Transcript – Episode 112

Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.

Sue Dahling Sullivan: Don’t just measure the easy number kind of stuff because you’ll lose the real story of whether you were successful. So get the stories, get the feedback, get the quotes.

Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Sue Dahling Sullivan, she is the Chief Strategic Officer at the Boch Center, and welcome to our program.

Sue Dahling Sullivan: Thanks for having me.

Anita Walker: We are here to talk about a topic that is so exciting and so much fun that I know that in boardrooms and executive teams and cultural organizations across Massachusetts everyone is just saying I can’t wait until we do our next strategic plan.

Sue Dahling Sullivan: I know, and yet I get very excited about it.

Anita Walker: Well, that’s why you’re here, and it’s actually, it’s so critical to our organizations, it’s required by most if not every single funder, and yet it’s one of those things that is, it’s almost like going to the dentist, it’s something we have to do but we don’t look forward to it. Why do you love strategic planning, Sue?

Sue Dahling Sullivan: You know it really is a great way to engage people. I’m as much of a fan about the process as the outcome. I think it can open up a lot of discussion in non-threatening ways, the way depending on how it’s managed, but and then the end product is a nice, clear, hopefully, roadmap and creates focus and, you know, really gets everybody on the same page. So I love the planning part, but I also love the implementation part because otherwise why–

Anita Walker: Why do we do it.

Sue Dahling Sullivan: –why do it.

Anita Walker: Yeah, and everybody talks about the dusty strategic plans that sit on the shelf, but they really are, they are your roadmap, they’re your ways.

Sue Dahling Sullivan: Right, right, and strategic planning has, I think, changed in today’s world. So those long, even though there are many people who do very in-depth, long, thoughtful strategic plans that are books that sit there, but I personally am more of a fan, and have used successfully, a framework called the Balanced Scorecard, which for many years has been sort of a cornerstone of Fortune 500 businesses planning. There are books and books and books, and if you google “Balanced Scorecard” you’ll find more than you could possibly read. It’s a theory that came out of Harvard Business School, and related to the Balanced Scorecard are things called strategy maps of which I am a really big fan because it’s a one-page diagram that actually synthesizes everything in your plan into a picture. What better kind of strategic planning process for arts organizations do you need than a visual one-page piece of strategic art.

Anita Walker: Well, let’s show our listeners one. Oh, I guess we’re on the podcast, that’s not going to be possible. But you can give us a word picture of what one might see on one of those diagrams.

Sue Dahling Sullivan: So, again, for all of you listening you can google “strategy maps”, but you would find interestingly on the non-profit strategy map, you would have mission and vision at the top. On a for-profit you would have profit, right, there. The sort of balanced scorecard concept says there’s four different areas that you need to look at that are all linked, and it’s very cause and effect, the first being customers, the second being internal processes, the third being learning and growth or resources, and the fourth being financial, and all four of those perspectives feed into success in realizing your mission and vision. There are some standard areas that you might see in, say, resources, learning, and growth, like there’s always something about non-profit boards and staff, and information technology, and things like that, sort of boiler plate. But it’s important to have on your map, right, because all of that is really important to organizational success, in satisfying your customers, and achieving your vision and mission. So they can be very colorful, they can be very simple, but it really is a one-page sort of reference to tell your story, and why, say if you’re fundraising, why do you need to raise money, because then you can invest in the resources, to deliver the programs, to satisfy your customers, and achieve your mission and vision, very logical, very simple and straightforward.

Anita Walker: Talk a little bit about the process of getting to your endgame diagram: how long, how many meetings, how many surveys, how many focus groups, how many– Some of these strategic planning processes take a great deal of time and in fact a great deal of human capacity on the part of our organizations.

Sue Dahling Sullivan: I think it’s different with every organization, and it depends on how big the strategic question is, right, are you going to revamp everything, are you just trying to tweak and get on a better road, are you looking at initiatives. So sometimes it can be a year long and you want to bring in outsiders and all the rest, other times it can be pretty quick and painless. I’m a big proponent of bringing in multiple voices, but it doesn’t always have to be lots of surveys and stuff. I think it’s important to have staff involved in conversations as well as board, and sometimes if you’re doing a big sort of framework foundation strategic plan, yeah, you should bring in your funders and all that kind of thing. But if you’re tweaking it or revisiting it, and I think it’s important to revisit every two to three years because in today’s time things change dramatically, and in fact you should look at it every year and make changes accordingly. It may be that you’re measuring different things based on what you’ve learned the year before. In addition to sort of the plan which is balanced scorecard and the map which is how you interpret it, the third part is the dashboard. So, and I always urge people don’t get too far down deep in the weeds, to pick your to 10 big-picture stuff, create a couple of metrics that are symbolic, because you should be measuring lots of things and, of course, financials are one place where you’re going to be measuring lot of things. But if you want to be measuring things like do you want more new ticket buyers, or do you want to build your board, do you want to fund an initiative, do you want to expand your reach, you should be thinking about what are some symbolic, what would success look like, and how would you define it. Sometimes it’s numbers, you know it could be dollars, it could be percents, it could be gross numbers. It could be, on the other hand, something like launched a new thing.

