Executives that say these three phrases may have a ways to go to lead effective and efficient 21st century organizations.
Cultural executives seem to be increasingly interested in running data-informed organizations – and who can blame them? It’s a smart move with the potential to yield more visitors, members, and donor support. After all, helping an organization efficiently execute its mission and secure long-term solvency are among the primary points of effectively utilizing data in the first place!
It’s easy to be excited about the idea of running an evolving, healthy, data-backed and trend-informed organization that keeps pace with our connected world in theory. That’s critical not only to survive, but also to thrive! In practice, though, keeping up with these realities often means confronting some tough truths and addressing the need for changes…and the reality of embracing these tough truths can be decidedly less exciting.
Distancing ourselves from inconvenient news may be human. For humans running cultural organizations that aim to educate and inspire audiences, though, the consequences of doing this can be damaging.
The evolution of cultural organizations from ego-backed “I think” organizations to data-driven “I know” organizations is likely to continue to be a slow one – but not to worry. Both exhibit-based and performance-based organizations have good thinkers at the helm!
Our captains and crew are great, but changing the direction of Big Ship Cultural Business is hard.
I aim to make data accessible to visitor-serving organizations – and I go for the truth. That said, there are certain key phrases that, when spoken by a leader at a visitor-serving organization, make my IMPACTS colleagues and I look at one another with eyes that say, “This organization isn’t ready.” By that we mean that the organization isn’t really ready to ask hard questions, and they aren’t really ready to evolve to be more thoughtful or strategic about their organization’s business model and approach to its mission.
Leaders who say these three phrases often have a fundamental misunderstanding of the requirements to effectively lead a strategic and considered organization in our connected world. (And none of these phrases are, “That’s how we’ve always done it.” That’s a bad one, to be sure, but I’m hoping that we’ve all come to recognize its absurdity in our rapidly evolving times.)
Translated, these phrases mean roughly the same thing: “I’m unwilling to think critically about the direction of my organization.”
1) “That doesn’t apply to me”
This phrase is about discounting trends and big data regarding potential visitors or supporters. Like the others on this list, “That doesn’t apply to me” is often used to avoid thinking critically about audiences and strategic operations. It also seems to be said by those who fancy themselves as critical thinkers who are open to change…they just want to express that they don’t need to be open to this area of change. This is often because this area of change is hard.
I get this. (And, if we’re honest, who doesn’t?)
There’s a desire to believe that an organization’s local audiences do not have negatively skewed perceptions of them compared to out-of-towners, or that affordable access programs are effectively reaching audiences, or that this project will be the multi-million dollar building addition that permanently increases attendance, or even that the world may be digital but – dagnabbit – your audiences make most of their decisions based on printed brochures!
And maybe this person is right. There are exceptions to most things! The point, though, is that leaders seek the applicability of a lesson, not an exception to reality.
Say instead: “Let’s uncover the extent to which this finding applies to our organization, and explore what can be learned from this information.”
When reliable industry data is presented, it’s incumbent on an individual organization to consider the findings and realize that they may likely to apply to them. Applicability should be the operating norm – not an exception. Exceptions should be proven – not presumed.
2) “I agree/disagree with the data”
It’s absolutely reasonable to have your own, different responses to questions than those of your audiences or visitors! However, it is unreasonable to disagree with – and, in turn, dismiss – data-informed findings. This statement is dangerous when one person says it in an effort to override data implications or insight outcomes. It’s dangerous for three reasons:
A) A sample size of one person is not a significant sample – even if that one person is the Chairman of the Board.
One person’s opinion does not make market trends or data invalid. Certainly, your organization may choose at its own expense to ignore valid data based upon one person’s opinion – but that one person’s opinion doesn’t change the data…and it’s unlikely to change the data-informed outcomes.
Your own personal opinions don’t conform with the market data? Cool. (That doesn’t and shouldn’t change the findings.)
B) Industry professionals are generally not a primary audience.
“I agree/disagree with the data” is an interesting statement that risks overlooking that we industry professionals are not generally our target audiences. Industry professionals are often attempting to motivate the behavior (visitation, membership, donations, etc.) of others. In short, the data is not about us. It’s about others.
This doesn’t mean that it’s at all irrational to have reactions to findings! It’s simply important to remember that you may not be the target audience and, thus, not included in the sample – and that’s probably for a reason.
On that note, here’s the reason:
C) Industry professionals have skewed perspectives.
