Restructuring To Better Serve Our Community: Case Study
Innovation is essential for supporting artists and arts organizations. If we aren’t able to adapt to changing times, to find new and better ways of working, we aren’t able to serve our community to our fullest extent.
We strive for a culture of experimentation and innovation, meaning that we aren’t afraid to make big changes and leap into new territories together. This has been the guiding principle behind changes like our switch to becoming a fully remote workforce and creating a four-person, non-hierarchical leadership team.
One of the other major structural changes we went through as an organization was the overhauling of our largest team, the Programs team, from 2016 to 2018. The Programs team works most closely with our community of artists and members, assisting as they apply for fiscal sponsorship through us, raise funds and apply for grants using that fiscal sponsorship status, and answering many and sundry questions along the way. When artists and members reach out to our support email or phone number, they are working with the Programs team.
When Pallavi Sharma, our Chief Program Officer, was brought on at Fractured Atlas in January 2016 to oversee and optimize the Programs team, her first recommendation was to overhaul the structure and functioning of the team. Here, we’re telling the story of that change. We hope that by sharing an inside look at how we made this one big, structural change, we can help other arts organizations make the changes they need to make as mindfully and successfully as possible.
Pallavi came to Fractured Atlas and the nonprofit sector from a background in the for-profit sector. In her previous roles, she tended to be “the person you go to when you either need to launch a new business, fix an existing business, or shut down a business” within a larger company. She had experience building teams, restructuring teams, and even letting go of teams in previous companies.
When she arrived at Fractured Atlas, first as a consultant, and then as Chief Program Officer, she used that experience to guide how she learned about what the Programs team needed to do to best serve our members.
Identifying the Problems
As of 2016, the Programs team was really several different teams, siloed from one another. Different team members were dedicated to different programs. Some were focused on fiscal sponsorship, others on insurance or visas. Some concentrated on Artful.ly, others on Spacefinder. The problem was that our member artists and arts organizations often used multiple programs of ours.
In order to assist members who had questions about multiple programs, our Programs team would have to pass an individual from program to program to get their questions answered. It was inefficient and frustrating for our members and staff.
There was also limited communication between programs, meaning that occasionally members of the Programs team who worked on different programs would turn up at events representing Fractured Atlas without knowing that their colleagues were going to be there too.
The different programs reported directly to our then-CEO Adam Huttler, which meant that there was nobody whose role was explicitly overseeing all of the programs we offered to our members.
Further, this structure prevented individual Programs team members from widening their knowledge of Fractured Atlas services and the mechanisms of arts nonprofits. As a key function within the organization, the Programs team served as a place for staff to learn, hone a variety of skills, and to see exactly what they enjoy doing and what they are particularly good at doing.
The siloing within the Programs team wasn’t effective for members, and it was detrimental to members of our team.
Learning How the System Works Before Changing It
The first step that Pallavi took after joining Fractured Atlas was learning how the Programs team was structured and operated. It might sound obvious, but it was crucial for her to spend a lot of time listening to all team members, seeing how they managed their responsibilities, and learning about where the challenges were for them as well as for the artists that they worked with.
Pallavi used her time as a consultant for Fractured Atlas to gain a deep understanding of how the Programs team worked. She sat down with individual Program Associates to hear about their work and the challenges they ran into. Not being a manager, or even a full-time employee of Fractured Atlas, Pallavi had enough distance to truly assess the way the team was working. Plus, team members felt more comfortable talking to her knowing that they were talking to someone who wasn’t also handling their annual reviews or managing them in an ongoing, official capacity.
By building trust through conversations with team members, she was better able to then embed herself into the team to see its inner workings, both as a consultant and then as the Chief Program Officer.
Pallavi used “ride alongs” to get a deeper sense of how the Programs team was working. After building relationships with team members through conversations, she would sit with them and watch them as they worked. She observed their workflows, saw them respond to member questions, and asked why someone was doing a task in a particular way. She would sometimes even listen to phone calls.
“People tend to get into a habit of doing things a certain way, even if it's not the most efficient or the best way to do something. I saw workarounds and things that folks were doing that were super inefficient. If a customer had a problem with multiple programs they would go from program A to program B to program C.”
“I would see someone respond to an email and say, ‘For the second question, I'm going to send you to my colleague who is the expert on this,’ and then send them to this colleague. [They] could have finished this whole email in one minute, but now it's taking seven minutes because it has to go to this colleague who's got their own rhythm of working and is doing something else. The ride alongs definitely helped me pick up on more tactical issues.”
Once Pallavi came to the Fractured Atlas team full-time, she asked to be cc’ed on all initiatives on the Programs team, big and small. Not because she needed to weigh in, or create a bottleneck, but because it was one of the fastest ways for her to completely submerge herself in the team and absorb as much information as possible.
Through conversations with team members, and by witnessing workflows, Pallavi was able to understand how exactly the siloing of the Programs team was negatively affecting Fractured Atlas’s ability to live out its mission of supporting artists.
