On crime shows like Law and Order, it’s accepted wisdom that a prosecuting attorney should never ask a question of a witness that she or he doesn’t already know the answer to. But in planning, it’s exactly the opposite. A few weeks ago, I was asked to participate in a planning focus group, as somewhat of an outside stakeholder, for a largish organization. We received materials in advance including a set of four goals. “Hmm, I thought, I guess they’re farther along in the process than I thought. They already have goals in place.” I go to the meeting, sit in a room with a group of immensely talented people from various arts and humanities disciplines. We’re introduced to the process by the organization’s outside facilitator who says, in passing, that the organization hasn’t had a strategic plan in almost ten years; but they’re required to by a source of funding support, so now they’re doing it. I thought, “Hmmm, a bit of a red flag. As a grant reviewer, a statement like this always caused me to look hard at an application.” The facilitator and the director talk about these focus groups, about an upcoming survey, about delivering a draft, and so on.
The conversation begins, with a note-taker taking notes projected on the screen. As we near the end of the meeting, we’re asked to react to the four goals. There’s a silence, and finally I say (they asked for my opinion, right?) that I thought the four goals were old-fashioned, that they sounded like they could have been written ten years ago. There’s another silence, when I wonder whether I should have spoken up, but then all of sudden the conversation blooms, with questions and lively talk from everyone around the table: why are goals are already in place at the start of the process? Do these goals reflect current realities and thinking? How can the process should be a more open one?
Great, right? We were asked for our opinions and perspectives and we delivered them. I left the meeting thinking that those opinions and perspectives had been recorded, noted (I could seen them projected on the screen) and perhaps even appreciated. After all, it was a great, thoughtful group of people in the room.
But, a week or so later, the notes of the meeting were distributed. I’m astonished to see that the entire discussion about the goals has been deleted. Because we were critical and questioning about the process, it feels like it was taken as a direct challenge to the organization. Rather than think about the questions we raised, it was easier to just erase them and pretend they didn’t exist.
Every museum evaluator I’ve ever worked with has always reminded me at the beginning of the process of the essential need to embrace the data, to be ready to really listen and be prepared to make change. That doesn’t mean making every change a focus group suggests; but to be serious about the process and the learning that occurs. This organization demonstrated, from start to finish in this part of the process, that these focus groups were just a dog and pony show; that decisions had already been made.
Think about your own work. Are you prepared to listen to the answers, or, like those Law and Order folks, only asking the questions you know the answers to? We’re not district attorneys, we are, at our best, explorers of arts, of life, of new ideas. So be prepared to listen. Otherwise, why even bother to ask the question?