same building, work towards the same goal, but never interact. This “closed door” approach with staff only reinforces the negative perception of classical music as inaccessible and exclusionist, and represents what the rising generation of Music Directors hope to change. Applying Agile principles would break down the barriers between administrators and musicians and empower them to collaborate and forge a network of ideas and experiments that would bring the two groups together to create new possibilities.

Wouldn’t it make sense for staff to hear the music during rehearsals so they are familiar with the performance they’re working to support, instead of just a recording? Wouldn’t they be inspired by the music and gain insights from the rehearsal process that they can share with donors, audience members and trustees to generate excitement and expand their enjoyment of the performance? Perhaps a staffer hears an incredibly moving excerpt of a piece during rehearsal performed by one of the orchestra’s musicians and they meet up with them after rehearsal to record a short video of them playing the excerpt to help promote the concert on social media? By integrating Agile principles into their business models, arts leaders can build up a company-wide culture of creativity and innovation internally that will correlate to tremendous rewards externally.

The potential for reimagining how an orchestra operates with Agile principles is almost endless, but it also requires a strong organizational backbone to sustain long term. Lori Lobenstine, Kenneth Bailey and Ayako Maruyama’s book Ideas, Arrangements and Effects is a fantastic resource for arts leaders to consider in tandem with Agile principles and dynamic Music Director leadership. The authors’ thesis can be summarized as Ideas are embedded in social arrangements, which in turn produce effects. When considered through the lens of how arts organizations are structured, the thesis offers several ways for arts leaders to consider what ideas (e.g. principles or values) are embedded into their company’s arrangements (e.g. practices and systems) and what effects are produced as a result (e.g. impact and perceptions). For example, in American Orchestras, the Music Director is the only person who selects which pieces get performed and which guest performers play with the Orchestra. In this scenario, the “idea” is that the Music Director is the only one qualified to decide which pieces get performed “the arrangement” and so they choose almost every piece and performer year over year, “the effect”. The rationale behind this scenario is that since the Music Director conducts the orchestra and knows its strengths and weaknesses, combined with their presumed encyclopedic knowledge of musical repertoire to draw musical from, that they get to make all of the selections of pieces and performers, and audiences will love it no matter what because it was curated by their Maestro. The technical process by which programming decisions are made internally at an orchestra is outlined below with an analysis of the key assumptions and underlying beliefs governing the process.

But what about pieces of music that haven’t been written yet by today’s generation of prolific composers writing new music? Perhaps commissioning some of these composers to write for the Orchestra might offer a new opportunity to showcase the orchestra in a way that the audience might not be familiar with? Or what about the world-class Principal Horn player who has been dying to solo with the Orchestra, but the Music Director has never programmed a horn concerto before? Once again, the number of possibilities that exist for which pieces get performed and by which performers is almost endless. The Idea and Arrangement of how pieces are selected has known Effects, but if Orchestras experimented with a different Idea and Arrangement, would it produce better effects? Perhaps it would attract new and larger audiences or lead the Music Director to discover new pieces of music that become perennial fan favorites? The Idea and Arrangement of how music is selected and by whom has never been examined at a level that would allow an Orchestra to consider what alternate Effects it might create.

In the model below, I propose an alternative music selection model I’ve called the “Artistic Programming Megaphone” which begins the music selection process with the Orchestra’s musicians, rather than the Music Director. To add another dimension to the experiment, I also switched the placement of the Board of Directors as decision makers with donors and subscribers to create a massive ecosystem of musicians and audience members collaborating together to decide the musical selections for the next season that get shared with the Music Director to consider programming.

This alternative programming model is just one of many examples in several different areas where arts leaders can use the “Ideas, Arrangements, and Effects” framework to examine the underlying assumptions, rationales, and structures governing their ongoing practices and the impact they generate both internally and externally to help discern which areas are functioning well, and which ones merit exploration and experimentation.

If the performing arts industry is going to continue playing a meaningful role in their respective communities and in the lives of their audiences and supporters, they must adapt their practices to reflect the Agile and creative principles used by the performing artists they present on stage by becoming more collaborative, more dynamic, more flexible, and more imaginative. By embracing the principles of continuous iteration, learning, and experimentation, performing arts companies can synthesize the creativity on stage with creativity offstage to stay competitive in a constantly changing cultural landscape. Arts leaders provide the critical backbone of support needed to reimagine the performing arts business model and they must find the unique balance between the shift from the hierarchical, traditional, old paradigm of organizations as machines, and a collaborative, innovative, new paradigm of organizations as organisms in order to ensure the life-changing experience and captivating joy that can only come from the performing arts continues to expand and flourish for many future generations to come.

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