We all do. It’s human. From confirmation bias to availability heuristics, from sunk cost bias to unintentional framing effects, we may be particularly bad at judging outcomes by nature of the very fact that we are cultural industry insiders, or working for the organization for which data is being collected.
These biases are among the reasons why we believe that we know things about how visitors think and behave when we do not, in fact, truly know as much as we think that we do about how visitors think and behave.
Say instead: “Given these findings, I think our biggest challenge is…”
If you “don’t agree” with the data, it may be because it challenges your own beliefs and perspectives. Things that challenge us tend to come along with a whole host of concerns that we may have heretofore kept out of our minds. It may help instead to consider that (valid) “data is data.” A smart move may be to track down where the disconnect resides in your brain and start the process of thinking through how to tackle the issue.
3) “We need more information before we can do anything (on this topic where we already have meaningful information)”
Audience insight can be exciting! It can help us make informed decisions and move forward confidently! That’s the glory of this stuff – it often helps remove guesswork. It helps give us a peek around the corner to see which direction may provide the best path.
Instead of spearheading forward movement, I’ve also seen data used as an excuse not to move at all.
Let’s be clear: It’s important to make decisions with adequate information, insight, and data! There can be a point, though, when an organization risks beating the dead data horse.
For instance, we’ve shown organizations significant data about how likely visitors to cultural organizations (or their own organization, when we are working directly with a client organization) use different information sources and how much these information sources inform the market’s decision-making processes. Spoiler: Digital engagement rules across the board – especially when it involves earned endorsement from a trusted source (i.e. a recommendation from a friend on social media).
It’s not uncommon for an executive to furrow his or her brow and think about this for a while. Indeed, these communication channels function a bit differently than traditional media channels! Then, they may announce, “Before we can do anything, we need to see the data cut for males and females.” (It’s similar.) Then, “Now we need to see it cut by age bracket.” (Still similar.) Then, “We’ve been thinking about if we should pay more attention to social media, but we’re hesitant to do so before we see data cut for people in this specific neighborhood, compared to this other, specific neighborhood.” Still, the data are similar.
The findings are similar because likely visitors to cultural organizations are 2.5x more likely than the general population to profile as being digitally “super-connected” – they have ready digital access at home, at work, and on a mobile device. That’s not the point, though…
The point is that a focus on seeking a data-backed exception to unassailable but difficult information risks becoming a reason for delay or inaction.
By the end, we’ve too often cut data twenty different ways, months have passed, and the organization’s time and energy has been spent trying stubbornly to find reasons not to put time and energy into deploying an intelligent digital strategy, instead of putting the same time and energy into the digital strategy itself.
That is but one example. This can (and does) take place in any situation in which unassailable information is presented, but an organization continues to seek additional, unnecessary detail as a delaying tactic. Data aims to help us move. When it’s used to “help” us stay in one place, it’s being misused.
Say instead, “Let’s consider what needs to change and what items need to be tackled to make the most of this information.”
That first step of acknowledging the information and exploring the changes that are implied by the information can be helpful. Symbolically, it moves the conversation from the “wait and see” safe space to that (albeit scary) “now we know” place of forward-movement.
It’s almost funny: Institutions may need to know virtually nothing to make “I think” and “This is how we’ve always done it” big decisions. But when even a little bit of data is available, thesis reports must be written on seemingly every detail before movement may even be approached as a discussion topic in C-suites and board rooms. This is a hold-up, and it represents a basic misunderstanding of the benefits of living in a connected world.
These phrases are dangerous because they frame defense or ignorance as critical thinking.
If you ask me, critical thinking is the best kind of thinking. But these phrases only represent critical thinking on their surface. Certainly, there are times when it’s okay to say these phrases.
- For instance, it’s a good idea to say, “That doesn’t apply to me” after you’ve collected the data and understand the true extent to which it applies to your organization, and you’ve found that it doesn’t.
- It’s okay to say, “I disagree with this data” to discount findings when it is data about you and only you.
- And it’s wise to say, “We need more information before we can do anything,” when it’s a big or expensive change and the takeaway is unclear. In such a case, you should absolutely gather more information!
This said, these phrases are all too often uttered defensively. If these words are about to escape your lips, think twice.
We owe it to our organizations to consider opportunities that can help us more effectively and efficiently fulfill our missions.
An organization’s decision-making process benefits by evolving alongside the realities of our 21st century world. A leader’s decision-making process benefits by evolving alongside the realities of our 21st century world, too.