In a recent blog post on ArtsFwd.org, you said, “We don’t need new models, we need a new mindset.” Can you share your thinking around this?
When I was invited to Barry’s DinnerVention and asked to respond to the topic “Broken Models: Picking Up the Pieces and Moving Forward,” I took a literal approach, and looked up the definition of a model. I found that a model is essentially a best practice that is predictable and replicable. I was sort of disturbed by that. Going into a conversation with leading thinkers in the arts, I felt it was fruitless to be thinking about best practices, because I have a strong belief that we are in an era where best practices are of limited use.
Why is that?
At EmcArts we talk a lot about complicated vs. complex problems. Complicated problems, like building a rocket, have a solution. That solution might take time and research, but they are knowable, solvable. Complex problems have a non-linear, non-rational relation between cause and effect. Only later can you go back and tell the story of how something unfolded.
We live in an era of complexity. This has to do with shifting technology and demographics, and our new expectations of the world. In an era in which the problems are complicated, best practice is great. But in an era governed by complexity you need a different approach, one that prizes questioning, experimentation, reflection, openness to conflict, diverse perspectives, and recognizing the system of complexity in which you are operating. We are moving out of an era of best practice into an era of emergent practice. To be open to emergence you need to be open to a different mindset.
A few people who responded to my blog post on this topic have argued that this mindset is in and of itself a new model. That’s fine. But it’s very different than a model that describes a replicable set of behaviors. It’s more of a set of approaches that can be adapted.
How do you know whether a model – field trips, for example – needs to be tossed or rethought?
Ronald Heifetz, who developed the model of Adaptive Leadership, makes a distinction between when something needs a technical (or incremental) fix – more of, less of, better – versus an adaptive response, which involves cracking something open and rethinking assumptions, coming up with something discontinuous, throwing out a model in favor of new mindset.
Heifetz says (and I’m paraphrasing) that if you have thrown all the technical fixes you can at a problem and it’s still broken, that’s how you know you need a different kind of approach, that you might need to let go of an old model. But if you’ve thrown all the technical stuff at it and it hasn’t improved the program then you might need a new mindset. For example, cultural organizations often say they want more diverse audiences, and try many fixes, but these fixes aren’t as successful as they’d hoped. That’s a signal that the model itself needs to be questioned. The problem is, of course, that if you spend all of your time on the technical fixes, you can exhaust your resources before you try a new approach.
One way to examine whether a model is broken is by unearthing core assumptions. For example, core assumptions might be, “the best place to learn about art and culture is at the museum,” or “spending a day to take a field trip is worth the time because of how much more amplified the learning experience is in the museum.” You’ve got to surface and name these assumptions, so that you can discuss them with all stakeholders — teachers, administrators, museum educators, parents, students.
Models evolved because at one point, they were the best solution. So it makes sense that people would want to hold on to the idea of a model. Teachers would want to hold onto field trips, because it’s what they’ve always done. It is much harder to call up the museum and say, I want something you’ve never done before that works better with the logistics and goals of my job as an educator.
Over time the conditions changed, and that thing that was working becomes no longer useful. But the assumption that field trips are the best exchange between teachers, students, and museums is so far beneath the surface that it no longer gets discussed. To wrench that assumption back to the surface to contest it is difficult. It requires looking at data, real trends in the environment.
What data or trends are useful to look at?
One kind of data would be existing numbers around participation. If you have evidence that participation is declining, that’s powerful evidence.
Another piece of data might be to look at every teacher who brought students for a field trip last year, and see how many come back. If teachers aren’t returning, why?
At EmcArts, our approach is to get everyone — students, parents, museum professionals, teachers — together, to explore, what it would mean to let go of the field trip? To live in an ambiguous space? Then, we design experiments around doing things differently, to see what stakeholders can learn.
Once a cultural institution decides to establish a “new mindset,” how does it go about doing this?
To me, a model is replicating a set of actions. A new mindset requires you to draw on a set of practices that position you to be nimble. It is about questioning, embracing ambiguity, experimentation, systems thinking, reflection.
The field trip model has been around for a long time. What would happen if we let that go? There would be a great deal of ambiguity about what lives in the space that that leaves. It takes a certain mindset to allow for this. Institutions that best live up to their values in the long run are those who are good at coming up with strategies that are radically divergent from or a radical renewal of what they have done before.