“Growth is often a painful process.” – Elbert Hubbard.
Two interesting things inevitably happen when an organization becomes audience-centric and data-informed:
First, happily, an organization starts to get an accurate grasp on the things they do well. As a sector, some of our superpowers include securing public trust, providing academic advantages for children, and creating meaningful moments of connection. This information can result in a terrific boost!
Second, less happily, an organization realizes what they haven’t been doing so well. Helpful data shines a light on so-called effective strategies that have actually been hurting the organization long-term – sometimes for years! Being shown with numbers that you’ve been making some bad guesses? That can be empowering, enlightening, invigorating…and very uncomfortable.
One of the biggest hold ups for evolution of organizations can be the defenses that arise when data suggests that – for years – an organization has been doing something “wrong.” In some cases, these problems are instinctual, ill-informed “best practices” within the industry (such as misunderstanding how discounting really impacts visitation, or thinking expensive building expansions permanently increase attendance, to name just a couple). In other cases, they’re the result of individual cognitive biases among leaders.
One of the most difficult situations an organization may face in the journey to become a data-driven entity is when findings suggest that the solutions that leaders championed for years may be causing more harm than good – and you’re a leader who championed them. To make matters worse, the cut-and-dry nature of charts can make findings feel less like opportunities for growth, and more like personal attacks.
Of course, numbers themselves are not personal attacks.
Still, those numbers are delivered to humans who are personally and professionally invested in their organizations. My colleagues and I deliver a great deal of potentially inconvenient information, and I’ve seen charts make even the most curious and inquisitive leader feel defensive.
Arguably, the best data findings are also the most challenging. But challenging findings are not an attack – they’re an opportunity. Challenging data findings can help leaders improve revenues, reach new audiences, and better execute a social mission. These are great things for both the careers of individual leaders, as well as for the communities they serve! If the cultural industry aims to move forward in counteracting attendance decline and engaging new audiences, then we are dependent on a lot of leaders rising above self-created defenses in order to fully understand opportunities. It’s a big ask that puts even more weight on their already-aching shoulders.
From the seasonal volunteer all the way up to the President of the Board of Trustees, those involved in the cultural industry may benefit by accepting these three realities instead of raising their defenses.
Spoiler: You are doing important work. Give yourself a break.
1) We live in a new, connected world. As a result, people think and behave a bit differently than in the past.
The web and especially social media are still relatively new in the timeline of human communication and interconnectivity, but they impact much of how people live their lives today.
Likely visitors to cultural organizations are super-connected to the web, with access at home, at work, and on a mobile device. The ability to amplify earned endorsements via the web motivates attendance. The use of social media onsite increases visitor satisfaction. How cultural organizations interact with visitors online and offline influences everything from membership renewals to philanthropic donations.
If you encounter data that suggests your organization has room for improvement, it may not be the consequence of bad decision-making, but of living in a more connected world.
Things are a bit different now than they were twenty years ago, and as a result there’s an increased responsibility to understand how people think and behave today – and accept that it is sometimes different than yesterday.
2) Leaders were necessarily more limited in their decision-making information in the past than they are today.
Thanks to new technologies and specialized data companies, market research is increasingly becoming a necessity for understanding audiences in for-profit, nonprofit, and government entities. (But it’s also costly, so some cultural organizations are only now getting access to high-confidence market research.) There’s also an increasing emphasis on audience research, as organizations strive to learn more about audiences on their own.
Simply put, data and new technologies are removing much of what was necessarily business guesswork in the past. As my colleague Jim Hekkers has shared, becoming a data-informed organization isn’t easy, but it plays a major role in understanding and engaging audiences today. As the former Managing Director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium for 15 years as it transitioned to a data-informed organization, he knows.
If data suggests that there’s room for improvement – as the most helpful data does – it may not be that the current leadership team “created” that issue. It may be that we now have data and information available to identify the opportunity in the first place.
3) Leaders of cultural organizations are generally doing the very best they can given their priorities and the information they have.
Defensiveness is a response to criticism, and an attempt to ward off uncomfortable feelings. It’s a natural human reaction in the face of inconvenient data. There’s an unspoken implication that perhaps the leader has knowingly done something wrong – or that they are not smart, or forward-facing, or a good leader.
From where I stand, that’s a silly implication. Seeking high-confidence data is smart. It enables forward-facing strategies and is indicative of a good leader!
Most leaders do not have a diabolical plot to sabotage their cultural organizations. Most are not aiming to undercut operations by making entities irrelevant for future generations. In fact, the vast majority of leaders with whom I’ve had the opportunity to work want the very opposite: To keep the organization solvent and engaging for decades to come.
I am stating this based on my own experience meeting literally thousands of executives over the last seven years while delivering large-scale, high-confidence data through client work, workshops, and speaking engagements. (I’ll admit that readers of Know Your Own Bone are generally already audience-centric leaders with a penchant for critical thinking and a desire to overcome industry challenges. Hey there, awesome readers – give yourself a round of applause!) This point matters, because when we trust that leaders do – and have generally done – what they believed to be the very best for their institutions, there’s less reason for leaders to be defensive in the face of new information. We can be excited about possibilities instead.
It is hard work to lead a cultural organization in an era of declining attendance and increasing expenses in which audience behaviors and perceptions are both coming to light and evolving at the same time. It’s very hard work.
Feeling defensive because data suggests a need to shift direction to help your institution succeed?
Who has time for that?! You’re busy evolving an industry!
Data can turn a light on in an otherwise dark room. Executives were not bad leaders because they had to spend decades working in the dark. They are great leaders because they are making decisions to turn on the (now more accessible) lights.
We may not like what we see, but it’s only by seeing it that the industry can move forward.
And we are.
Thank you for being a data-informed cultural executive.
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