Commentary: The problem with problem-solving in the arts

Sarah Lutman, blog Speaker, 1/12/12

I wasn't sure whether or not problemization was a word until I looked it up and found that it is one. Problemization is "to consider or treat as a problem". Increasingly when you look at a foundation's grant guidelines, you are asked: "What problem are you trying to solve?" I put the following into Google: "Foundation funding what problem are you trying to solve." The search result: 182 million hits that included dozens of foundations' guidelines and many articles about how to write successful grant proposals. The additional question is "What is the need or problem that will be eliminated if your request is granted?"  I wonder what effect this culture of pathology, of diagnosis and treatment, is having on the nonprofit sector in general and the cultural sector in particular. Do foundations increasingly see themselves in the role of a sort of benevolent physician, identifying social "disease" and using their grants as the medication needed for wellness to be achieved? I think that people working in the arts see the world through the lens of human potential and not through the lens of disease (or human failing). I wonder whether this accounts for the widening chasm between foundation priorities and arts giving (arts grantmaking is shrinking as a proportion of overall grantmaking, down 21% between 2008 and 2009). Perhaps the reason is that those in the cultural sector are unwilling (and unable) to re-orient their deep-seated belief in human potential to satisfy an analysis by those who look at society and see what's wrong, rather than what's right. Problemization is a world view and the nonprofit sector seems only too willing to embrace it. You may argue that this has meant more rigor, more focus on results, and better outcomes. But something also has been lost.


Commentary: Is there a problem problem?

Linda Essig, Creative Infrastructure blog, 1/15/12

Sarah Lutman asserts that the propensity for foundations to ask "What need or problem will be eliminated" leads to a "culture of pathology" that is "especially insidious for the arts." Challenging, yes, but not necessarily insidious. Problem formulation can be seen as an essential element of creativity, especially creativity that leads to innovation. [In] a session with my arts entrepreneurship class last week...I ask the students to envision themselves walking down a path through a wooded area. They can look at the path at their feet and stay safely on their present path (carpe diem) or they can look up, forward toward the many future possibilities that lie ahead, choosing the path or paths that they see on the horizon (carpe futurum). Now, let's say there's an obstacle on the pathway. They can look up, they can see the opportunities ahead of them, but there's a roadblock. "What should you do?" I ask. Student 1 says, "Knock it down!" Student 2 shouts, "Go around it!" Student 3 says "Climb over it!" Drawing on some cognitive research from Thomas Ward and others, I explained that problem formulation is itself a form of creativity. Student 1 conceived of the roadblock as something that needed to be knocked down - this student would invent or create something that knocks stuff down to get past roadblocks. Student 2 conceived of the roadblock as part of a larger landscape and would figure out a way to go safely off the path to get around it. Student 3 conceived of the roadblock as a vertical problem, something to be climbed over, and so would create some way to get over it to the opportunities on the other side. Before there can be innovation, there is the creative process of identifying the problem. So, while foundation requests for "a problem" make grant writing hard, they can also help grantwriters focus, and not necessarily on the problem itself, but on the many opportunities that lie on the other side it.


Commentary: Solving other people's problems

Joe Patti, Butts In The Seats blog, 5/24/11

Daniel Pink recently wrote a piece in The Telegraph about how people are more effective at solving problems if the problems are not their own. In another study, people were asked to choose a gift for themselves, for someone close to them and for someone they barely knew. The less familiar the person, the more innovative the gift that was chosen.

Over the years, social scientists have found that abstract thinking leads to greater creativity. That means that if we care about innovation we need to be more abstract and therefore more distant. But in our businesses and our lives, we often do the opposite. We intensify our focus rather than widen our view. We draw closer rather than step back. That's a mistake, Polman and Emich suggest. "That decisions for others are more creative than decisions for the self... should prove of considerable interest to negotiators, managers, product designers, marketers and advertisers, among many others," they write.[...] And while much of our business world is ill-configured to benefit from Polman and Emich's insights, the rise of crowd sourcing and ventures such as Innocentive (which allows companies to post problems on a web site for people around the world to solve) suggests that the moment may be right for reconfiguring the broader architecture of problem-solving.

If this is true, why aren't non-profit boards more effective at leading and finding better approaches to doing business? Most board members have a generally disassociated view of their relationship to the organization. This is essentially built into the basic design of non-profit boards. They generally don't meet to discuss the business of the organization more frequently than once a month. They should be fairly well positioned to generate creative solutions to the problems their organization faces. And maybe they do come up with grand ideas. From what I gather from the research Pink references, no one looked into how often a solution generated by an outsider was actually compelling enough to be implemented. Good ideas may be generated, but perhaps there are impediments to actually putting them into effect. People may not feel confident enough in the idea to champion it. There may not be sufficient collective will to effect the necessary changes, especially if some sort of sacrifice was required. Or perhaps the board might feel it is the place of the senior staff to provide leadership in bringing about the change. Operating under the assumption that non-profit boards of directors do possess the mental distance necessary to generate creative solutions, we get back to the oft mentioned discussion about training/creating a board which is knowledgeable and empowered about its role and responsibilities and is providing effective guidance and direction to the staff. If the board finds it is too close to the problems of the organization to address them, then obviously the counsel of disinterested parties mentioned by Pink is likely to be necessary.

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