We Don’t Need New Models, We Need a New Mindset

I’ll be one of 8 guests at WESTAF’s annual Dinner-vention! In this briefing paper, I share my perspective on how we should talk about broken models.

My briefing paper for Dinner-vention 2 responds to the topic of "Broken Models: Picking Up the Pieces and Moving Forward." Image: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr.
My briefing paper for Dinner-vention 2 responds to the topic of “Broken Models: Picking Up the Pieces and Moving Forward.” Image: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr.

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve been selected as a guest at the Dinner-vention 2, organized by Barry Hessenius of Barry’s Blog and WESTAF. On October 9, I’ll join seven other dynamic, forward-thinking leaders in the arts to discuss some of the most pressing challenges across the field. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone and engaging in what should be a spicy conversation.

To prepare for the Dinner-vention, Barry asked all of us to capture our preliminary thinking in a briefing paper that responds to the topic: “Broken Models: Picking Up the Pieces and Moving Forward.”

I’ve shared my briefing paper below. I encourage you to read the papers of the other seven guests, which you can find here.

Update: You can watch our conversation live at 9:00pm Eastern on Thursday, October 9, via WESTAF’s livestream feed here

What’s a model, exactly?

I’m a very literal person, so the first thing I did when tasked with this briefing paper was look up the definition of “model.”

Model (n): 1) A standard, an example for imitation or comparison

OK, got it. A model is like a blueprint. Or a recipe. So, this Dinner-vention is a debate about standard or best practices in our field. We’re taking a long hard look at the routines we’ve replicated again and again because they work, or at least they’re supposed to, or they once did.

What models are we questioning?

My next step was to plainly state what I see as the old model in each of the areas Barry mentions (plus I added strategic planning, evaluation, and artistic development).

However, I assume every model evolved to meet a particular challenge. So I also tried to name the challenge I think we’re facing right now in that area. For me, there’s nothing worse that poor problem definition. We can reform our models until we’re blue in the face, but that’s useless unless we get clear about the future we want and the challenges we’ll face in getting there. Only then can we answer the question: why aren’t our models working?

I think this was a useful exercise, so I’ve shared the results below. It’s wide open for debate. My hope is that it serves as a starting place for a shared understanding of the standard practices we’re questioning and the real challenges we’re faced with as a field, so that we can begin to understand whether our approaches are the right ones.

In each case, I see a stark disconnect. The old models we’re using aren’t matching up with the deeply complex challenges we’re faced with right now.

Income/Revenue

  • Old model: Ticket sales + government + foundation + corporate + wealthy patrons + small donors + endowment income = Balanced budget
  • New challenge: To generate new sources of sustained revenue and capital

Audience development

  • Old model: Sell subscriptions and market shows
  • New challenge: To engage new and more diverse groups of people in meaningful arts experiences

Governance

  • Old model: Give/get boards focused on fiduciary oversight and maintaining stability
  • New challenge: To cultivate boards that are partners in change

Evaluation

  • Old model: More ticket sales, more revenue, bigger budget, nice building = Success!
  • New challenge: To evaluate the success of our organizations based on the value they create in people’s lives

Leadership development

  • Old model: Attend leadership conferences and seminars, build your network, wait for your boss to finally leave/retire/die. (Alternatively, change jobs every year.)
  • New challenge: To develop a generation of new leaders equipped with the tools they’ll need to tackle the wickedly complex challenges the future has in store

Artistic development

  • Old model: MFA programs, residencies, commissions, occasionally a grant, get a day job
  • New challenge: To support artists in making a living and a life

Strategic planning

  • Old model: Decide where you want to be in 5 years. Outline the steps to get there in a long document no one will read.
  • New challenge: To plan for the future in a way that allows us to stay close to our core values and make incremental improvement while also making room for experimentation, failure, and rapidly changing conditions.

Funding allocation

  • Old model: The money goes to whoever the funder says it to goes to. Usually bigger organizations run by white people in major cities.
  • Our challenge today: To distribute funds in a way that is equitable, geographically diverse, and creates the most value

Note: I decided I was too ignorant in the areas of creative placemaking, advocacy and arts education to weigh in. I’ll leave that to my colleagues.

