The Human Side of Change

Implementing Cultural Participation and Arts Marketing Programs

Thomas E. Backer, Ph.D.

This article is based on a presentation to a gathering of grantees held in the fall 2000 and aimed at building arts participation. The meeting was sponsored by the Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and the Walter and Elise Haas Fund.

More than eighty years of behavioral science research about how people, organizations, and communities handle change make it clear that the "human side of change" is often the Achilles heel of efforts to implement new programs. If we went around this room, no doubt each person could describe a cultural participation or arts marketing program that failed not because it wasn't good, perhaps even based in sound research, but because people passively resisted it, lost enthusiasm for it, or even actively sabotaged it. Strategies to increase participation are also vulnerable to these complicated human dynamics.

In the spring 2000 issue of the National Arts Stabilization Journal, leading arts executives talk about how they deal with the difficult challenges of change. The issue reprints a famous 1995 Harvard Business Review article titled "Why Transformation Efforts Fail." In it, Harvard Business School professor John Kotter reports the results of his decade-long study of more than 100 companies and how they've fared in their efforts to implement major programs inside their organizations. His results are discouraging: "A few of these corporate change efforts have been very successful. A few have been utter failures. Most fall somewhere in between, with a distinct tilt toward the lower end of the scale."

MIT's Michael Hammer, the leading figure in "re-engineering," perhaps the most popular tranformational intervention of the 1990s, has said that two thirds of all re-engineering interventions have failed — mostly due to staff resistance. Human beings' innate resistance to change is “the most perplexing, annoying, distressing, and confusing part” of re-engineering, says Hammer. Moreover, he goes on to say, resistance to change “is natural and inevitable. To think that resistance won't occur or to view those who exhibit its symptoms as difficult or retrograde is a fatal mistake.... The real cause of re-engineering failures is not the resistance itself but management's failure to deal with it.”

A recent issue of Business Week contained an essay by James Collins, the management scientist who wrote the best-selling book Built to Last. He had just finished a ten-year study of 1,500 companies that made the Fortune 500 list since 1965. He found that only eleven of them made the transition to “great” companies, which he defined as having consistently outstanding shareholder returns. These few companies had in common what Collins calls “immutable laws of management physics,” like being fanatically consistent in applying the strategies they knew worked for them. When implementing arts programs, what does behavioral science tell us are the principles that we should follow with “fanatic consistency” to deal with the human side of change? I'm going to suggest three of them.

1. Resistance and fear are normal human reactions to the inevitable stresses of change, and these reactions must be dealt with when implementing a new program.

Whenever people do something new, they're taking risks. This produces stress, fear that change will lead to bad consequences, and resistance to letting go of old, comfortable ways. But behavioral science research has taught us that the best way to deal with these normal, natural fears and resistances is to encourage people to express them honestly, so that they can be dealt with.

This principle has been put to use in an Arts Marketing Collaborative Initiative, funded for eight years by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The program is now in various stages of development in ten communities across the country. Each program involves creating a partnership among local arts agencies to work together on marketing the arts, pooling their resources, eliminating overlapping efforts, and capitalizing on collective buying power. Of course, this means making major changes in the way things have been done.

As these collaboratives unfold, the Knight Foundation provides support for a conference in each community that brings together leaders in the nonprofit arts. An outside facilitator, psychologically trained, helped the group debate whether they really should start up the collaborative. Participants were urged to voice their fears and to discuss openly the reasons they think the new strategy might not work in their community. For instance, many arts agencies were fearful that their image would be “homogenized” or their special audiences alienated by a group marketing approach. As the fears and resistances were discussed, ways to respond to them could also be developed and special initiatives tried, such as starting with a “pilot” version of the marketing collaborative to see how it worked, before trying it on a larger scale.

This gave everyone who would be affected by the new program — local artists, audience members, community leaders, and staff of arts organizations — an opportunity to bring some of their fears or resistances to the surface, which, in turn, helped shape the program itself.

2. All the people who will be affected by a new program must participate actively in its implementation and be encouraged to feel ownership in it.

After bringing fears and resistances to the surface (and dealing with them), behavioral science says the next step in dealing with the human side of change is to develop a broadly-based partnership to help with implementation. The more that people participate in shaping a program's operation and the way it is implemented, the more they will support it because it will belong to them. In addition, their fine-tuning is likely to make the program more successful.

