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Becoming Agile

My work at WolfBrown often involves a good deal of computer programming, the study of which often leads me to discover unique alternative modes of working. One such approach is known as Agile software development, an idea codified in 2001 by the Agile Manifesto, which reads:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

While this manifesto applies directly to software development (and has contributed immeasurably to the rapid development of Web 2.0 services and technologies over the last ten years), it certainly has applications in the arts (especially in the areas of customer collaboration and responding to change). Even in the turbulent economic climate, numerous arts groups are thriving by becoming more responsive to their constituencies.

The Atlantic Cities recently profiled the Michigan Opera Company as one such organization. Their home city of Detroit has been wracked with difficulty- losing a quarter of its population over ten years, and suffering the loss of many large endowments to cultural institutions. Under the leadership of David DiChiera, the Opera has been seeking- and finding- a much broader audience more in line with the city’s demographics. He has made special efforts to appeal to a younger, more diverse crowd than the typical opera audience by making the annual opera ball more affordable and featuring minority performers and writers. And his endeavors have paid off, not just in audience development, but in fundraising as well. Requests for donations (pitched directly to audiences at live performances) netted the company over a million dollars last spring, most of which came from new donors with relatively modest budgets.

The Opera’s unexpected (and somewhat astonishing) source of donations is one example of how an agile arts organization might operate. Decoupling operations from a reliance on relatively few high-dollar donations enables staff to spend more time exploring programs that serve their communities rather than fundraising. I can reasonably assume that the amount of planning and organization necessary to ask for donations from the stage was negligible, yet the decision to do so paid off considerably due to their new responsive programming.

While the Agile Manifesto is still chiefly applied to software development teams, other business sectors have begun adopting the Agile framework in their internal workflow operations and team management, and a few organizations have sprung up to coach others in the specifics of the practice. Though I am not aware of any arts groups that specifically follow these principals, I am sure they exist- if you know of any good examples, please leave a comment.

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