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Planning as Therapy

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Anyone who knows me knows I plan everything. Everything. I don't like surprise parties. I don't like to be asked to make impromptu speeches. I don't like to learn about problems from my staff after the fact.

While this lack of spontaneity perhaps is a personal liability, I do believe it has helped the organizations I have managed. I believe arts organizations need to plan so that we don't waste anything. We do not have a dollar or a minute to spare. And we cannot be arguing over a project when we are working to complete it. Our path must be clear from the outset.

But lately, as I work with dozens of arts organizations that are creating strategic plans I have come to believe that planning is also a very beneficial form of institutional therapy.

Planning uncovers layers of anxieties, resentments and broken dreams that reside with board members and staff members alike. These hidden (or not so hidden) feelings can hinder strong, honest communication within an organization exactly as they corrode productive relations within a family.

This is especially true for organizations that foster low levels of staff or board turnover; the longer a cohort stays together, the more likely long-seated resentments will develop that affect communal spirit and action.

Planning helps reveal these underlying tensions but it does more. Since planning focuses on a future, not necessarily bound by the specific tensions of today, it allows for a positive healthy resolution that puts teams back together.

Two examples:

1. A regional orchestra has survived a deeply divisive period when the musicians and administrative staff have seen their salaries and benefits reduced substantially. While the planning process has not healed all wounds, it has allowed all sides to move on, focusing on the future and how artistic success can lead to fiscal success which can eventually lead back to full salaries and benefits for all.

2. A museum in the throes of fiscal turmoil has been forced to reduce the resources available to everyone within the organization. Like many troubled organizations, each department started hoarding -- everything from paper clips to interns. The lack of collaboration that resulted made it more difficult for the museum to recover. The planning process revealed how the organization could reallocate funds to allow for more healthy growth and could foster more cooperation among the artistic, marketing and development teams.

These examples are by no means unique. When I sit down, as a consultant or a manager, with board and staff members in the planning process, I almost always hear a great deal of unburdening. And, invariably, when we are finished, I am told, "I feel so much better -- that was like a trip to a therapist."

There is nothing like escaping from present day turmoil and focusing on the future to realign one's thinking.

If your organization is suffering, try planning! You may find that things seem a lot brighter. And when we are happier with our prospects, this radiates to our ticket buyers, donors, board members and the press.