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#8 - What’s the research have to say?

The choices involved in selecting plays to produce and putting together seasons are the very definition of complex decisions. They are filled with uncertainty and risk, powerful emotions and meaning, multiple stakeholders, predictions of the future, and substantial consequences. Moonshot aims to generate promising, actionable ideas for improving the ways theater companies determine repertoire. The ideas come from two sources: careful and thoughtful case study and analysis of each theater’s current decision making process and previous outcomes; and a review of the growing body of multi-disciplinary research about complex decisions and forecasting.

That research is now widely taught in schools of business and international affairs, and one of its leading lights, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, has won a Nobel Prize in economics. Kahneman and his colleague, Amos Tversky, were the first to observe that two distinct cognitive systems are both consistently at work, vital to human decision making but not well integrated. Our “fast thinking” system is grounded in feelings, emotion, and physical sensation. Often referred to as “gut,” “instinct,” or “intuition,” fast thinking is enormously efficient, and spontaneous. Virtually entirely unconscious, researchers sometimes call it the cognitive unconscious. Our “slow thinking” system is conscious, rational, and reflective. It enables us to consider consequences, compare alternatives, evaluate experience, and plan. Each system has important strengths, and each has significant limitations. This theoretical research is complemented by pragmatic investigations into how people and organizations can better make complex decisions by taking advantage of each system’s strengths and limiting its weaknesses. The research has shown that complex decisions are best made through a deliberate and articulated process. We have distilled the research findings into three fundamental principles that are essential to a good process and highly relevant to theater:

  1. A good process integrates the two cognitive modes - thinking fast (the cognitive unconscious) and thinking slow (reason and metacognition) - that are involved in all decision making, but are often poorly integrated. Theater leaders develop highly intuitive theater intelligence through years of experience and the quick, emotional responses of the cognitive unconscious are vital for recognizing exciting, promising artistic choices and pathways. But “falling in love” with a script or idea is not enough. A good decision making process needs to systematically test the inclinations of the cognitive unconscious. It must unpack “why?” this play is appealing, check unconscious biases and default thinking such as “this is the way we’ve always done it,” and question the “prevailing wisdom” of non-profit theater conventions. It must also value and engage diverse perspectives. At the same time, a good process values feelings and aesthetics and resists reduction of repertoire decisions to an analytical calculus.

  2. A good process centers values and aspirations, makes them explicit and conscious, and uses them to guide decision making. Values and aspirations illuminate core priorities. A good process makes them conscious, explicit, and central to identifying considerations that guide and inform repertoire decisions and point to success indicators that will be most meaningful for goal setting and for evaluation of decisions and their outcomes. Theater companies’ values and aspirations include aesthetic, moral, political, philosophical, organizational, and financial dimensions.

  3. A good process makes forecasting practices rigorous and routine. The skills required for forecasting are improved with practice and assessment. Good decisions require good forecasts, so the process must take forecasting seriously. Research shows that forecasting improves when the forecasts, resulting decisions and outcomes are routinely and regularly assessed. Better forecasting skills can be learned and grown. Theaters often forecast audience interest in a potential production. They also forecast their capacity to mount the production artistically, organizationally and financially to their highest standards. These forecasts should be specific and systematic and they should be evaluated against actual outcomes as part of a post mortem process.

If you are intrigued by this introduction to the principles of making complex decisions well, you will find a more fulsome discussion on the Moonshot webpage here!

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