Diversity and adaptive resilience

By way of introduction and summary, here's the discussion part of the paper The Role of Diversity in Building Adaptive Resilience by myself and Tony Nwachukwu, recently published by Arts Council England. It's a little long for a blog perhaps, but so it goes.

The more diverse a network, the greater its ability to respond to change,’ says the Law of Requisite Variety.[1]

This work arose from a ‘hunch’ that there was some connection between the characteristics of resilient organisations and the embracing of creative diversity. The research suggests that hunch was right, although this is far from an exhaustive study.

We found the creative case to be very similar to the business case for diversity in the private sector. A range of talent provides multiple perspectives, which are ever more important as the world and our culture changes. Nurturing diverse perspectives means nurturing talent from many different sources and backgrounds – so audiences can benefit from the best talent available, rather than that from ‘the same old’ sources, creating a kind of monoculture.

The Arts Council has supported the sector in many different ways to respond to the need and responsibility to diversify. This has been done through leadership and positive action schemes, through policy initiatives, through the introduction of race and other equality schemes and through creative projects. What is striking about the people we spoke to in researching this paper is the importance of mindset. This is more important than policies and procedures – although this is not to say those are not necessary also.

We would suggest that there are a number of aspects to a mindset which positively embraces and can manage diversity to increase the willingness, skills and resources to adapt while staying true to purpose. The mindset needs to be:

·         Reflective: Organisations that do not reflect upon themselves and their activity become more vulnerable to change over time. Leaders can encourage a reflective mindset in their teams, taking on board – and sharing – data and views from diverse perspectives. (Reflection within a monoculture can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.) Reflection alone is not enough: people must take necessary actions.
·         Open: In order to encourage genuine diversity, organisations need to become more open in their approaches, dialogues and thinking. They need to avoid becoming fixed structurally or in their offer, and invite in other views and voices. A non-hierarchical mindset enhances the creative use of diversity. Open, honest dialogue characterises exemplar organisations.
·         Adaptive: Embracing diversity can lead to change in cultures and an adaptive mindset can encourage and manage this. Such a mindset typically makes many small changes in response to ideas and context, rather than, say, big changes every few years. It adapts itself around clear core values and a shared purpose, but stays true to its core purpose and identity. Sometimes, however, organisational transformation may be what is needed to do that.
·         Responsible: Adaptive resilience is not simply about individual organisations but the whole cultural ecology. A mindset that actively embraces a responsibility to this ecology and a responsibility to use public investment for broad public good as well as organisational benefit can use its capacity to nurture new and diverse groups, and serve diverse artists and audiences.

Clear leadership rooted in authenticity, identity and values is key to bringing these traits together. Diversity is nurtured by a flexible, open and transparent culture, encouraging discussion and debate. Where this is not in place, an apparently diverse workforce, or those elements of difference within a workforce, can become homogenous, and simply succumb to a dominant culture. (A pattern observed by some members of under-represented groups when stepping into organisations.)

The way diversity is lead within an organisation can move from being ‘simply’ natural and ‘just there’ within that organisation’s identity to being highly focused, intentional and strategic, and vice versa. Deeply embedded values and identity can be used to reinforce strategic intent, which seeks to make change, either within the organisation, in the sector or in the local community. Programming choices may target certain audiences but only in so far as they serve the core mission and identity. Resilient organisations have a strong culture of shared purpose and values, and the creation of that culture is arguably the key leadership task.

Diversity has the greatest impact when it is actively structured into the culture at all levels. This might mean reserving places on the board for young people (as Contact does) or considering audiences very carefully (as Theatre Royal Stratford East does), engaging deeply with new communities (as seen in Craftspace’s work) or rooting induction processes in local neighbourhoods (as Punch does). It needs also to recognise and manage the challenges a diverse approach can bring.

It is important to note that a creative approach to diversity is by no means a panacea or easy route to a more resilient future. If diversity is so helpful in building resilience, one might ask, why were such a high proportion of the Black and minority ethnic and disability-focused organisations that applied to become part of the National Portfolio rated as weak on finance and on management? Some organisations that focus on serving particular audiences, such as Black and minority ethnic, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender or disability communities, can find it difficult to build the broad audience base and organisational assets that help create a diversity of reliable income streams. Their contribution to the wider diversity of the sector can, ironically, make it harder for them to build their own resilience – by serving ‘the margins’ and representing the un(der)represented, they invigorate the mainstream but run the risk of remaining marginal themselves. Programme diversification remains a challenge.

Many Black and minority ethnic and disability-focused organisations face difficulties because of their small scale making it harder to build capacity and assets. Collaboration with other people can help address this, but should be rooted in first looking deeply at themselves and what they can do, making a positive asset of their different skills and knowledge.

Elements of the case studies suggest ways forward from the dilemma of small scale. Firstly, focusing on developing ownership of physical and intellectual assets, and then partnering with others that have access to other audiences, as say Theatre Royal Stratford East has done with its musical transferring to the West End, can be beneficial. Secondly, taking a flexible approach to project and company structures, as Watershed has done, can maximise financial, cultural and what might be called resilience returns. Thirdly, identifying and strategically building unique skills and networks, as Punch and Craftspace have done, can have multiple benefits: new income streams, greater profile, staff development, and, perhaps most importantly, breaking out of the ‘diversity’ pigeonhole while holding on to what makes the organisation valuable. Heart and Soul and DaDa demonstrate the benefits of focusing on production and promotion of the artistic aspirations of diverse communities.

As with all businesses, diversity-focused organisations may have a natural psychological tendency to revert to type under the pressures of the current economic and funding environment, or to make safety-first choices. Our analysis of how embracing diversity can help build adaptive resilience suggests that continued risk-taking and innovation is key to future viability.

[1] Patti Anklam Net Work: a practical guide to creating and sustaining networks at work and in the world