ArtsManaged Field Notes

Managing messes…

published2 months ago
2 min read

“Managers do not solve problems; they manage messes.”
Russell Ackoff

Weekly Features (scroll down to find them)
Function of the Week: Finance | Framework of the Week: The Ladder of Control | NEW: Ask ArtsManaged

Dear Reader,

Most arts managers I know are consummate problem solvers. They expect and engage a full range of obstacles to the shared goals of their teams. They keep things moving by navigating (or dodging) as each twist or turn presents itself. Over time, they recognize and respond to oncoming issues more quickly by sorting them into categories: programming, marketing, sales, fundraising, finance, facilities, accounting, governance, and so on.

This sorting works wonderfully until we begin to believe the categories are concrete and separate silos. When we divide our thinking and our teams into insular functional islands, we find ourselves with a map that doesn't match the terrain. As organizational theorist Russell Ackoff puts it:

Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes.

The Ten Functions of Arts Management are my attempt to softly sort the skills required of our work, without losing the larger truth that they're all entangled. Facilities and Finance are close companions. Marketing and Welcoming complete each others sentences. Of course, it can be useful to filter our attention, perception, and action by function or by problem. But it's also essential to remember that it's all a thicket – a "complex system of changing problems that interact with each other."

For some, the idea of "managing messes" can be overwhelming, especially when you consider yourself a problem-solver. But for me, when I'm faced with a problem that seems unsolvable, it's liberating to remember that the problem is bounded by my narrow definition of it and that the mess its part of offers a world of possible paths forward.

Mess managed,



Function of the Week: Finance

Finance offers a bundle of ways to attend, perceive, and act upon an organization's system of money and stuff. When we build or buy something durable (like a building, equipment, or even an endowment), finance is how we decide how to fund that resource. Do we save up over time? Do we incur debt? Do we seek an external infusion of money? Finance also helps us understand and adjust the relationships between the things we own (cash, pending income, inventory, and the like), and the things we owe to others (debt, pending expenses, and the like).

Winston Churchill famously suggested that "We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us." Something similar could be said for finance: We shape our financial structure, and afterwards our financial structure shapes us.

Framework of the Week: The Ladder of Control

Are you ever unsure about how much authority you have to make a decision? Or do you find that team members reporting to you have a different opinion on that topic than you do? The Ladder of Control is one way to bring clarity to those questions, and to frame productive conversations around how groups of people can decide and act together.

NEW: Ask ArtsManaged

Do you have a question about Arts Management, or a particular issue you're facing in the work? Post your question to this online and anonymous form. I'll select questions to answer in the Field Guide, or in this newsletter, so that we can all learn together about real and real-world messes we face.