Companies become resilient , purposeful enterprises through discovering and living out a telos. From the many years of research on how organizations really work appear three vectors that will bring telos to life: Aspiration, Choice and Embodiment. The second vector, the subject of this post, is Choice. Purpose doesn’t come to life without the grim realism of choice.
Anton Youssef stood at the wall of yellow sticky notes that represented the upcoming season. To the untrained eye, it looked more like large confetti that had somehow clung to the whiteboard in his office, but to Anton it was the current manifestation of weeks of research, phone calls, and emails. Some very difficult choices lay ahead.
Anton had recently been hired as the new executive director of the renowned Purcell Festival, which had been founded nearly seventy years ago, “to celebrate and preserve classical string music for future generations.” The Festival’s board, which had hired Anton because he brought a rare and highly-prized combination of artistic creativity and business savvy, wanted to review his proposal for the 2016 season. As usual, they would pay far more attention to the budget than the art. Anton was used to this; his experience had prepared him to balance these two seemingly opposite priorities. He’d need to lean on his experience to successfully navigate these final choices about the upcoming season.
“The art of strategy is expressed in the grim realism of choice,” was the favourite phrase (accompanied with a wry smile) of a professor in the general management program Anton had recently completed. If the ball of stress lodged somewhere between his throat and his stomach was any indication, Anton knew he was gaining a visceral understanding of this, “grim realism of choice,” to complement all he’d learned about business strategy in the classroom.
To him, it all seemed to boil down to one central idea: make hard choices on how to deploy limited resources.
“I know how to make money and I know how to create great art,” Anton thought. “What I don’t know is how to do both at the same time!”
Unlike most arts organizations Anton had encountered in his 17 years of experience, The Purcell was an institution that had always known what it was about. The founding board had even had the foresight to document that same purpose in a charter that had provided guidance for a now illustrious history. He knew it almost without thinking because it stirred such aspiration within him, “to celebrate and preserve classical string music for future generations.” And yet, in the more recent past, successive generations of boards and executive directors had become increasingly concerned about revenue, and a few tough deficits had convinced most of the board that “fiscal prudence” was the primary strategy that should guide their governance. Anton had even heard one well-respected director say, “Fiscal responsibility is our highest priority because if we can’t make money, we can’t make art!” Her assertion had met with more than a few nodding heads.
In the spirit of fiscal prudence, The Purcell had discovered the veritable gold mine of pops concerts, which seemed to regularly outsell everything else because they appealed to a much larger audience. One trial pops concert had quickly become a series, and then two, and by the time Anton arrived, more than 40% of The Festival’s revenue came from concerts that had as much to do with classical string music as an electric guitar.
As Anton mulled over the programming choices represented on his office wall, he reflected on the call he had fielded from a recruiter just 15 months earlier. He knew The Purcell – everyone in the small arts community did. The Purcell’s long heritage of artistic excellence spoke for itself, and he knew that they had been very successful in both winning grants and at the box office. He was aware of a recent dustup when The Purcell’s concertmaster resigned citing “artistic suicide”, and took with her four key string players while garnering quite a bit of unfavorable press. But it had all settled down quickly enough when news of a creative online auction for tickets to the new pops series had leaked out.
“What are they looking for?” Anton remembered asking the recruiter. The response from the other end of the phone had surprised him. “They say they are making money, but they are losing their artistic soul and are drifting towards failure because of success.” Anton remembered being intrigued at the board’s own self-awareness and recognition that success might provoke failure.
Now that he had been in the job for some time, Anton was acutely aware that, in effect, the whole strategy hinged on some of the choices he was soon to make about what to put before the festival’s audiences. The grim realism had set in. It was an agonizing set of decisions.
“How can I choose without reference to why we exist in the first place?” Anton wondered. He was beginning to form an approach to making these choices, but he knew just how illogical it would seem to his board if he proposed a program that would almost certainly be less financially successful than last year. He thought of how unfortunate it was that at the very same meeting in which he’d review next year’s lineup, his audit committee was set to review the rosy budget numbers from the previous year.
Anton shot up from his chair, as though pacing the floor in front of his painstakingly constructed sticky note map would provide instant clarity. As with so many dimensions of choice, he had more options before him than he knew what to do with. The Purcell’s notoriety meant that talent agents usually called him to offer bookings rather than the other way around, and he had no shortage of options.
Why rock the boat? Something really seemed to be working with these pops concerts, and the all-important younger generation was even showing up. Overall audience demand had almost doubled over the past decade. “This is The Purcell of the future, isn’t it?” he thought.
Anton reached into a cabinet and pulled out a yellowed copy of the original charter, reading again The Purcell’s stated purpose: “To celebrate and preserve classical string music for future generations.” The last phrase—“for future generations”—caught his attention. The world didn’t need yet another arts organization with a frightening deficit. On the other hand, was The Purcell meant to simply deliver the financial stability that would make its board members rest easy, or even to attract corporate investment in a new concert hall that years of growing audiences had now begun to warrant? Why, really, did The Purcell exist? Was it as the founders had intended, or for some other purpose?
Anton moved back to the wall of yellow sticky notes and began to rearrange it. He knew that he was making choices that would shape the organization and were certain to provoke an interesting conversation with his board. Despite much uncertainty, and at least a few sleepless nights, one thing had become clear: he needed to fashion a strategy for the performance season that would fulfill The Festival’s purpose as far as he understood it.