Questions Considered - When To Plan
Tuesday, July 28, 2015 12:00 AM



ARTS Action Research


When is the best time to undertake a strategic planning process and who should be involved?


“As I ate the oysters . . . and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

      Earnest Hemingway—A Moveable Feast

There has never been a more enticing description of oysters; nor a more subtle but apt description of a renewed will to live. Hemingway knew well that deeply, depressed or disengaged individuals don’t plan. That’s because planning is not only an acknowledgement that there is a future, but also that it is possible to envision and influence that future in a positive way.  Not that anyone expects plans to work out exactly as articulated – but they often come close. More than that, they sometimes provide a path towards something better than the outcomes originally envisioned.  What we know for sure is that planning is the only way to accomplish either future.

Stepping from the romantic to the practical, planning is about the dynamic relationship between time and space in our lives, which is change. Change is an ongoing, unrelenting, fact of life. But it’s also a sign of life, especially when we acknowledge and work with it. So, When is the best time to undertake a planning process? It’s when you feel the need to shape, guide and have some control over how your theatre and work is going to change and grow in the future. There’s no season and no particular point in an entity’s lifecycle that is predestined for such an impulse. For different leaders and different organizations it comes at different moments.  That said, there is never a best time, an ideal time, or a time that won’t interfere with or distract from the other activities of your organization. In other words, there won’t be a moment when you can simply shut everything else out and plan.  But, that could be said of any project of any kind that your theatre wants to undertake.

A more appropriate way of thinking about ‘a best time for planning’ is when professional leadership makes the time and commits to a process. Part of this process is abandoning the notion that planning is something extra that needs to get done and understanding that effective planning is a way of propelling ongoing work and getting things done. The simple fact is that arts professionals plan all the time, otherwise no show would be mounted, no marketing undertaken, and no grants written. Planning is ongoing and integrated into what we do. However, much of it is reactive rather than proactive, situational rather than systemic, and short term if not in real time – ultimately not very satisfying and definitely not a positive way to think and plan for the future. To accomplish effective, proactive, systemic and long term planning, a theatre’s leadership must commit to making it an essential and consistent component of the ongoing operation and management of the organization’s activities.

Assuming planning must be an integrated and ongoing component of the work of theatre organizations, who should be involved in the planning process?  If the process is going to be meaningfully connected to the mission and vision of the organization and informed by the realities it faces, the person or people who have the most acute understanding and experience of these things must lead the process: the professional leadership.  A planning process might be facilitated by an outside consultant, but ultimately the organization’s leadership must do the work and shape the outcomes for it to be a truly meaningful process.

Further, these professional leaders must take responsibility for bringing together a core planning group to support process.  Just as Artistic Directors cast certain artists in certain roles because they are skilled, talented or experienced, likewise, the core planning group must be identified by professional leadership and cast very carefully.  The casting process is predicated not only on matching talent and experience but also on understanding the intangibles of values and behaviors that fit within the culture we’ve defined.  Taking the time to get the right team in place is essential for creating a rich and effective planning process.

Do you have questions in your organization or work that you would like to work with ARTS Action Research to explore and understand?  AAR Associates are available to A.R.T./New York members throughout the year, conducting Nancy Quinn Program workshops and providing one on one consulting support through the Theatre Leadership Program. For more information about these programs, contact Ann Marie Lonsdale at A.R.T./New York.