This post is part of a series of collaborations with Doug Borwick and is cross-posted to his Engaging Matters blog on Arts Journal.
A year or two ago a mentor introduced me to the concept of “polarity management.” It sounds like just another business buzzword, but—stick with me—it gave a name to something that I and many of us have experienced and struggled with.
The concept is this: every challenge you encounter, in business and in life, is either:
- a problem you need to solve, or
- an ongoing “polarity” you need to manage well
A polarity is made up of two interdependent factors that are at odds with each other. While a problem has a correct solution or a set of independent solutions, a polarity is an ongoing challenge where you will need to continuously address and manage both solutions. At the same time.
In arts and cultural organizations, there are a variety of challenges like this—for example, artistic integrity vs. popular appeal, or cultivating new vs. existing donors. Yet the most common—and trickiest—polarity that TRG sees is short-term income vs. long-term engagement. The truth is that organizations must manage both to succeed and fulfill their missions. Yet, organizations often find themselves managing one well at the expense of the other. The tension is this:
- Manage short-term income well and you will have a lot of patrons coming through your doors, spending money. But, do that exclusively and you can find yourself without a pipeline for future patrons.
- Manage long-term engagement well and you will have a lot of engaged community members and potential future patrons. But, do that at the exclusion of other things and you can find yourself unable to make payroll.
I’m sensitive to and aware of this reality because my firm, TRG Arts, has been working hard to manage polarity in our business, too. Like our clients, we have near-term needs and opportunities that we must balance with longer-term strategic thinking, planning and groundwork-laying. Every piece of organizational development literature I’ve been able to get my hands on suggests that companies, organizations, and people that aren’t aware of and purposefully managing this need for balance will inevitably boomerang from one end of the polarity to the other when they realize that they are neglecting the other side.
We often see evidence of “the boomerang” in organizational priorities that can look like:
- A museum that curates a blockbuster exhibition which surpasses all revenue expectations. They celebrate, and move to the next revenue objective. But they haven’t invested in engaging new and different segments of their larger community to this wide-appeal exhibition. And, they don’t have a plan for inviting patrons back after this exhibition, because “they wouldn’t be interested in anything else we do.”
- Or, an opera company that forms a research-based, five-year plan for developing younger, more diverse audiences. Everyone on staff is involved and has bought in to this plan. But the work plan means substantially less time and money for marketing to cultivate relationships with current audience members and grow their loyalty.
So, how can a leader navigate the nuances of polarity management? The path requires leadership and clarity of priorities based on your current realities. Most importantly, it means dropping the crusade of “either/or” and embracing the “both/and” strategy necessary to run an arts and cultural organization.
Whether your polarity can be perfectly balanced now, or must err on one side or another to ensure the organization accomplishes important objectives, is answered through smart business planning and follow-up execution. At TRG Arts, the answer is in a “rhythm” we’re getting into as an organization that ensures we’re focused both short- and long-term, every quarter. And we’re constantly balancing and re-balancing.
In arts and culture, it means that while we need to pay attention to our long-term community engagement strategy, we can’t ignore our existing patrons and the revenue and loyalty that comes from them. Depending on where your organization is, balance between these two priorities can be relatively easy, or extremely difficult. But it must be managed.