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Uh... Uh... Chaotician... Chaotician

Math for Arts Administrators Part V: Locate You and Your Organization in a Cynefin Framework

Chaos has been in the news of late: the U.S. White House, our global climate, the state of our geopolitical affairs--all have been described as in a state of chaos. For my rudimentary understanding of chaos theory, see the video above.

My readings and conversations have led me to a Cynefin (a Welsh word for--among other translations--"habitat") framework. Many complicated explorations of this model leave me much like Laura Dern ("whoosh") in the clip above. But a basic overview on Wikipedia and a few other sources basically places arts organizations as making decisions in a model composed of four main parts: simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic.

As a consultant, I live mostly in the first two spaces: providing "best practices" and "good practices" to arts organizations, aligned companies and individual artists. Most consultants will share with you that those practices, unfortunately, are rarely adopted in the long-term. On one hand, that is good for consultants as there is a kind of obsolescence (despite our best efforts) built into these practices. On the other hand, it is frustrating to see our work devolve or entirely dissolve in the months after our work is complete.

Why is this the case? In some limited instances, this is undoubtedly poor work by the consultant. But a more satisfying (and self-serving) explanation is because these practices--born out of the simple and complicated areas of the Cynefin model--are projected into the latter two parts: complexity and chaos. And those two latter systems are poorly equipped to maintain those two practices from the former.

Arts administrators will be familiar with both of the complex and chaotic decision-making environments. Complexity deals with cause-and-effect relationships that are only discernible in retrospect and after which instructive patterns can emerge. There are no hard-and-fast rules/answers in a system that is, "impervious to a reductionist, take-it-apart-and-see-how-it-works approach, because your very actions change the situation in unpredictable ways."* I doubt it a coincidence that the large majority of the art we produce and present is made in this complex system. Plays work (or don't) only from this retrospective approach, marketing campaigns are best explained through this lens, etc.

Then there is chaos. The framers of the Cynefin model describe:

"In the chaotic domain, a leader’s immediate job is not to discover patterns but to stanch the bleeding. A leader must first act to establish order, then sense where stability is present and from where it is absent, and then respond by working to transform the situation from chaos to complexity, where the identification of emerging patterns can both help prevent future crises and discern new opportunities. Communication of the most direct top-down or broadcast kind is imperative; there’s simply no time to ask for input."*

There are legitimate times when organizations must make decisions in a chaotic environment. But one important point missing from my light reading of the Cynefin model is the fact that it is easy for leaders/arts administrators to default to the chaos model. After all, it simply takes less resources to make a decision on "gut" than to study an issue and work it through the simple, complicated, and complex decision-making environments.

And arts administrators always have the crutch of saying we're under-resourced, over-worked, over-budget, and behind schedule to excuse this behavior. Again, don't get me wrong. In some instances, chaos is a real thing in an organization but how frequently is that environment self-imposed? I read a lot in mainstream and even conservative media about the White House's "self-inflicted wounds." Strong leadership--at any level of an organization--will look for methods to minimize decision making in that chaotic environment over the long term.

To add another layer, these various parts (simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic) of the Cynefin model are not mutually exclusive and can be happening simultaneously in a person, department, and/or organization. That line of "disorder" running in all four directions on the diagram above is of particular note.

So what's the point of all this? I think there is a diagnosis and a prescription for arts administrators and consultants to perform.

First, the diagnostic element: Where in this model do you make decisions and what are the structures (meetings, personalities, approaches, etc.) that allow for that? Do those structures and decision-making processes need adjustment or are there just more pedestrian matters--personality conflicts, poor communications--at play?

Second, the prescriptive element: Consultants and staff members responsible for such shifts must foster the environments they believe most appropriate for the decisions to be made.

Most simple decision making need not require a meeting and can be readily handled through established policies and procedures. So only have meetings about implementing those practices... not long-winded discussion of those practices.

Regular marketing and fundraising meetings are best situated in the complicated category where staffers review reporting including sales/expense projections and associated optimizations. Organizations lacking a fundraising or marketing leader frequently are looking for this kind of expertise in their job postings and interim hiring/consulting needs: "The complicated domain consists of the "known unknowns". The relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or expertise; there is a range of right answers. The framework recommends "sense–analyze–respond": assess the facts, analyze, and apply the appropriate good operating practice."*

Most well-run board meetings and high-level management staff meetings should be held mostly in the realm of complexity. Yes, there is some mathematical and anecdotal reporting in that meeting but a trusted leadership team will be looking ahead, developing questions and even endorsing some answers from this ever-changing environment. Public policy development as it relates to the arts mostly lives in this space. This is really hard work that requires trust and collaboration and while consultants can participate in organizing and facilitating, it must draw from resources native to an organization or at least within its broader network.

And a final prescription: don't live in chaos. You, your department, and/or your organization may unfortunately pay a visit there from time-to-time but if you look up from your desk or come back from a long-overdue vacation and realize you've been operating out of this part of the framework for many months, reach out to friends and colleagues for help.


If you have any success or, better yet, failure stories to share from decision making in your department or organization, please share--socially or via email.

I'm taking one of those long-overdue vacations over the coming couple weeks but plan to read several more books/studies to continue this series.

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