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The impossibility of strategic management

In 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic brought most of the cultural industries into a standstill. While scientists had warned about such crisis, the world was largely taken by surprise. In a matter of weeks plans were widely eliminated or seriously jeopardized. This poses questions regarding the methods of strategic planning and management, but a critical view argues that a fundamental unpredictability is inherent in the complexity of human interactions itself.

After months of empty audiences due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona reopened its doors with a unique live broadcast concert. The 2,292 seats of the auditorium were occupied by plants. Image by Antoni Bofill, downloaded from https://www.liceubarcelona.cat/en/press-room

In 2020 the world is facing an unprecedented, acute global crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic has gravely affected most countries with severe impacts not only on public health but also on economy, international travel, public policy, and in some way virtually all areas of society. In a matter of weeks, the whole world was brought to a standstill, its plans for the near future widely eliminated or seriously jeopardized. While scientists had long warned about such crises, it seems clear that for the most part it was a surprise we were not prepared for, at least in a sufficient capacity. Furthermore, as a consequence, we are currently largely unable to properly predict and plan for the future. Practically all strategies are affected, both altered and susceptible to further changes, if not rendered altogether useless. This poses fundamental questions for strategic management: is it useful if it cannot sustain in situations like this? Could it have helped us prepare for this? Is it useful in planning how we proceed from here? In addition, considering the characteristic unpredictability of artistic output, we might go on to ask, is strategic management in the arts even possible?

The danger posed by a pandemic is not news to everyone. It is relatively clearly communicated in the Global Risks Report 2020 by the World Economic Forum. Yet, on the axis of likelihood, infectious diseases are positioned as highly unlikely, only such emergencies as weapons of mass destruction and unmanageable inflation deemed more improbable. While it is presented as likely as terrorist attacks, it has not commanded comparable public attention in recent times, and general concern has focused on climate change. Currently, societies throughout Europe have begun to gradually re-open areas of activity and business, while globally the pandemic still gains traction and the future remains profoundly uncertain. The unpredictability of the situation involves such momentous aspects as the nature of the novel virus itself and the course it takes; implications to both public health and individual well-being; scientific progress in developing remedies and vaccination; behaviour and mentality of individuals and populations; ethical questions concerning privacy and human rights; rigidity of institutions in both public and private sector; as well as political stability and capability of countries and areas. This list is far from exhaustive but serves to frame the enormity of the situation. Correspondingly, the implications for culture and the arts are far-reaching, involving eg. possible changes to cultural and other public policies, economic circumstances and audience behaviours. The Guardian reports that in the UK, half of all music venues and 70 % of theatres face permanent closure. It is necessary to admit that most of the strategic planning within the cultural industries could not adequately prepare organizations for the crisis.

Common practices in management include using tools such as mission and vision statements, SWOT and PEST analyses. The latter is considered especially useful for determining macro-environmental factors such as political, legislative, economic, technological and social ones. Categories of different strategies and leadership models are offered in multitudious instances of education and consulting. However, the viability of these is contested by the management theorist Ralph D. Stacey. He argues that the inherent complexity of human relations precludes any possibility to effectively predict outcomes by application of previous formulations and models in organizations. Every occasion is unique and arises in the form of local interaction, reflecting a complex interplay of ideologies, norms and values, involving conflict and competition as much as harmony and cooperation. According to him, there cannot be any scientific evidence confirming the usefulness of the tools and methods presented in the dominant discourse of management theory. The success of managers and leaders cannot be traced to any model nor any success modelled or replicated to another instance. In fact, the type of instrumental rationality embodied in the models does not reflect reality at all. Instead, the models and procedures work predominantly as instruments of disciplinary power, generally reinforcing rather than changing structures. Hence, these tools, models and techniques of management are just as useful or useless in unstable situations as in stable ones, since the unpredictability is unavoidable regardless.

This admittedly provocative view may seem radical and forlorn. However, within it resides a spark of hope. As a substitute, Stacey suggests a theory of complex reflexive processes. This is based on the notion that all actions happen within complicated interactions, while the process itself is continuously influenced by its elements. Emergent information cannot be reduced to generalizations, so focus should be put on the reflexivity itself. Obviously, this cannot produce any replicable model, and useful applications are mostly limited to what Stacey simply names practical judgment. This may be facilitated by reflexive inquiry, which essentially means deepening communications and conversation. Another implication is that expertise can only be learned in participation with others, so mentoring is a recommended method instead of leadership courses. What does this mean for Arts Management in the current situation? It indicates that we, who will live through this, will have to take responsibility to carry with us the knowledge of how to survive and pass it on, learning from each other continuously. The challenges of the future will always be unpredictable and no model will ever fully prepare us for them except simply working and learning together.

– Erkko Lehtinen

The AM Times

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This blog is a space for current arts management topics featuring students’ opinion pieces and reflections, interviews with field professionals from around the world, and occasional guest posts.

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