The phrase in the title – 'improvement artists' – came to me as I was re-wording the website for this new focus on provoking flourishing nonprofits. Here are some thoughts on what it means to me.
Artistry, according to Rotman School of Business adjunct professor Hilary Austen, is "the ability to harness originality and mastery to enhance performance and help solve today's most demanding problems." I've just begun to read her book, Artistry Unleashed: A Guide to Pursuing Great Performance in Work and Life (2013) and will keep you posted on further insights.
Austen draws creatively on Donald Schön's work. He's the expert in professional education who alerted me to conversations being a form of jazz. Schön, especially in his classic, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (1983), argues that artistry is at the heart of complex professions that require practitioners to be unusually adept at handling situations of uncertainty, uniqueness, and conflict. That describes perfectly the context for all the practitioners of nonprofit leadership and management that I know.
My own take on leadership/management artistry, shaped by the model of jazz, is this:
Artistry is a promising level of mastery in creatively combining the instincts and insights of a team to generate a performance that benefits all who are touched by its impact, then learning how to improve that mastery for the next performance.
Practitioners of nonprofit leadership/management all need to be developing this kind of artistry in improvement, one conversation after another. It's the only way flourishing organizations are developed.
Here are four of the most pressing problems I'm hearing from my nonprofit colleagues:
- uncertainty about funding sources and stability
- unprecedented challenges in the design and delivery of services
- unrest among board members around the clarity of success factors
- unchallenged assumptions about staff positions and responsibilities
Improvement artists will be realistic about the negative potential in these situations, but will not stay stuck there. They will, instead, be adept at recalling quickly their positive aspirations for their nonprofit and be agile in forming questions that open up enhanced and expanded possibilities for overcoming these challenges.
Here is a three-step process for practicing improvement artistry that you might try this month. Invite your three most valued colleagues to lunch one day and invite them into a conversation focused on these questions:
- What aspiration is most important to nourish in our organization in the next month?
- What possibilities can we imagine in the next twenty minutes of conversation for nourishing that aspiration?
- What possibility will we work on together in the next month?
- What will I do to further that possibility and what support would benefit me most?
This process builds on the power of curiosity to expand our intellectual horizons, engage our emotional commitments, and draw on our instinctive strengths. Give it a try and let me know how it works. Just e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rich blessings to you as you hone and enhance your abilities to solve today's most demanding problems by overwhelming them with possibilities.