Some innovative arts and culture participation programs in the country already are following this principle. For instance, in Los Angeles, the Cornerstone Theatre, which works in inner city multicultural areas of the city, produces dramas that involve community residents in acting, writing, production. In Houston, the Museum of Fine Arts has a “Place for All People” program that involves exhibitions selected by local artists and community members. This strategy is especially notable because it gives an important role to artists, who often resist programs to increase the participation of audiences out of fear that such efforts will reduce their control over the work.

3. A new program must give careful attention to the larger context of other changes being experienced by the individuals, organizations, and communities involved.

In any community, artists, arts organizations, and the public at large are probably contending with many other changes at the same time a new participation or marketing program comes along. Especially in urban areas, there may even be other, perhaps competing, efforts. Big changes may also be taking place in education, business, or social services.

Unless careful attention is given to the larger context, a new program may be introduced when people are simply exhausted by other changes. The new program may fail as a result, or, less drastically, it may lack credibility for not taking other community priorities into account. In Grand Forks, North Dakota, for instance, the arts marketing collaborative had to seriously consider the long-term impact of a devastating 1997 flood. Residents there are still getting their home and work lives back together four years later. This didn't mean the new marketing program couldn't move ahead, but it did require being sensitive to the community's larger concerns.

A new program may have greater impact, in fact, if it finds a natural synergy with other changes already in process. In San Jose, the newly-developed arts marketing collaborative effort is being coordinated with another program, a foundation-funded annual conference series called “ArtsBuild communities.” This annual conference concludes by giving participants the opportunity, while still in their seats, to write small grant applications that can be funded virtually overnight. The conference this year will be devoted to arts marketing, and local arts agencies will have the chance to learn about new developments in this field and maybe to get a small grant to help with their own marketing challenges.

From the broadest perspective, any new program must be introduced with sensitivity to the ever-increasing pace of change we all live with in today's world. From the Internet economy to changing social values, just about everybody can identify with novelist Dean Koontz's statement: “It was as if God had turned up the control handle on the flow of time.”

Key questions

A “template for change” for planning a new program might involve answering these three questions:

• How can the implementers of a new program allow the fears and resistance people have about it to surface, so the feelings can be acknowledged and dealt with?
• How can program implementers promote meaningful participation and ownership in the new program at all levels — artists, arts organization staff, and community members?
• How can a new program strategy be implemented while giving the most creative attention to other changes taking place in the community at the same time?

Artists, arts managers, and community leaders can help by insisting that energy be devoted to answering these questions before moving ahead. Funders can help not only by requiring that grantees answer the questions, but also by providing a space where the community can come together to wrestle with concerns the questions raise.

Other contributions from behavioral sciences

Understanding the human side of change is just one way that behavioral sciences can help provide a basis for more effective participation and marketing strategies. Evidence of another possible contribution comes from research conducted recently in California by AMS Research. According to the research findings, many consumers don't like making decisions about what arts experiences they go to — they want somebody else to make the decision for them. We need to know more about who these decision-makers are, and how programs can be designed to reach them. We already know that every community has “opinion leaders” who influence the thoughts and behaviors of many other people. As Malcolm Gladwell reminds us in his recent book The Tipping Point, these people can have a disproportionate impact on major social outcomes in a community.

Behavioral science concepts may also be helpful in understanding better some of the longstanding attitudinal barriers to more effective arts marketing. For example, Cora Mirikitani, past program officer at the James Irvine Foundation, noted that the number one impediment to arts marketing programs funded by Irvine is the perception among artists and arts organizations that the money will sully the creative spirit. How can these fears and resistances be allowed to surface and then be dealt with?

I will close by suggesting one more approach we should take when implementing arts participation programs. I mentioned this talk to a painter friend last month. When I asked what he thought, his immediate response was, “Reverse the angle!” That is, what can the arts contribute to our understanding of behavioral sciences and its impact on cultural participation? How can images from Shakespeare's plays or Picasso's paintings or Sondheim's song “Putting It Together” help to illuminate the complex human dynamics that we face in building strategies to increase participation? Perhaps this can be a topic of conversation here, and a reminder to all of us to keep the artists in our communities — and the artist in each of us — close at hand whenever we work for change.

Thomas E. Backer, Ph.D., is a psychologist and president, Human Interaction Research Institute, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit center for research and technical assistance on innovation and change founded in 1961.