Conference Report: The Adoration of Failure

I am struggling to draw thematic links between the three days I spent at the League of American Orchestras Conference in Dallas and three days at TCG, the Theatre Communications Group Conference that ended in Boston last Saturday. The contrasts are easy: the League conference attendance is dwindling in numbers and the discussions are focused on how to resolve deep-rooted problems of sustainability for which there are no easy answers. The theatre conference had a spark of energy that was palpable. Over 1,000 people attended and it appeared to me to be a more youthful, energetic, and collegial event.

Where there were parallels lay in the messages of a few of the plenary speakers. The League conference presented innovation expert Jeff DeGraff, who implored the orchestra industry to fail and fail often. His diagnosis was that orchestras have too many managers who are in jobs that are designed to keep their organizations static, and he’d like to see more radical innovation with a lot of people failing at trying new things. It brings to mind Google’s approach which gives employees time to pursue projects that are not part of their jobs, but things that they simply want to try.

TCG brought one of the heroes of innovative “business 2.0” thinking, Seth Godin, who also touched upon the idea of failure as a marker of whether you are innovating enough. Seth suggests, through his focus on marketing to “tribes,” that micro-marketing to people who already like what you do is far more effective than mass marketing to people who you hope might like your organization. That’s the heart of the philosophy of Customer Relationship Management – having that 360 degree view of your patrons so you can market to them based on their specific interests and behaviors.

Now back to failure. These twin arguments for failure highlight a vexing contradiction. Most arts organizations are more often than not in the business of failure – you produce things that you’re not sure the public will like, or maybe that’s not even the point. Artistically, failure in the service of art, ┬áis already in the DNA of the industry

However, what I notice in arts management is the idea that trying something new with the possibility of failure is not embraced as a viable approach. I would welcome more managers who would say “let’s try something new and see if it works” based on the idea that at worst, they will learn by trying. I agree with Seth and Jeff, there is learning in failure, and if you can instill in your organization a greater sense of managerial experimentation (whether it’s in pricing, marketing or fundraising), you’ll ultimately do better than if you simply keep doing what you’ve always done.

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