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Smalli-what? Saying “Yes, and” to problem solving

In August, The Arts Partnership held our annual board retreat. This day-long event is always an engaging day of getting to know each other better, as well as a chance to dream about and strategize the next year of work. But this year, we did something a little different.

The Arts Partnership workes with Smallify

Photos courtesy of the Arts Partnership

Feature photo: Dayna Del Val with Smallify Founder Dave Viotti.

In August, The Arts Partnership held our annual board retreat. This day-long event is always an engaging day of getting to know each other better, as well as a chance to dream about and strategize the next year of work. But this year, we did something a little different. This year, we dreamed big by planning small.

This year, we brought in Dave Viotti, founder of Smallify, based in Silicon Valley. I had worked with Dave last year when I attended the Presidio Institute Cross Sector Leadership Boot Camp in San Francisco. I loved the little bit of time I spent with the concepts of Smallify there and knew that working with Dave and our board would activate our organization in a new and exciting way.

When I called Dave to see if he would consider coming all the way to Fargo, he responded that as a teenager, he had spent time in Pick City, ND, at his aunt and uncle’s and would love to make his way back to the state. Small world!

Dave, TAP board chair Ellen Shafer and I started thinking about what we wanted the day to look like. One focus this year is about better engaging the business sector in supporting and utilizing the arts to improve their, and our!, bottom lines.

You know how sometimes you have to hear something approximately 65 times before it resonates with you? Dave said something so simple it’s almost embarrassing that I needed to hear it from him to understand it in such a direct way. He said, “The business sector is the customer for the purposes of our work.”

That got me thinking about customer service.

How is The Arts Partnership treating our customers? Are we making them feel important? Are we asking them what they want and need and then really listening and responding based on what we have heard? Are we taking them versions of what we are developing and getting feedback throughout the process?

Or are we telling them what they *need* based on our own ideas? Are we creating products that we think will serve them without really working with them in the development? Have we created a compelling reason for them to invest in our products, or do we expect them to support us simply because “it’s the right thing to do?”

The Arts Partnership workes with Smallify
The Board and staff of The Arts Partnership spent time creating various solutions to the points raised by the business community.

I’m as guilty as many other developers in thinking that I know what businesses need and that I’m speaking a language they understand. But have I really asked and worked through those needs with my customers?

We invited 40 business leaders to join us for a 90-minute working breakfast session with the simple starting challenge of, “What might we create for the business community that provides reciprocal benefits for their investment in the arts?”

We had two of our three mayors, staff from the Governor’s office, leadership from business, higher education, government staff, nonprofits and foundations and more in attendance. It was an electric morning because we were all invested in hearing from and identifying the unmet needs of the customer, determining how to drill down to the right problem and then how we might reframe the challenge question to meet the customers’ needs.

Perhaps that sounds like other seminars, meetings and workshops you have attended, but have those previous experiences also incorporated the core tenants of improvisation? Have you had to think about how to simply say, “Yes, and…” to an idea?

The Arts Partnership workes with Smallify

For example, let’s design the perfect toaster.

You say, “It has programmed settings that know how each member of the household likes their toast.”

I answer, “Yes, and it automatically starts the toaster on a timer so that my toast is ready when I come in to the kitchen.”

“Yes, and it perfectly warms up the peanut butter so that it spreads smoothly every time,” you add.

“Yes, and it has a calorie counter that syncs with your devices to immediately add what you have eaten to your programs,” I continue.

“Yes, and it tells you something good about yourself when you remove the toast so that you start the day feeling happy,” you comment. And so on.

The point is, in another setting, someone could pitch the first idea of individualized programs on a toaster, and a colleague could say, “Boy, that’s going to be expensive.” Or, “But toast is largely toast and people should just eat what they get.” Or “But what if you live by yourself?”

The Arts Partnership workes with Smallify

Dave Viotti says, “The most powerful word in innovation is ‘yes.’ Saying yes removes the blockers that can stifle innovative thinking. It creates a safe space for everyone to contribute solutions to our challenge without fear or judgment. ‘Yes’ allows you to get into a creative space and mindset to generate a wide range of possible solutions to our challenge.“

In 90 minutes, The Arts Partnership board and staff really listened to what our customer representatives said they needed. Then we worked together to “solve” some opportunities with “Yes, and…” Then we sent the business sector on their way and got to work.

The rest of the day was about responding to the needs of our customers with Smallify’s Five Tools of Rapid Innovation.

We drew, acted out and built versions of what we think will serve the challenge set before us at the start of the day.

Now we’re taking these early solution drafts to many of the leaders who were at the breakfast to receive more feedback and go back to work again.

By working collaboratively, we can provide real solutions to address the problems our customers identified that morning.

So much good came from the day, but most importantly, we were there to listen, to explore and to say, “Yes, and…” I can’t wait to see where we all go from here.

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