Cruising Turbulence: Managing Conflict in the Arts Strategic Planning
In a world characterized by turbulent change, arts organizations that develop the most useful strategic plans consider the viewpoints of many different stakeholder groups during the planning process. Stakeholder groups include: audiences, artists, donors, staff, volunteers, other arts organizations, government, education, business, and other key community groups
To one degree or another, these groups have an interest in the future of the arts organization. Involving them in the strategic planning process helps the arts organization develop much needed resources and interest in its programs. This involvement helps the organization position itself for increased impact or other measures of success.
Arts organizations can involve stakeholders in the planning process in a number of ways include:
Such involvement can enormously enrich both the process and the end result. Involvement can also bring to the surface significant differences of opinion. These differences may be the source of highly desirable new ideas and approaches and/or a source of uncomfortable conflict.
Most people find conflict difficult and unpleasant. However, without any conflict, organizational life would be stagnant. Wherever there is any difference between organisms, people or entities, there exists the potential for conflict. Where people are joined by a common task or draw upon the same resource base, differences in values, approach, goals, or style may generate conflict for those involved. We see the fruitful results of such differences when we enjoy works of art that are the result of collaboration. The production of dance, music, and theater performances often involve contentious moments during the creative process. Without that disagreement and the process of working through critical issues, the productions might lack the power that comes from a number of people shaping their work together.
The same holds true in other areas of organizational life. In recent years much attention has been paid to the negative results of too much agreement or the lack of conflict. "Group-think" occurs when people working together agree too much. This type of agreement prevents teams from examining multiple sides of an issue or many different implications of decisions. Strategically speaking, group-think may lead to the demise of an organization or of an industry. A prime example of this was the Swiss watch industry's decision to divest itself of the quartz watch technology, which they in fact had originated. The Swiss did not see any future for a technology that differed from their tradition of hand-built cogs and wheels. Instead of protecting their invention, the Swiss shared it widely. The Japanese watch industry, however, developed digital watches and protected their interests, signaling the near demise of the Swiss industry. The Swiss did not have anyone presenting a contrary viewpoint, which might have jogged them into another way of looking at their work and their strategic position in the field.
Most arts administrators have had experiences in which conflict had a negative impact on their organizations. Many administrators are concerned with preventing hostile interchanges and destructive actions. Unbridled conflict can indeed destroy important working relationships and impede the progress of important projects. The key, therefore, is not to resolve or eliminate conflict but to manage it productively. This is not an isolated event. Rather, it is critical to build both a recognition of the value of differences and processes for working with them into each stage of the strategic planning process.
Before launching into planning, design the process you intend to use. This design ought to be agreed upon by the core planning group and disseminated to all others involved.
As you invite people to get involved in your planning process, make it clear what you are asking them to do. Be very clear not only about the time commitment on their part but also be clear about what you expect from them:
Many difficult conflicts arise out of poor communication about roles, responsibility, and authority. There have been cases of powerful donors who were given the impression that, if they gave a large enough gift, they could set the direction of programming. When this proved not to be the case, the donor withdrew his support and affiliation. Sometimes staff members think they have authority that the Board holds. Sometimes community groups want to have decision-making authority while the organization doesn't want to give that to them.
During this stage, it is important to get input from the key stakeholder groups, being very clear with them about what you intend to do with their input. Don't make promises you can't or don't want to keep. If your relations with key groups are strained or contentious, you may want to have a trained third party conduct the input process for you. This can help keep the exchange focused on salient issues and avoid personal attacks. Remember, nothing generates hostility among people who have a vested interest in your organization quite like being excluded from input. Being promised something and then not getting it makes people very angry. Make sure that you set up realistic expectations with all people you ask to join in this process.
Minimize potentially destructive conflict among your key players by having everyone clear on their roles, responsibilities, and authority from the outset. Have your initial Strategic Planning Committee meeting include a thorough discussion of these roles, responsibilities and authority. Make sure you come to shared agreement and commitment to your plan to plan. It is helpful to develop working agreements for this committee. Discuss and determine what agreements you want to make with each other to ensure your success as a group. These agreements might include such principles as:
No agreements fit for all groups. Craft those that work best for you.
Also, build in an evaluation at the end of each meeting. A good way to do this is to divide a large flip chart page in two down the middle. On the left, list the aspects of the meeting or part of the planning process that you would keep and use another time. On the right, list what you would change the next time around. Then incorporate this feedback into your ongoing work.
Clearly the best way of avoiding destructive conflict is managing differences from the beginning in such a way that conflict stays within useful bounds. If this does not work and the conflict becomes destructive, consult someone trained in conflict management. There are many approaches and resources available to you. Dispute resolution methods are now widely taught in schools and offered through many community organizations. Additionally, many consultants work with workplace conflict issues.
The following list offers some useful contacts:
"Communications Strategies: Conflict Management (Talking and teamwork - powerful
antidotes to workplace disagreements)" by Dan Hounsell from FacilitiesNet (a site for professionals
who design, construct, manage and maintain buildings), 1996. Article.
Conflict Research Consortium
"Transformative Approaches to Conflict" by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess with Tanya
Glaser and Marilyn Yevsyukova, 1997. Article.
John's Conflict Resolution Page
Joe Ravick's Home Page, Appropriate Resolutions
"Negotiation Skills" by Christine Fiske and Janet A. Clark, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, University of Missouri-Columbia, University Extension Web site, 1995-96. Article. http://muextension.missouri.edu/xplor/hesguide/humanrel/gh6830.htm
Nonprofits - General/Management
The Chronicle of Philanthropy, The Newspaper of the Nonprofit World
Information for Nonprofits
The Management Center
(Website research for this article was conducted by Elizabeth Canelake.)
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