Here’s my main argument

Over 60 years in the field, we’ve developed standard practices, or models, in all these different areas. They worked for a while. Now they don’t. This has given us a false notion that we need new models in each area. This is wrong.

Models, best practices, recipes, and blueprints work only when your challenge has a knowable, replicable solution. Sure, there are some challenges that fit this mold. I’d argue that having a great website, designing an effective ad, doing a successful crowd funding campaign, and producing a complicated show are all challenges where best practices, models, and experts are really valuable. You might not know the solution, but someone does, and you can find it out.

But what happens when there actually isn’t a knowable solution to your challenge? When there is no expert, no model to call upon? When the only way forward is through experimentation and failure?

I’d argue that every one of the big challenges I name above falls into the realm of complexity, where the search for replicable models is fruitless. There isn’t going to be a new model for generating revenue that the field can galvanize around that will work for every or even most arts organizations. Nor is there going to be a long lasting model for community engagement that can be replicated by organizations across the country. For the deeply complex challenges we face today, there simply isn’t a knowable solution or model that can reliably help us tackle them. These kinds of challenges require a new way of working.

We don’t need new models, we need a new theory of practice

Instead of new models, I’d argue that we need a new theory of practice, one that champions a different set of priorities in how we do our work.

Our old models imply a vision of success that’s rooted in growth, stability, and excellence. They drive us towards efficiency and competition by perpetuating an atmosphere of scarcity. They are not as creative as we are.

What if a new vision of success in our field could prioritize resilience, flexibility, and intimacy? What if we could be enablers, not producers? What if we could harness the abundance of creative potential around us?

This new vision of success doesn’t demand consensus around a new set of standards, best practices, or “examples for imitation,” it demands a new way of thinking and acting that empowers us to shift and change our routines all the time, as needed.

A proposed theory of practice for the future

Here is my call to the field: a proposed set of practices that align with the world as it is today, not as it was before:

  • Let’s get clear about the challenges we’re facing and if they’re complex, treat them as such
  • Let’s ask hard questions, listen, do research, and stay vulnerable to what we learn.
  • Let’s question our assumptions and let go of what’s no longer working.
  • Let’s embrace ambiguity and conflict as a crucial part of change
  • Let’s bring together people with different experiences and lean into difference
  • Let’s experiment our way forward and fail often
  • Let’s recognize the system in which we’re operating.
  • Let’s rigorously reflect and continuously learn

In conclusion

When I set out to write this post, I wanted to question the premise that a conversation about “broken models” could even be useful in a time when expertise, excellence and replicability are the values of the past. I wanted to propose that we move past the very notion of models – let’s jettison the word itself from our vocabulary.

In the end, I guess you could call what I’ve proposed a kind of “new model.” But I’d rather think of it as a new mindset.

About
Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts.

  • Great post and great thinking, Karina. Although, I’d encourage you to consider a different definition of ‘model’ — a description or analogy used to help visualize something that cannot be directly observed– think ‘mental model’. By this definition, a model is not a static thing to be copied, but a metaphor for understanding how a complex system is connected and interacts.

    Where is value generated in the course of what we do? Where is that value exchanged for money or other economic resources? What motivates, connects, and aligns all the people required to generate that value?

    By this definition, a model IS a mindset, but a mindset with accountability. A mindset is an approach or perspective, but it doesn’t force you to connect the dots and represent a complex, unseen thing. A model does. Further, a model provides a basis for you to test your assumptions and analogies against real experience.

    Finally, a model is never intended (nor can it ever be) a complete representation of reality. It is a narrow and purpose-built representation of reality that facilitates our thinking and action (and learning). As George Box said: “All models are wrong…some models are useful.”

    • Karina Mangu-Ward, EmcArts

      Andy – Great comment. I’ve been stewing on it all day. I’d agree with you that a “mental model” is essentially a mindset and that mental models are powerful drivers of behaviors because they, indeed, determine what we value. In my practice, I tend to call these beliefs that we hold “assumptions” rather than “mental models” but it’s the same core concept – both are the stories we tell ourselves about our world. (Edgar Schein’s language vs. Peter Senge’s language).

      I’d argue, though, that mental models and assumptions can actually be incredibly static. We easily get attached to metaphors that seem to explain things around us and then hang on to them long past their sell-by date. Just because a model takes the form of a mindset, as opposed to a set of behaviors we can observe and imitate, it’s not inherently more flexible. Our brains are built to notice patterns and repeat them, so, to stay flexible and constantly questioning takes a great deal of intention on our part.

