Working in the education sector recently, I noticed a familiar dynamic from my life in the arts: the prevalence of MBA-based strategic thinking, emphasizing innovation, disruption, and assessment.
I’m hugely impressed by this kind of strategic thinking. It can be astonishingly effective when two key conditions are present:
1) There is a clear consensus on the goal.
2) That goal can be directly and accurately measured without creating a lot of distortion in the organization or program.
If the goal is financial, for example, both of these conditions are usually present. (1) We want to earn this amount of money. (2) We will look at what we earned and how we earned it on a certain date. And, really, it must be said: this type of thinking is ridiculously powerful in such situations. It has generated untold wealth and innovation. It finds radical solutions. It’s flexible and adaptive, always looking to what actually is over what we expect (in that way, it reminds me of the artistic process). It diagnoses hard-to-see problems in an organization or sector.
It has been so successful that it’s easy to understand why someone with an MBA could be cocky. They think: we’ve cracked it. We’ve got the approach that solves any problem, that cleans up any sluggish sector.
In the last 20 years, that thinking has migrated to sectors where the two key conditions are not present, such as education and the arts. In these situations, the MBA mind is forced to do two subtle but massively impactful things:
1) It imposes a consensus goal: here’s where we all want to go.
2) It asserts that it has a tool to accurately measure success and ignores distortions created by the assessment.
If you care at all about education, you know that all the meaningful debates of the past century were exactly about what the goal of education is, impassioned and far-ranging battles about what a good education should do. The same is true in the arts. Gorgeous and complex debates rage about the role that artists play and their relation to the market economy, to the entertainment industry, to democracy, and to our multi-cultural nation (just to name a few).
The MBA mind breaks down in that context. If we can’t agree on what we are trying to do, how will we know when we’ve accomplished it? So, first, they impose a goal: let’s all just agree that we want our children to be able to learn these skills. Then, they assert that those skills are accurately measurable (standardized testing, No Child Left Behind). And they ignore or decry the inevitable distortions that result from that measurement: teaching to the test, faking test results, and schools expelling children who will drag down their scores.
The same is true in the arts. I have been an artist for long enough to see several cycles of the MBA mind in the art world. The goal is Access. The goal is Artistic Excellence. The goal is Diversity. The goal is Participation. And, now, the goal is Creative Placemaking.
Each time, success was measured by a bunch of hard and soft data that, it was strongly asserted, would tell us if we reached the goal.
Each time, organizations and artists distorted themselves and the data to — surprise! — reach the goal successfully with every project.
And each time, the new goal was rolled out guilelessly: we’ve had it wrong up till now, but we’ve finally solved it.
Strategic, innovation-based thinking has a enormous role to play in education and the arts. But it will continue to distort and fail if we assume goals and assessments work as they do in other sectors. (Eventually, the MBA world gives up: remember when google.org was going to remake the nonprofit sector? I do not celebrate that surrender; I want that thinking in our sector.)
Artists need to make visible and contest the assertions underlying the MBA approach. What is the goal you are imposing on the arts? Who chose it and why? And what are the effects of trying to measure it?
Here’s my contribution to the question: artists have a cultural role, and this is different from a goal.
Artists produce a lot of effects on the world: we affect education, citizenship, multiculturalism, creative placemaking. But those are effects of our role; they are not the role. Our role is to ask rigorous and reckless cultural questions, do our research, and share the results with the public and with each other. Some artists are pure researchers, making discoveries that other artists use. Some are applied researchers, taking discoveries out in the world and popularizing them, making them useful. When we do our role well, all kinds of other things happen. We “placemake.” We spark important and difficult conversations. We educate. We inspire other fields. But when we fund the arts based on these effects, we quickly distort the whole sector.
An analogy: addiction programs in a mosque or church or synagogue can be hugely effective. But what if we started to fund these places of worship based on their ability treat addiction? What if we resourced them based on the effect (addiction recovery) instead of the role (center of spiritual life)? First you’d get some pretty weird churches and mosques, bending over backwards to prove they were curing addiction. And, eventually, they’d lose effectiveness. The effect (addiction recovery) would diminish as their role (place of worship) was neglected.
Let’s have a conversation that acknowledges – and doesn’t conflate – the role of artists and the effects of that role. Then we can really innovate.