Anita Walker: We did the thing.

Sue Dahling Sullivan: Yeah, the fact that you got to it, or complete phase 1 of research, or how many new collaborators did you get kind of thing.

Anita Walker: But part of it is knowing the questions to ask.

Sue Dahling Sullivan: Yep, and sometimes, you know, and I’ve done this myself, asked the wrong questions, and so that’s why you have to be pretty flexible to say, you know this was not the right question, this isn’t the right metric, so moving forward we’re going change it. I really believe that you have to be flexible in strategic planning because things do change, and it’s not a perfect, it’s an art as much a science, so.

Anita Walker: Why do you think so many organizations are intimidated by it?

Sue Dahling Sullivan: You know I don’t know. I think maybe because they go in thinking it’s going to be this huge, onerous kind of process. You know recently because I’ve been doing balanced scorecard for a long time, I did it when I was at Boston Lyric Opera years ago and it became, still, one of the most popular case studies on how non-profit strategy happens. At the Boch Center, Dartmouth, the Tech School did a case study on it. But those were organizational sort of stories, and I wanted to see if I could do one for a program. So I did one for Art Week two years ago when it went state-wide. I’m like this doesn’t have to be an organizational process, but Art Week was big enough and had enough meat in my mind that I could do a strategy map for it. So last year I did a strategy map for it, I did a dashboard, and I put some big objectives there, some big things, so I was like, I don’t know, we’ll see if this happens. But it does help you focus, it helps you sort of say yes or no to some paths that might be possible. I found it really, really helpful to guide myself, my team, to inform the senior management team I work so closely with, and the board on framing the story, and so we’re continuing to use it. 

Anita Walker: Give that as a specific example, what are some of the big goals that you put on your strategy map, what did you take a look at and think about using this approach in your strategic plan?

Sue Dahling Sullivan: So for Art Week we looked at the dashboard on building partners, on building knowledge sharing, so that resulted in the creation of the eight case studies that we just unveiled. We looked at a shift to working not just event by event, but looking at more community and cross-community, trying to nurture those kinds of relationships, so regions, and we’re seeing some of that also successfully be realized this year. So like the Cape Ann community is working together, the Berkshires are working together. We’re trying to better engage and help our communities engage their elected officials both at a really local level, but also at the State House. So those are just a couple of examples. Years ago when we did our first balanced scorecard one of the big things that was realized was when I was at Boston Lyric Opera, and this is, I’m dating myself, 2002, we did Carmen on the Common, which was a large-scale, you know it was going to be an outdoor performance of Carmen on the Boston Common, and we had very modest expectations but it was on our balanced scorecard, and so the board understood what kind of resources we’re going into it, the staff understood, everybody was able to get behind it because they understood it was going to be an important initiative for the company celebrating its 25th anniversary, but it wildly exceeded expectations with 140,000 people over two days. But that’s because we defined it, we knew how it impacted the rest of the strategy for the organization, the part it played in looking at where the organization had come and where the organization wanted to go. So it’s another great tangible example of how being focused and how strategy can help you focus and hopefully realize success.

Anita Walker: And it also helps you know when you have achieved success–

Sue Dahling Sullivan: Absolutely.

Anita Walker: –because if you hadn’t defined it in the first place–

Sue Dahling Sullivan: Right.

Anita Walker: –how do you know that you got there. Lots of times I know in our field though we tend to be more qualitative and less quantitative, the numbers can be just somewhat intimidating. But they also can tell you when you’re doing well and when you’re on the right track.

Sue Dahling Sullivan: Right, right, and, as I said, it’s I think people are, I think the creative part is figuring out a bunch of different metrics. So for instance somebody may say, “We want to be better known in the community.” So how do you measure that, right?

Anita Walker: How do you? That is a common one.

Sue Dahling Sullivan: Or education impact.

Anita Walker: Yeah.

Sue Dahling Sullivan: It is. People do everything from more press or online mentions in a positive way. Education, we’ve done a lot, and it’s really helped define a lot of how the Boch Center’s education programs were created and how they’ve grown and succeeded too because they had very clear sort of what are we measuring, what are we hoping, but not, yes, we wanted to measure some traditional numbers but we also collect things like quotes and feedback and stories. So I always tell people don’t just measure the easy number kind of stuff because you’ll lose the real story of whether you were successful. So get the stories, get the feedback, get the quotes, and follow it too so you can see trends because you want to make sure you’re not a one-hit wonder.

Anita Walker: So, Sue, your enthusiasm around strategic planning is just coming through the microphone.

Sue Dahling Sullivan: I know I’m a nerd, a strategy nerd I told you.

Anita Walker: And a lot of our listeners are right with you. But the program is called balanced scorecard, if you’d like to know more there’s, as you said, lots of information just google it, right? But we’ll have some on our website to go with this interview.

Sue Dahling Sullivan: Yep, definitely.

Anita Walker: Sue Dahling Sullivan, Chief Strategic Officer at the Boch Center, and another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.

Sue Dahling Sullivan: Thank you.

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