Our Dent in the Universe

“We’re here to put a dent in the universe.” – Steve Jobs

CC board and staff members do a teambuilding exercise with Mt Hermon staff

In late January, the Cultural Council board and staff kicked off our year-long strategic planning process with a day-long retreat at Mt. Hermon. We spent seven hours debating, among other things, what “dent” we want the Cultural Council to make. And we also got to run around outside in the gorgeous sunshine.

This new blog, which I intend to pen with regularity, will chronicle our planning process. My intention is that the process, and the plan itself, will be engaging, exciting, and, most of all, exceedingly useful. Many a strategic plan sits on a shelf gathering dust from the moment it is completed. And planning processes – hours sitting in windowless rooms drinking microwaved coffee and wordsmithing tag lines while attempting to divine what the future will look like – who wants to go through that? But – if the process could be different, if it could be useful and informative and energizing – now THAT is worth the time.

Board members Mark Sachau, Crystal Birns, and Christa Stiner contemplate a future vision of the arts in Santa Cruz

To that end, we have engaged consultant Nancy Ragey, who is the perfect fit for this work. She took us through what was a really promising day that got our creative juices flowing while also starting to define the big questions that we will ask during the planning process.

“Thank God we didn’t do a SWOT analysis.”

Feedback about the retreat was overwhelmingly positive. One board member said it was the best retreat he’d ever attended. And I overheard a staff member say the above quote. (For those of you who haven’t done this a million times, “SWOT” stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats, and is a time-honored technique. The problem is, it’s such a tired exercise that what value it has is lost to the people involved, who now just roll their eyes and check email on their iPhones when the big sticky paper gets taped to the wall.)

For the plan itself, I’m not interested in one that has very specific, time-bound tasks as deliverables. Instead, I want a visionary guiding framework that pushes us to make a long and lasting impact in our field. And I want a process that is so meaningful to the board and staff that they become lifelong, passionate, raving fans and advocates of the arts and the Cultural Council, even after their tenure with us has ended.

So why blog about this? I want you to see how we are going to make this particular sausage. I want the community to know where we think we should be going, and to give us feedback as we move the process along.

“Serve the music, not yourself.”

John Larry Granger, the long-standing artistic director and conductor of the Santa Cruz Symphony, shared this quote when he won the Gail Rich Award earlier this year. It struck me because it beautifully and succinctly articulates how I think the Cultural Council should approach our work – and how we could frame our strategic plan.

At the retreat, I outlined my vision for the Council. In my view, the strategic directions of our current 2009-12 plan were more inwardly focused: repositioning our programs, increasing funding and services, building our own capacity. I believe that, in order to thrive in the coming years, we need to be more outwardly focused. But what does that mean, and to what end? If we are successful in these shifts, what would be different five years from now?

  1. We transform how people value the arts in their lives.
  2. We become more service-oriented.
  3. We create better tools to tell our story.
  4. We make every donor, grantee, artist, and constituent who works with us a raving fan.
  5. We become innovative and nimble, while remaining strong and stable.

Board members Stephanie Schriver and Pearl Vickers, staffers Megan Searcy and Joyce Magallanes, Board President Marcella Allingham and staffer Ann Ostermann enjoy a timeline exercise

These are the five pieces of pasta I threw against the wall at the retreat, and I don’t know which of them will stick. And some of this might lead to significant change in the organization. But the only thing we can count on is change, which we can choose to guide, or choose to let it happen. If we guide it, great things could be in store for us. The most successful organizations in the world are masterful at change. Will that be us? I hope you’ll go on this journey with us, through reading this blog, and find out.