Tech Innovation, Presidentially Speaking

By Ashley N. Kolaya

INVITATIONS BEARING the White House Seal found their way to several NYU Wagner in-boxes last week. The illustrious occasion? At this time of year, you might be tempted to think: campaign event, fund-raising gala, or perhaps more likely since graduate students made the invite list, a grassroots small donor initiative. In fact, the White House partnered with 92Y Tribeca to host an open house discussion on several of President Obama’s key technology and innovation initiatives.

The Sept. 28 event began with Todd Park, US Chief Technology Officer and Assistant to the President energetically taking the stage to introduce the newly launched Presidential Innovation Fellowship program. “I’m gonna give you a quick run-down of why you’re here; then, I’m going to put you to work.” And, Todd Park is a man of his word.

The aim of the Presidential Fellows program is to give government a bit more of an edge in the realm of science and technology policy. Think: an image that revolves around fewer dull, difficult-to-manage Kafkaesque documents, phone numbers, and websites that drag you from one wrong government office to the next. Instead, imagine a more innovative, user-friendly, well-branded enterprise (no, not Google) that answers today’s toughest policy questions with creative design and implementation strategies.

As Park puts it, the Presidential Innovation Fellows program aims to connect top technology innovators from outside the government sector with top policy shapers inside the US government to “create real and substantial changes that will in a very short time frame benefit the American people, save taxpayers money, and help create new jobs.” Fellows embark on a six-month “tour of duty,” during which they work to develop a “game-changing” response to policy concerns set forth by the administration. “That’s why you’re here,” said Park, “to help us change the game.”

Participants were introduced to the five “game-changing projects” currently under consideration by the Presidential Fellows and asked to weigh in, both with questions and with their own ideas. Issues ranged from open government data sharing to the implementation of electronic medical records technology to mobile money transferring for the developing world. On each topic, a White House representative presented the project goal, then turned the floor over to an audience full of idea-hungry and inquisitive listeners. Some were tech start-up owners; others represented the health care, international development, and academic fields; still others were graduate students interested in the new path to innovation being laid before them.

An appreciative White House team rabidly took down notes, offered contact information, and thanked participants for their great ideas. “This is why we’re here,” said Todd Park, “because we want to turn the best ideas into policy that affects positive change. And, you are the ones that have the best ideas.”

Can the Arts be Managed? (Short answer: Yes)

David Gordon, the founder of arts consulting firm Gordon Advisory, gave a lunchtime talk at NYU Wagner to a gathering of students.  Mr. Gordon was well worth a listen, as he has spent much of his career transforming and revitalizing arts organizations in the U.S. and England. He peppered his insights and advice, both personal and professional, with dry wit.

“You’re wondering: can the arts be managed?  The answer is yes.  If you’re short on time, you may now take a sandwich and leave,” he began the March 30 discussion.

For the next hour, Gordon described the unique opportunities and challenges of managing arts organizations.  Gordon believes that arts organizations must find harmony between business and passion.  For Gordon, this passion distinguishes the arts.  When well-managed, it also provides their greatest source of strength.

Drawing from his experiences, Gordon offered strategies for successful management.  These strategies are tailored to the arts, but applicable to any organization.

  1. Craft a Powerful Mission and Vision.  Artists should engage their love of process and poetry to create inspiring goals for their organizations.  On a concrete level, these shared values ensure that everyone at the organization is on the same page.
  2. Define the Nuts and Bolts.  A strategic plan follows from the organization’s mission and vision.  This plan should include specific goals and metrics, transforming dreams into blueprints.
  3. Nurture Artistic Values and Culture.  Artists are passionate, unafraid to speak truth to power.  Arts organizations should leverage this passion, and encourage a culture of productive dissent and debate.  Arts organizations cannot settle for mediocrity.  As cultural gatekeepers, they must filter for excellence in the arts, beginning with a culture of excellence within their organization.
  4. Create Governance Boundaries.  The boards of arts organizations often suffer from a “Downton Abbey” syndrome, in which the cultural aristocracy meddles in the daily affairs of the organization.  Clear governance guidelines ease this issue.
  5. Recruit and Develop Strong Leadership.  Many successful arts organizations split the roles of management and creativity between a managing director and an artistic director.  The harmonious relationship between these two leaders allows the balance of passion and business to flourish.

During the second half of his talk, Mr. Gordon offered students advice gleaned from his own career.  Many attendees scribbled down his casual and practical tips.

  1. Don’t be afraid of numbers.Take accounting and finance courses and learn what spreadsheets look like.  Number skills offer a serious advantage over essentially everyone in the arts.
  2. Learn to write clearly and succinctly.
  3. Fake it till you make it.  Take advantage of the “imposter phenomenon” – if you don’t know what you’re doing, pretend that you do, and set up systems for receiving support and advice.  Most importantly, once you learn what you’re doing, don’t stop listening!
  4. Stand up to bullies.And if you can’t, leave.
  5. Governance matters.  Great organizations require strong boards and clear governing procedures.
  6. Dream big.Artistic ambitions should be fantastic and soaring.

After the talk, students stayed to ask questions, chat, and debate strategies for arts management and measurement.

Ultimately, Gordon believes that all organizations can learn from the creativity, vision and passion of the arts.  These values transcend sectors and contribute an inspirational spark to management teams and individuals alike.

For more information about Gordon Advisory, visit the firm’s website: