Some thoughts after taking adaptive resilience on the road

If one word has echoed through 2010 for me it has been resilience. There have been days recently when I’ve heard references to resilience of railways to snow, the resilience of some leaky defence, and the resilience of bimbo-fascist Berlusconi within the same hour – or so it felt. It’s been there in conversations about cuts, about change and about growth. It's also been there in my own development of Thinking Practice as a new business, and of myself in a new environment. That's been all about adaptive behaviour, and all about resilience as one basis for creativity.

Since Arts Council England published Making Adaptive Resilience Real in July I have also been busy talking and honing my own thinking about adaptive resilience in the arts (that extra word is important, even though it adds another 3 syllables to an already clunk term). From Glasgow, where I was part of a forum to mark Market Gallery’s 10th birthday which took place above a bed/wardrobe shop in the Barras Market, to Cambridge for AMA’s Retreat, where my conference centre room had a rocking chair and the sweetie bowls had Werther’s Originals, I’ve been explaining how an understanding of the adaptive cycle can make change more manageable, and how organisations and sectors can take some control of their situation by consciously developing their leadership, culture, networks and assets alongside income from more diverse range of sources. I’ve done sessions for Audiences North East, AndCo and the Strategic Arts Network Northamptonshire via Cultivate, which shows how the ‘audience development agencies’ are developing organisations and networks as well as audiences, and how they contribute to sectoral resilience and change by their work on the frontline of arts development. I’ve also spoken in Huddersfield at the launch of the Creative Kirklees Strategy and developed workshops for use with boards, staff and networks to explore how adaptive and resilient they are. Just today I’ve had enquiries about publications or events in places as almost-identical as Adelaide and Lincoln. (Dates still available for 2011... end of plug. Forgive me, I have students to keep.)

It has been interesting – and challenging – taking something from an argument and the presentation of a number of frameworks to something more practical. Partly this is a refining of language and presentation. I would see the adaptive cycle and the 8 characteristics as frameworks, rather than prescriptive or theoretical – they have been useful to people as a way of understanding their experience, before shaping their own future, rather than because they are ‘right’. Certainly there are other ways of describing the characteristics of adaptive resilience. Susan Royce, for instance, has taken my thinking on a step or several in her excellent work on business models in the visual arts for the Turning Point Network. She suggests an organisation must be:

- attractive to a range of co-funders
- agile: able to innovate and respond to change
- able to achieve its goals.

Susan’s 3 As are certainly easier to remember than my 8 characteristics, although she does add some supplementaries: being well-led, well-managed and having an appropriate organisation culture.

The main challenges identified during all the conversations I’ve been having have been

- persuading funders and boards (and maybe even to a lesser degree staff) to invest in the creation of assets in a time of ‘austerity’ – this takes a great deal of boldness and nerve, as any long-term investment is also a wager on the future
- developing designated reserves or working capital that can be strategically invested at the right time – into building or refurbishments or moves, renewals, staffing, change projects or asset-creation – as well as simply ‘reserves for closing costs’. (This subject is also looked at in MMM’s excellent
Capital Matters report.)
- making the time to strengthen networks without getting over-committed and losing focus
- coping with the lack of predictability of public sector and charitable funds. There were different opinions about whether audiences are predictable income or not – my own view is that they ought to be, with a range of error, which is useful for planning.
- shifting from a mindset of maximum activity to one of activity which also creates assets is a real leadership task in terms of both internal and external stakeholders
- just because you're resilient and prepared to change doesn't mean you can't get blown out of the water by 'events'

In many ways, the conclusion is what MMM and others have been saying for some years: the sector is hugely resourceful, but over-extended and under-capitalised. There are some people whose view can be summed up as ‘I’m still here, so I must be resilient’, and there are many who are absolutely up for taking responsibility for a self-determined approach to their long-term health. Though funders say they want to more resilient, less dependent approaches, the proof of the pudding will be in their reading of budgets. If the ‘extra’ expenditure needed to develop reusable product, or new income streams through on-line sales or versioning, or to create a strategic reserve is stripped out, the end result will be more activity but less resilience. It will time-shift the problem, not address it.