The classic film Top Gun introduces us to dozens of top naval aviators (fighter pilots) who gather for training, competition and, eventually, a real mission culminating in (spoiler alert) victory over a never-identified but undoubtedly Cold War enemy. The two top pilots in the training and competition are Maverick (played by Tom Cruise) and Iceman (played by Val Kilmer; full disclosure: Val Kilmer's theatrical touring company is a consulting client).
Maverick “flies by the seat of his pants.” To frame this in general organizational terms: while he is trained on procedures and practices that generally result in favorable outcomes, he frequently dismisses these as inapplicable, ineffective, or, in some instances, he simply fails to consider them entirely. He uses some combination of “gut” instinct, creativity, and emotional intelligence to guide his thought process.
Iceman, by contrast, gets his name by the way he flies: “ice-cold, no mistakes.” He too is aware of procedures and practices that result in favorable outcomes and makes calculated decisions to optimize the chances of a favorable result. (Another spoiler) Iceman wins the Top Gun prize in the competition, but Maverick’s creative problem-solving skills are crucial in the victory over the enemy in the film’s culminating dogfight.
Maverick is charming and irresponsible; Iceman is aloof and reliable. And lastly, “Danger Zone”is the name of the Kenny Loggins song which famously opens the film.
There are several lenses through which to view this character and decision-making dichotomy. For readers of this blog who, unlike me, require something more than a pop-culture reference to maintain their attention, Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow argues that we are all capable of both the “gut” decision making process and the more calculated one, and there are appropriate times to apply either. Or if you’d rather look at this through a framing by Malcolm Gladwell, his “Hallelujah” episode of Revisionist History podcast examines this dichotomy as different types of genius: one which comes immediately and one that takes much more dedication, drafting and time. He contrasts the art of Picasso with that of Cézanne. And this kind of contrasting tension (and even this pop culture reference) applies between athletes, politicians, CEOs and various other public figures when compared against each other.
Neither thought process is inherently better than the other, though the Maverick approach is far more accessible. It is best applied when a decision must be made in the absence of relevant data—either because it is not yet available (or never will be) or because the information is impossible to quantify or analyze. It takes a high emotional intelligence to make good decisions in this arena. While there are many exceptions to this, if we wanted to draw lines in nonprofit arts organizations, artistic directors/programmers, human resource matters, and high-value individual donor relationship management might be more comfortable flying with Maverick as the pilot. Organizations that are in crisis (and thus lacking access to data and time to analyze and make sound long-minded and sustainable choices) may also benefit mostly from this approach.
Matters where we can think more slowly and deliberately tend to be those for which we gather a significant amount of data and have the time to analyze it. We gather engagement data in our digital advertising and fundraising campaigns: impressions, clicks, contact rates, conversions, return-on-investment and various other more granular points. In digital campaigns these data are gathered in real-time and can be scaled up/down and otherwise optimized over the course of many months. A new show/artist, upcoming appeal, or future season all provide the opportunity for annual fund managers, marketers, and box office managers to dig into these reports and make deliberate, data-driven decisions. These campaign-by-campaign optimizations all the way through well-crafted long term strategic plans like to have Iceman as their pilot.
Simply by getting this far into the blog article, you’re already identifying yourself and your organization as interested in being at least a bit more like Iceman: you are undoubtedly interested in picking up some best practices on how to run your organization or department better over the long term. If you travel for a conference or other professional development opportunity, that is another positive indicator: you certainly don’t need to fly across country to leave your friends and family just to speak with colleagues to hone your “gut” instinct.
I also have a “gut” feeling of my own: our country’s arts administrators are already creative problem-solvers because they simply must be. Necessity demands it. Conferences and reading blogs provides us with the time and perspective to step away from the many fast Maverick decisions we must make at our desks and our smart phones on a minute-by-minute basis.
So, for lack of a better word, how can we be more “ice-cold” in our approach to arts administration? Here are a few tips taken from my prior experience as a nonprofit theater marketing director and in my new work at TheaterMania | OvationTix (which closely follows advertising, editorial readership, and ticket buyer data):
Name your decisions:Maverick or Iceman? By simply reflecting on the decision-making process, you’re already being a bit more systematic in your approach. Labeling a decision more “Maverick” or “Iceman” may help you gather better data for a future decision or better develop metrics for success. Avoid inertia and embrace innovation. Don’t run campaigns and appeals on auto pilot. A relatively poor reason to make a choice is, “Because we made it last time.” While large-scale strategic changes are not prudently made on a regular basis, small tweaks to optimize your investment of staff time and dollars can be made and measured. When you make a change, measure the result and optimize further. This kind of incremental innovation can lead to broader positive changes in a surprisingly short period of time.
Passively collect a lot of data and actively analyze only the relevant portions of it. In other words, only run reports that provide actionable data. Most digital advertising and fundraising campaigns comes with a variety of metrics you can measure with relative ease. And most major ticketing/donation/CRM software allows organizations to customize reports in a rather open-ended fashion. But if the time of day someone makes a purchase isn’t relevant to you, don’t run that report. If you work with an advertising agency that already optimizes your ad sizes for you, you need not regularly examine what size of ad performs best. Big data is, well, big. A clear analysis of a small part of the data can be all you need to take advantage of it.
Err on the side of action. “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always be what you’ve always been.” This quote gets attributed to various smart people including Albert Einstein, who may be the most popular embodiment of both types of thinking. My father (also an arts consultant) frequently uses it and, setting aside what it may mean for his son to be referencing this particular quote, it is revealing. Fear, complacency, and a variety of other factors may result in sales and fundraising choices becoming stale and decreasingly effective. When in doubt, make a change (even a “gut” one) and measure the result of this calculated risk.
Ask more questions than you provide answers. Asking productive questions requires active listening, curiosity, and an understanding that any one of us, individually, only captures a small part of our collective experience. In other words, we can learn far more by listening than talking. This is true not only at conferences, but also, hopefully, in our workplaces.