Outside In 

A complex organizational system cannot be forced to work. It either works or it doesn't.


True fact: The airplane was invented not by a giant corporation, with dozens of engineers devoted to unlocking the secrets of flight, but by two bicycle makers tinkering in their spare time.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then by hiring consultants to tell it the same thing year after year, Richmond may be ready for the straitjacket.

Since 2003 outside consultants have been advising Richmond to “cultivate youth, promote tolerance, give more support to the street-level arts scene and embrace change.” Richmond's response? Create a gigantic, single-purpose arts system that's just like the giant convention center system over on Broad Street, call it CenterStage, and let that function as the city's concurrence to the consultants and the arts community. Use a backhoe to plant a daisy. Problem solved.

What Richmond leaders need to recognize is that monolithic, government-backed organizational systems built on top of, not into, economic or artistic bases cannot succeed on their own. They quickly start feeding on themselves, and like queen bees will succumb under their own extravagant size if not tended constantly by worker bees — artists, writers, business leaders, store owners and musicians, who continually bring the proper sustenance to the giant queens in the form of visitors on a daily basis.

Take the seminal 6th Street Marketplace — a single, massive, 1982 governmental solution to the problem of drawing Richmonders downtown and a dead horse that requires one last beating. The fact is, the marketplace, which loomed between Fifth and Seventh streets like a landlocked Rococo dreadnaught — succeeded in only bringing people to the marketplace. … for a while. Vendors and retailers made just enough sales to support their businesses at that location before they realized that extravagances such as expansion had to be postponed because visitors needed more than a glass skyway over Broad Street to abandon their malls and drive downtown. With no smaller support systems — convenient, free parking; ancillary retail and restaurant establishments; kiosks; recreation areas, etc — the marketplace existed to support only itself. The visitors dried up and 6th Street Marketplace, with no outside assistance, failed completely.

True fact: Television was invented not by an electronics giant like General Electric, with hundreds of engineers and technicians working around the clock, but by a farm boy in Iowa named Philo, once again tinkering in his spare time.

Big things never work on their own the way they're intended. Egypt's Aswan Dam was built to fertilize and irrigate fields; however, it caused the Nile to deposit the fertilizing sediment in Lake Nasser, where it cannot be recovered. Today the dam exists solely to provide electricity to the fertilizer factories needed to nourish the fields made barren by the construction of the Aswan Dam. It was a response to the farming problem, but not the solution to it. Subsequently, CenterStage should be seen only as a response to solving the downtown arts standoff, not the end result, or else it becomes an Aswan Dam that exists only to collect money to pay for maintenance on itself — not its intended purpose.

True innovation, discovery and results always come from hard-working individuals working on the outside of huge, complex systems. Those working inside can not always see out. A neighbor who builds a ship in his backyard, from his own plans and his own materials, on a household budget, rightfully can be called a shipbuilder. At Hampton Roads dry dock you'll find thousands of engineers, carpenters, plumbers and electricians, then thousands of bureaucrats, supervisors and administrators, but no one who should call himself a shipbuilder.

Go to the Carpenter Center on a weekday and you may find administrators, public relations directors, marketing professionals — lots of people deep within the system who sincerely believe they're advancing the arts — but probably not one performing artist.

Go to Metro or Gallery5, or any of the storefront downtown galleries, however, and you'll find artists and musicians doing amazing things — if they haven't been run out by the code-enforcement police.

True fact: A system of complex Homeland Security bureaucracies failed to stop Christmas Day crotch bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Flight 253. He was stopped by a fellow passenger, who was not part of Homeland Security. And, according to Director Janet Napolitano, “the system worked.”

A complex organizational system cannot be forced to work. It either works or it doesn't. Shouting English at a foreigner doesn't make him understand it any better, and punching an elevator button multiple times doesn't make the elevator arrive any quicker. And to work as intended, a giant, complex system needs those smaller support systems — those businesses that provide the impetus to drive traffic on a continuous basis — to facilitate its intended function, not simply “make” it work.

Richmond is slowly getting it, only backward — normally, successful smaller systems drive the large ones, not vice versa. But it's not too late. If Richmond leaders can remove the suffocating rules enforcement on smaller supporting organizational systems and let these younger business leaders, artists and performers take their place in the organizational hierarchy, CenterStage and downtown itself will be seen as artistic and mercantile destinations, not just a place to pass through on the way to the emergency room. S

Dale Brumfield is a payroll services broker and writer who lives in Doswell.




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