Must Reads

National Arts Strategies

Selected readings for arts and culture leaders from National Arts Strategies and the Getty Leadership Institute


Strategic planning-Themed Readings

Generations: The Challenge of a Lifetime for Your Nonprofit

Peter C. Brinckerhoff, (St. Paul: Fieldstone Alliance, 2007), “Change Is Upon Us,” pp. 11-34, “Financial Implications,” pp. 185-189.

Sustainable performing arts organizations understand their audiences.  Sustainable museums understand their visitors. Audiences and visitors change, generations differ and their impact on operations, marketing and finance shifts over time. For cultural organizations to stay in touch with their publics is a full time task. The eminently readable “Generations…,” winner of the 2008 McAdam Award for the best nonprofit management book, examines six trends involving generational change:  financial stress, technological acceleration, population diversity, family redefinition, “mebranding” and work-life balance. Of these, “mebranding” or ultra-customization is particularly interesting. A growing minority has become used to and demands highly tailored products, services and experiences.  Technology has accelerated the expectation of the highly customized offering.  Like most challenges, it can be viewed as a problem, an opportunity or both.

Audiences and visitors are not the only lenses through which Brinckerhoff looks at the implications of generational differences. All the same influences are at play within cultural organizations’ boards, staff and volunteers. Generational data (demographics and psychographics) don’t argue for turning an organization’s strategy on its head, much less calling for modifications in mission and vision. For Brinckerhoff, the data should have an appropriate influence in six ways. The data should:  be included in planning, trigger intergenerational conversations within the organization, be used in marketing, broaden the concept of diversity in hiring decisions, influence consideration of ways technology might add value to cultural experiences or extend their effect following a performance or museum visit and inspire leaders to ask and listen more often.

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The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization

Peter F. Drucker, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), “Who Is Our Customer,” pp. 25-46.

Airport bookstores are filled with the latest answers from management gurus. None have enjoyed anything approaching the long shelf life of Peter Drucker—perhaps because his specialty was questions, the questions. Drucker’s questions help organizations address their core strengths and weaknesses and design their strategy. A stellar cast of current scholars: Jim Collins, Philip Kotler, Jim Kouzes, Judith Rodin, Kas Rangan and Frances Hesselbein celebrate Drucker’s achievement with to-the-point essays that apply Drucker’s five basic questions to contemporary organizational life: What is our mission? Who is our customer? What does the customer value? What are our results? What is our plan?

Drucker would be no stranger to the tensions in almost every cultural organization: continuity and change, financial sustainability and honoring the muses, and the collisions of value sets among the various professions staffing the organization. Drucker’s questions often both surface these tensions and offer the superordinate values in which differences might be resolved.

The book also includes Peter Drucker’s organizational self-assessment process—not so much a questionnaire as it is a potentially transformative organization-wide process. The process has a strong focus on goals, emphasizing commitment to direction and flexibility in execution. It places ownership and accountability with individuals and leads participants to results monitoring that—in turn—closes the loop with an improved strategy.

Available online »


Designing for Growth

Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), “The Why and How of Design Thinking,” pp. 3-37.

Jeanne Liedtka has been a hugely successful faculty member of the Getty Leadership Institute’s flagship program for senior museum executives, Museum Leadership Institute. Owing in part to the energy and focus she brings to her highly conversational classroom style (her focus is on learning not teaching), her success with the leaders of cultural organizations is also based on her recognition of the deep differences between business and nonprofit thinking. The underlying assumptions of business thinking are rationality, objectivity and reality as fixed and quantifiable. Business thinking favors analysis aimed at arriving at one “best” answer. Its process is planning and its decision drivers are logic and numeric models. Its values are the pursuit of profit, control and stability as well as discomfort with uncertainty. Its levels of focus are “either/or.”

Liedtka brings the concept and tools of design to shape strategic thinking in the nonprofit sector. Thinking about strategy as design is a way to move from talk (how many nonprofits are driven by endless conversations with no conversation ever quite final) to experimentation and action. Design is tailored to dealing with uncertainty; design understands that products, services and cultural experiences attract real human beings, not target markets segmented into demographic categories.

The four questions of design correspond to the key questions of strategy: What is? (Current reality is analyzed honestly and thoughtfully.) What if and what wows? (The inspiring possibilities are conceived.) What works? (How can we make an exciting future our next current reality?) In service of these four key questions, Liedtka offers a variety of design tools that include visualization, journey mapping, value chain analysis, mind mapping, assumption testing, rapid prototyping and customer co-creation. The tools enable what Liedtka calls the “small bets” and “experiments” that trigger wise choices about sustainable futures – the key challenge to nonprofits.

Available online »


Managing the Arts: Leadership and Decision Making under Dual Rationalities

David Cray, Loretta Inglis and Susan Freeman, The Journal of Arts Management, Law and Society, Vol. 36, Number 4 (Winter 2007): pp. 295-313.

The dual functions of guiding artistic or educational activities and an organization’s administration—even in the best-run museums and performing arts companies fosters structural complexity, competing sets of goals, multiple stakeholder claims and values in some tension with one another. The distinct nature of cultural organizations arises not simply from their missions, but also from the complexity that multiple demands impose. As the authors put it, “…the strategic decision-making process encounters forces, especially those of an aesthetic nature, that conflict with the more rationalist orientation inherent in the managerialist approaches that (these) organizations are being urged to accept. Our aim, in both instances, is to draw heavily on the existing managerial literature to provide greater understanding of the range of roles that cultural organization managers must fill while acknowledging the distinct nature of the environments they face.”

The authors demonstrate how the major leadership styles (charismatic, transactional, transformational and participatory) play into these tensions. Each style has its unique advantages and disadvantages but many researchers now hold that successful leaders have their “default” style. In other words, they work to match personal styles with the culture of the organization and the demands of its environment. The size of the organization, diversity of programs, internal political arrangements, relationships with external stakeholders, financial stability, institutional image, age and stage of growth or decline will impact the fit between a leader’s style and organizational effectiveness.

The article concludes with a very practical section on strategic decision-making in cultural organizations, covering rational models, decision making as a political exercise, incremental decision making (small bets and experiments) and “the garbage can: strategy as a pattern in random events.” Again, the appropriate model to use ought to be reached situationally. One size never really fits all.

Available online »