Getting the Team on Board With Making Major Changes
After embedding herself on the Programs team to understand its inner workings, Pallavi went to other members of the Fractured Atlas team to talk through her vision for the future. “I made it a point to communicate very directly with the team from the beginning.” But she didn’t do it all at once.
Pallavi knew that she was going for a big change, and that big changes can bring up a lot of fear for staff. At Fractured Atlas, we use the acronym SCARF to understand this phenomenon.
Big changes threaten our sense of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. “Everyone’s immediately thinking, ‘Is my job changing? Is what I’m doing changing? Am I losing my job? All of those fight or flight responses come into effect.”
She didn’t want to cause any panic or fear for the organization as she planned its overhaul. “You want [people] to be open and willing and ready to adapt to the changes. You don’t want to scare them. A little bit of nervousness and a little bit of excitement is great, but you don’t want to freak them out.”
She started with the senior leadership and then the heads of different programs on the Programs team. She told them what she was seeing, what her goals were, and how she was planning to get there. From there, she would then relay those same messages during Programs team standup meetings.
Across all these conversations, working with different levels of the team, and different teams in the organization, Pallavi thought carefully about her messaging. “It's important when having conversations about big changes to gauge your audience's receptivity, their state of mind, and how much information they can handle.” She customized her communication based on who she was talking to, factoring in aspects like the impact of this change on their work, the amount of context they had into organizational strategy, and their role in making the change successful.
Building a Flexible Roadmap for Organizational Change
Pallavi wanted to completely overhaul the Programs team, to change it fundamentally. In order to do so, she outlined a roadmap with transition points along the way. Rather than rip everything up and institute a whole new structure (as she had done in other jobs), she sketched out a path. “It’s an incremental, step-by-step approach to getting to the endpoint.”
Transition points function as spaces to pause and reassess. They provide opportunities to pivot if needed, rather than doggedly following the path you’ve established at the beginning of a structural change initiative.
“Going in the step-by-step approach also allows you to change midcourse. If you've planned transition step A and then transition step B and transition step C, but you get to point B and [you realize] we can't go to C, we need to go to D first, then you can switch gears. Or have a completely different direction that you need to go in to get to the same place.”
Keeping the Organization’s Mission Central
As Pallavi started to change how the Programs team worked, it was important to keep the Fractured Atlas mission central to any changes she was planning.
Any change we have made, are making, and will make to how Fractured Atlas operates is in service of our overall mission. We help individual artists and arts organizations at every level of the cultural ecosystem and in every creative medium, providing educational resources and personalized support along the way. Our vision is to create a world where all artists have the tools they need to make their creative dreams a reality.
She developed her plans for the Programs team by measuring them against the mission of supporting artists.
The other framework Pallavi kept in mind as she restructured the Programs team was keeping the end-user—the member—at the forefront of any changes.
“All of my experience prior to coming to Fractured Atlas was in the for-profit environment. The single-minded perspective I always approached any of these things with is how am I best serving the key constituency? Whether it's customers, whether it was other businesses that I was serving in other organizations or, at Fractured Atlas, the member artists that we were working with.”
By consistently referring back to these frameworks, Pallavi kept the real goal central. The goal wasn’t just to readjust our internal operations to increase efficiency. The goal was (and still is!) to best serve our members and the wider artistic community.
Starting Small and Creating Change at an Appropriate Pace
Once Pallavi had gotten together her data, her roadmap, and had refined her plans in alignment with the larger goals of Fractured Atlas, she started to actually create change on the Programs team.
When Pallavi arrived at Fractured Atlas, there was a role on the Programs team that no longer exists, the Membership Associate. Their role was to act as a point person for handling membership issues including login, billing, and general questions about what programs members can access. At that point, the Membership Associate was the only person whose role touched multiple programs.
Phase 1 of the Programs team evolution began with expanding the role of Membership Associate and then hiring another Membership Associate. “The first transition step was [getting] this particular role to take on a few more things that are program-specific and then add another person to it. So [we had] two Membership Associates."
"We started by not burdening the existing team members too much with these changes, but testing it out with new roles.”
The next step was to incorporate gradual change into existing mechanisms for staff growth and goals. In the case of Fractured Atlas, this meant using our system of Objectives and Key Results (or OKRs) to keep the Programs team on track to restructure.
“We started requiring in our OKRs [that each Programs team member] would learn another program's activities as an OKR for that quarter."
"So, say you're a Fiscal Sponsorship Program Associate. You [would] start to understand at least 20 percent of Artful.ly customer service issues. And then the next to next quarter, you would understand some more of Artful.ly's issues or insurance issues. So everyone started by learning and understanding and handling the most basic things in other programs. I gave the program directors an OKR that they had to achieve, which was that at least one or two of our existing team members would become shared resources.”
