The Times They Are A-Changin'
August 19, 2014
by ExperiencePoint

Professor Mabel Miguel, UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, partnered with the Carolina Performing Arts (CPA) to host an ExperienceChange: GlobalTech workshop. Raymond Farrow, Director of Development and Strategic Initiatives, CPA, shares on the experience.

Change management is not a common term used in the performing arts, though I think it would be difficult to find another sector that is experiencing as many profound shifts in its business model. In this era of iPhones and YouTube, where everyone can be a star and where there are endless possibilities to define, personalize, and access our “culture,” live arts performances, particularly those which include unfamiliar genres and performers, can easily be dismissed. Why spend money on something—or some artist—you don’t know and might not like?

For years, cultural institutions like symphony orchestras depended on commonly shared (albeit mostly upper-class) aesthetic values that reinforced their importance and drove attendance. You might not like Beethoven, but your family made sure you went to the symphony anyway. The experience of hearing a live orchestra, for instance, was part of what defined a “cultured” person. Today, any social desire to transmit art forms and knowledge from generation to generation has withered away. Attendance at live performances is almost purely driven by popular culture and mainly feeds the bank accounts of stars like Beyoncé or Bon Jovi.

Needless to say, a performing arts organization whose mission is to present something else—say the Mariinsky Orchestra of St. Petersburg or the Nederlands Dans Theater or the National Theatre of Scotland—has an increasingly difficult time navigating the cultural landscape and sustaining and growing an audience. As one of the top major university presenters in the country, Carolina Performing Arts (CPA) at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is seeking ways to introduce the performing arts to new generations and to build a diverse and enthusiastic audience for the future. We are fortunate in that we have a steady stream of potential “customers” each year with a student body of 25,000, but capturing the attention of these millennials is another matter. Moreover, our commitment to discounted student tickets (only $10) means we walk a financial tightrope each season. Ticket revenues cover only 40 percent of our costs; the rest is up to university support and, primarily, private support. Needless to say, a career in the performing arts is not for the faint-hearted.

Last year, the International Advisory Board for CPA embarked on a strategic planning process to help the organization address this shifting landscape and to envision its programming future more clearly. Change is all around us, but if we are to survive and even thrive, managing change is necessary. And, we understood, it probably required a different mindset—and toolkit—than what we had already.

Before being appointed CPA’s director of development and strategic initiatives, I had spent seven years as the executive director of the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. There, I worked with Mabel Miguel, a much beloved professor of organizational behavior who teaches change management to MBA students and to Fortune 500 companies in the school’s executive education program. Initially, I approached Miguel about possibly speaking to our advisory board on the topic of change management at a future meeting. Quickly, though, she offered another idea: How about a full-day pro-bono training for your staff and members of your board? I was both thrilled and confused by her offer. Change management training?

Professor Mabel Miguel facilitating ExperienceChange™: GlobalTech (Photo credit: KPO Photo)

Professor Mabel Miguel facilitating ExperienceChange™: GlobalTech (Photo credit: KPO Photo)

In minutes, Mabel was on the phone to her contact at ExperiencePoint, which supplies the training materials and simulation exercises she uses with her business-school students and corporate clients.   Would they like to help? A quick glance at the materials she shared with me raised a few red flags. How could a case about a military manufacturer be relevant to an arts organization? I was skeptical, but if I had learned one thing at Kenan-Flagler it was this: in all things, trust Mabel. She had a sterling reputation, and I knew in her hands it would work.

Several months later, that proposition was put to the test. Over 20 members of CPA’s professional staff—everyone from senior management to members of the artistic, audience services, box office, development, marketing, and production teams—were assembled, along with several members of our advisory board. The first part of the day was dedicated to understanding different theories of change and learning how individuals and groups tend to respond to change. Intense discussions about how the arts, our audiences, and even our programming were changing and would continue to change animated the room. CPA was about to celebrate its tenth anniversary season and for all of our many accomplishments, there was a palpable sense that the next ten seasons needed to be different if we wanted to thrive. But, change is difficult, even scary sometimes, and there is a magnetic pull to simply continue what has worked in the past, especially if has been successful up until now.

The analytical framework Mabel shared in the morning offered us a common language, though, a way to understand and distinguish the dynamics triggered by environmental and institutional change. The opportunity to openly discuss these dynamics offered a fresh perspective about our own inter-personal and organizational needs and what might be more effective strategies for managing the change we envisioned ahead. In a sense, the veil had been lifted. Instead of feeling paralyzed by the change we sensed growing all around us, the training offered us a means to assert greater control and leadership over our own evolution as an organization and our future direction as a major university presenter.

Of course, theory and perspective are important, but the application of theory and perspective is critical. During the afternoon, we divided into five teams to play the GlobalTech simulation. The client brief in the materials indicated we were far afield from our everyday concerns and professional roles at CPA: GlobalTech manufactured mobile sensing technologies for the military and now wanted to pursue commercial opportunities! You might as well have asked our group to split an atom.

If there was an initial apprehension about how we might tackle the assigned case, the concerns quickly vanished. Our group of stalwart arts administrators tackled the case with surprising gusto. As Mabel predicted, competition among the teams motivated everyone to dive in and work quickly. As teams contemplated what steps were necessary to help GlobalTech change its internal organization in order to better pursue its commercial opportunities, the lessons from the morning started to filter in. The sense that there might be some “science” to the art of change management was reassuring and, in the end, illuminating. Change wasn’t quite the monster we had imagined it to be.

As each team rushed to complete the simulation, there was a growing sense that we had achieved something important. The training provided us a group learning experience, to be sure, but one sharpened by the opportunity to practice what we had learned. If we came seeking a new tool in our toolkit, this one ended up feeling different, like it had an edge, like it might actually help.

When we began the day, we all understood the nature of change—the arts are defined by it these days—and how quickly change can engulf even a successful organization if it is not prepared to adapt and grow. But managing this dynamic of change used to seem almost impossible.

Like many, I bet our actions—or inactions—at CPA probably put us squarely in the “bystander” camp on most days. Depending on the situation, some of us might even recognize ourselves as change “resistors” or change “helpers” in different moments. But I don’t think any of us ever truly considered ourselves as change “champions.”

Until now.

We are grateful to our new friends at ExperiencePoint for providing us this amazing learning opportunity and to Mabel Miguel, who guided us every step of the way.

Raymond B. Farrow III  l  Director of Development and Strategic Initiatives

Carolina Performing Arts  l  University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill