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The A to Z of Arts Management - Uncertainty

For years I’ve been an arts manager, an arts board member and an occasional arts management academic. And although there are some great arts management books to both learn from and teach with, they only seldom combine theory and practice, insights of success and failure, and story telling to help people understand how to do their job better. In this series, I introduce a selection of neglected aspects and competencies from my book “The A to Z of Arts Management”. This chapter is about the uncertainty and challenge of running an arts company.

The challenge of management education according to Dehler, Welsh & Lewis (2004, 182) is “to prepare future managers for complexity, uncertainty, equivocality and value conflicts.” Writers often use ‘complexity’ and ‘uncertainty’ in the same phrase but the reason I’ve chosen to write about both under the latter heading is because, somehow, ‘complexity’ is simply part of day to day living in the 21st century but ‘uncertainty’ is a more scary state to be in. Unlike some elements of the manager’s role such as communication which can be taught, developing a tolerance for complexity, uncertainty  and simply not knowing all of the time, is what Leicester (2007, 3) calls an existential condition – developed through experience. 

Godfrey (2010) has written about working with uncertainty in the arts and quotes the work of Stacey (1996) in talking about the ‘edge of chaos’. This is what sits on a continuum between having lots of certainty about the world and agreement about what to do next and having neither of either.  Somewhere in the middle is an environment with some chaos (but not too much), some room for risk taking and experimentation, a place of mess and muddle but also a place of creativity.

Management definitions usually contain the word ‘control’ in them but it’s probably a myth to help us get over the anxiety of being uncertain in a world of complexity. One way to resolve that anxiety is to network with peers, find a coach or a mentor, or simply have a good circle of friends to talk things through. It doesn’t matter whether they in the arts or not because a lot of the uncertainty is about management issues that can occur in any organisation such as dealing with difficult people. Corrigan (1999) says that a good manager lives with anxiety and continues to act whereas a poor manager either finds the challenge so debilitating that they don’t do anything or forgets that they can’t control the world and act as if they do.

In her case study on the Druid Theatre in Ireland Fitzgibbon (2001, p. 175) describes their strategy for dealing with uncertainty. Rather than depend on structures and mechanisms, the company depended on its capacity to be fluid and to adapt “keeping its compass fixed firmly on its overall vision.” Another strategy for dealing with uncertainty is to simple accept that things can’t be known in advance. An organisation I know that is for young people and run by young people accepts the fact that because of their youth, they have limited knowledge and experience but a great capacity to learn. Therefore, every strategic decision is one that starts with uncertainty and is worked through with contributions and iterations until finally a decision is reached that feels right. Interestingly, this approach is the opposite of what Corrigan (1999) proposes – that organisations uncertain about their environment need stronger guidance and leadership that those that operate in an atmosphere of certainty. But perhaps that’s simply because he was writing 15 years ago and uncertainty has increased in the private, public and non-profit spheres and people have had to find more creative ways of dealing with it. 

In Leicester’s (2007) article about dealing with uncertainty and complexity, he describes the distinctions between the different spheres for managers. In the private sector, the tensions were between the short and long term with strains on personal loyalty in a fiercely competitive market. In the public sector, the challenges were in co-ordination between agencies, managing scarce resources and keeping up with the endless new ideas from politicians. And in the arts, it was the “sheer challenge of making ends meet – managing the basics while trying to support creative innovation” (p.11). His research is based on using a public health consultant and a psychotherapist to shadow a number of CEOs to see how they managed in this uncertain world. Their conclusion was that the CEOs had “to cope with long days, little predictability in their lives, disconnection and fragmentation of their teams in a global working environment, short term concerns crowding out long term ones” (p. 11).

Given this description, perhaps Cleveland (2002, p.8) is right in the view that leaders need “a mindset that crises are normal, tensions can be promising, and complexity is fun.” Godfrey (2010), who has worked as a venue manager, arts consultant and teacher and has worked helping people in the arts to deal with uncertainty, offers these five thoughts:

  • Pay attention to relationships 
  • Learn to have conversations
  • Ask more questions 
  • Pay attention to beginnings  - and she means both the beginning of the process but also the state that you are in at the beginning
  • Get out of your own way  - in other words, don’t always use learnt rational, linear approaches to problem solving.

Dehler, Welsh & Lewis (2204) recommend that we need to develop different frameworks to deal with uncertainty and complexity – learning to see the world from other perspectives, to look beyond the professional and intellectual world in which we’re most comfortable. The suggestion that I like the most is that one needs to be willing to work things through in a positive spirit.

A number of years ago, I was having a collegial drink with a number of fellow arts managers, all of them woman on that particular day. We were sharing wisdom about how to deal with the complex and uncertain environment in which we all operated and in the process discovered that we all had low blood pressure. Not necessarily at that exact time but in general. I had a sudden vision of why I enjoyed working in the stretching and challenging mad world of the arts: it actually gets me out of bed and gets my blood pressure up to normal. In other words, if you’re not comfortable with tension and challenges, complexity and uncertainty, this may not be the right job for you.

Bibliography

Cleveland H (2002):  Nobody in Charge. Essays on the Future of Leadership. Wiley, Hoboken, NJ.

Corrigan, P (1999): Shakespeare on Management. Kogan Page, London.

Dehler, GE, Welsh, MA & Lewis, MW (2004): ‘Critical Pedagogy in the ‘New Paradigm’, in: Grey, C & Antonacopoulou, E (eds): In Essential Readings in Management Learning. Sage Publications, London, 167-186.

Godfrey, C (2010): Working with uncertainty’,in: Kay , S & Venner, K (eds): A Cultural Leader’s Handbook, Creative Choices, London, 78-85.

Leicester, G (2007): Rising to the Occasion. Cultural leadership in powerful times. International Futures Forum “Mission, Models, Money. Catalysing a more sustainable arts and cultural sector”. http://www.missionmodelsmoney.org.uk/sites/default/files/23974676-Rising-to-the-Occasion-by-Graham-Leicester-2007_0.pdf

Stacey, R (1996): Complexity and Creativity in Organisations. Berrett-Keohler, San Francisco.

Management Topic: Organisation & Leadership
Cultural Area: General
Submitted by editor-in-chief on Nov 08, 2016