Posts Tagged ‘leverage point’

Art Changes Everything

February 14, 2012 4 comments

“Folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in ‘leverage points.’ These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” — Donella Meadows

Last week, at the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Statewide Assembly, my fellow members of the Reading Cultural Council and I were tickled to be recognized for our advocacy “on behalf of arts and culture across the Commonwealth.” We received the honor for making this brief video to highlight the community impact of projects we had funded.

The event had me thinking about “support for the arts” as a leverage point for change. When I consider where Donella Meadows might have ranked it in her famous list of twelve progressively effective Places to Intervene in a System, my guess is…she’d have put it right at the top.

Why? Because art and culture allow us to continually reexamine the “shared idea in the minds of society, the great big unstated assumptions…or deepest set of beliefs” that constitute what Meadows called our society’s paradigm. The arts help us stand outside that paradigm from time to time and see it for what it is—temporary, relational, evolving. That’s a powerful leverage point!

But the most powerful leverage points share an interesting characteristic: They are often counterintuitive and therefore, easy to dismiss or overlook. Support for the arts is no exception. How might we convince public policy makers that by increasing our investment in humble community arts projects we are catalyzing big changes in everything?

At the Assembly, we sat with hundreds of other local arts advocates in the Great Hall of the State House listening as a panel of community leaders discussed the current state of the creative economy. While enthusiasm was high (and we are lucky to live in a State that has just completed multi-million dollar additions to two of its flagship arts institutions) the subtext of the conversation was clear: Promoting public policy that recognizes the aggregate impact of community arts requires constant vigilance.

Despite data showing strong returns on investment for every public dollar expended on arts and culture, most legislators are content to let arts-related spending languish at bare minimum levels. Except among the most dedicated artists and art lovers, support for the arts is deemed a luxury, not a priority.

You’ll have an easier time finding a policy maker eager to invest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) the vaunted antidote to America’s declining stature as the world’s economic and innovation leader. But as WGBH president Jonathan Abbott noted during the panel discussion, to leave the arts out of that picture is folly. He endorsed the idea that STEM education be expanded to STEAM, to include the Arts, so vital to stimulating the imagination that leads to scientific breakthrough.

Largely obscured in this discussion is a more fundamental and potent leverage point: The power of the arts to engender solutions to expensive and disabling social woes. Yes, the arts generate exponential economic activity. Yes, the arts stimulate scientific breakthrough. But most important, with projects like the MCC’s 2012 Gold Star winners, the arts help us shed our prejudices, connect across cultural barriers, turn toward aspiration and away from fear. Live together. Grow together. Create together. Come to understand ourselves.

I’ll invest in that. How about you?

Moneyball: Throwing the System a Change-up

October 31, 2011 2 comments

baseballFor a story about statistics, the movie Moneyball is remarkably effective in exposing the emotional side of systems change.

The film is based on the eponymous bestselling book by Michael Lewis. It chronicles the surprising success of the 2002 Oakland A’s after their general manager, Billy Beane, adopted a “sabermetric” approach to player selection, with the help of a young statistician schooled in Bill James’s data-driven baseball philosophy.

The first emotion we encounter is despair as Beane recognizes the futility of trying to compete for star players with  big-market teams whose payrolls dwarf the one he has to work with. But out of that despair comes Beane’s willingness to look at non-traditional techniques (to innovate), and his curiosity about what success factors might be hidden beneath the surface in the statistical details. The data offers up a promising leverage point for change: On-base percentage (OBP), and Beane proceeds to build his strategy around it.

The next emotions we see are confusion and anger, as the team’s long-serving scouting and talent development staff react to Beane’s new plan. Their response will be recognizable to anyone who has tried to implement change in a deeply entrenched system. The scouts can’t believe that anyone would dismiss their carefully-considered player assessments after all the time and effort they’ve expended on behalf of the organization. They feel betrayed; and their resistance creates a balancing force that threatens to stop the change in its tracks.

But, the emotion that wins the day is courage, as Beane and his young protégé/mentor stick with their plan despite delays in the system that deny immediate gratification, because the success of the new strategy can only be measured over time. In the end, their patience and persistence are rewarded with widespread joy, as the team wins their division—although they fall short of the ultimate prize of a World Series win.

The result of this experiment was not just a turnaround for the A’s that season, but a sea change in the way major league baseball evaluates and develops talent. Of course, once OBP and other statistical leverage points were brought to light, the teams with deeper pockets could exploit them, too (as the Red Sox did with their World Series victory two years later). So, the A’s and other small-market teams are back in the position of having to find innovative ways to win in a system whose lopsided disparities in buying power continue to breed frustration and, happily, a healthy dose of determination.