      Perhaps the more important point here is that I think we tend to use the language (correctly or not) of “model” to describe sets of behavior that we can replicate. For example, we talk about “the subscription model” which describes how we package shows, price them, and sell tickets in the arts. Yes, I’d agree that it’s built on a a series of assumptions or mental models about how things work. But when we start having conversations about “broken models” in the arts, I think that, too often, we focus on action instead of the thinking behind that action. I think it would be awesome if arts organizations were constantly testing their mental models against their experience, but I always observed that to be the case.

      So, my post is an attempt to deliberately redirect the conversation at Dinner-vention away from observable behaviors (let’s agree to adopt new models for community engagement!) to mindsets, assumptions, and mental models (let’s change the way we think about our role in our community). And my argument is that we need a new shared mindset (or mental model) that prioritizes reflection, questioning, research, experimentation and systems thinking over excellence and replicability.

      So, I think we’re saying something similar – that it’s actually the mental models/assumptions/mindsets that we should be surfacing and discussing. Yes! I wholeheartedly agree.

      Still trying to work all this through, so I welcome any more thoughts you have!

  • Suddenly Sunshine

    Models, assumptions, metaphors, mindsets… my poor little brain gets so easily confused by all these big words.

    I think what you are saying is that we don’t need new ways to do things, or that we shouldn’t focus there. It think what you’re saying is that we need to think about things differently, maybe very differently, and then do some things based on that new way of thinking. Right?

    And we need to do that because, with the kinds of challenges we are facing, simply doing something that worked someplace else with what seems like a similar challenge isn’t necessarily gonna work with the one we face.

    So we need a way of going about investigating the challenge we face, and learning about it, and testing small ideas on the way to doing more learning and finally solving the thing we want to solve.

    So getting better at that “way of going about” becomes the goal. That’s a practice theory, right?

    • Karina Mangu-Ward

      You’re exactly right, thanks for the straightforward language!

  • Kerry Huang

    In order activate a change in mindset, I believe it must start at the personal level, and the mindset must be grounded in intention. Like many of us, my intention has always been and continues to be focused on creating artistic experiences that bring people together to share and engage as a community. But who are these people in this community, and what kind of experiences are we having? More importantly, why are we serving, valuing, rewarding, and prioritizing certain people, models, and sensibilities while ignoring, exploiting, or rejecting others?

    At a time of scarcity, inequity, and inaccessibility, we tend to want to shore up our defenses — we want to befriend those with more power and resources and distance ourselves from those who are tapping into our reserve. In my personal experience, I find that to be a dominant approach in the arts. That mindset, I believe, is what gets us in trouble. This fear-based approach is the root cause of more scarcity, inequity, and inaccessibility. In becoming more protective of ourselves, we separate and become less valuable to the community as a whole.

    Instead, I propose that we shift to an intention of service — which, after all, is the mission of most non-profits. Even when we are working to balance our budget and developing our adaptive strategies, the intention must still be grounded in the value we are bringing to and the impact we are having on our community. Can we accept revenue streams that serve us at the expense of our neighbors? Should we allow curatorial decisions that prioritize the values and opinions of funders over those of our artists? Do our management practices only allow input from seasoned executives, or are we inviting insights from emerging leaders in the field? Are our marketing and audience engagement catered to the luxury class, or is it meant to reach and connect with those who have little access to the arts? Are we listening to the disenfranchised, or are only paying attention to MBAs? Are our models designed to benefit the community as a whole, or are they perpetuating economic and social disparity and furthering greed and exploitation? Who are our beneficiaries and how are we affecting their lives? What keeps us awake at night, is it our concern about our own success, or is it about how we can transform the lives and communities, local and global?

    Once we are clear about our intention, it can then inform our mindset and motivate us to design models that are in line with our values and goals.

    • Karina Mangu-Ward

      Totally agreed!

  • andrew simonet

    I love that your Proposed Theory of Practice describes the artistic process. That’s a sign that you’re on to something.

  • JLMandell

    Interesting that you envision success in the theater as putting a new priority on “intimacy.” Can you elaborate?