Once the ball got rolling, the team needed a final deadline to fully function as one big team. Pallavi determined that date would be the beginning of fiscal year 2018, 18 months after she first arrived at Fractured Atlas. They had six months to tidy up any loose ends. Final details needed to be sorted out. What were people’s new job titles going to be? What was the new org structure? With a hard deadline, but plenty of time, the team was able to make that final push.
The whole process took longer than any restructuring that Pallavi had ever been a part of, 18 months. This extended timeframe fit in with the larger culture of Fractured Atlas, allowing the team to move mindfully into a new structure.
“I have worked in organizations and for-profit organizations where [I had] full permission to [make changes overnight]. And people would come in on a Monday morning and have a completely different team structure and a completely different role. And in some places, it works. And in some places, it doesn't work. The unique knowledge required and complexity of our programs meant that Fractured Atlas was not going to be one of those places where we could do that. And so we had to take a very cautious approach to how we were making this transition.”
By the beginning of fiscal year 2018, the silos were collapsed on the Programs team. Every team member knew how to support artists and members navigating all of the programs that Fractured Atlas offers.
Accepting That Staff Leaving is a Natural Part of Change
Any big change that an organization goes through means that there will be some change in staff. As an organization makes the changes it needs to make to best serve its community, it’s likely that there will be some disconnect between individual staff goals and comfort levels with the new structure.
Before the restructuring of the Programs team, Fractured Atlas had gone through other changes that resulted in some team members leaving. When we redesigned the office, some people left because they didn’t want to work in a shared office. When we codified our commitments to anti-racism and anti-oppression work, people left who weren’t as committed as the organization decided that we needed to be.
While Pallavi had support from leadership to reshape the Programs team, she did experience pushback along the way from other members of the team. Some people didn’t see the benefits at first. Some of those people adjusted along the way, while others found new places to work that were more aligned with the work that they wanted to be doing.
While it can feel scary or unsettling to see people leaving over a big change, in part because it might indicate that the change is (or is perceived to be) a bad one, it’s an entirely normal part of any major structural shift. And it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Pallavi knew that people would leave as the Programs team removed its silos and became one big team. Rather than seek to keep staff at all costs, she worked to support team members to adjust to the changes, and if they did decide to leave, to make the transition away from Fractured Atlas as positive as possible.
“I think it's important to support folks who are not adapting to change well. Don't try to hold onto them, don't see it as a negative, it's just different. They [might] need to be someplace different. And to also look at it as an opportunity to bring in real change in your team. If somebody decides this is not right for them, let's make this a positive transition for them. Let's not hold it against them. Let's not hold it against the process. It's just a different direction. So we tried to communicate that.”
Re-Evaluating and Re-Adjusting After Big Changes
We’ve now had a relatively static Programs team structure for the past few years. Many of our Program Associates have been supporting our artists and members across all programs for years. But that doesn’t mean that the team will stay static forever.
The Programs team is continuing to use feedback both from team members as well as from our member community to see what’s working and what isn’t. What Pallavi and the rest of the team are thinking about now is how to actually bring specialization back into the work of the Programs team. After working to collapse silos and train team members across platforms, now they’re finding that some degree of specialization would be beneficial.
Program Associates who have been working with Fractured Atlas for several years now have organically developed particular skills and interests regarding their work and Pallavi hopes to take the best advantage of their unique skills while allowing them to grow in their careers.
“Part of the reason collapsing the silos made sense was because it gave [Program Associates] a chance to develop new skills, gain more knowledge; gain technical understanding of members and artists and how they work, but also gain skills about how to handle different situations that would allow them to grow as individuals [in their careers]. As folks have done this now since 2018, they are discovering what they're good at and what they like doing."
"The fine-tuning we're doing now is [to] retain this cohesiveness and this ease of operations for programs and for members, yet give Program Associates a chance to use their abilities and skills in a more focused way.”
The trick will be to balance out specialization for Program Associates while still providing a seamless support experience for our members. We swung from one extreme to another, now we’re finding our path towards a middle ground.
Not Using Binary Evaluations
When implementing large-scale transformation, like Pallavi did with the Programs team overhaul, she didn’t evaluate the work as either a wholesale success or failure. Judging big change through a binary of success or failure won’t let you see incremental success or opportunities to improve and pivot. Ultimately, Pallavi judged her efforts against whether Fractured Atlas is providing a better experience to our community and supporting our mission as well as possible.
“It's important to have a vision, and yet to be flexible to adjust that vision, and to give things time to settle before you assume that they're working or not working. You evaluate from the perspective of [asking] if it’s better, not whether it's a failure or a success. Is it heading in the right direction? Is it giving us more of what we want to achieve? Then make shifts along the way.”
The shifts we’ve made to the Programs team over the years is just one example of how we have grown and changed as an organization. Change is woven into our organizational culture. We know that in order to stay relevant to the Fractured Atlas member community and to the arts ecosystem, we need to be able to think creatively, try new strategies, build new models, and close the loop as experiments reach a natural conclusion.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.