Monday, 19 September 2011

Can structure in poetry give us any clues for organisations?

Here's a poet writing about structure:

'Purpose is predominantly communicated through structure. It is through structure that a piece of writing releases its information to the reader. Most simply, structure is strategy imposed upon time.'

That comes from an essay called 'Writing the Reader's Life' in Stephen Dobyns' fine book of essays on poetry, Best Words, Best Order, but it struck me when I read it the other day that it could also be said of an organisation or a business.

Any organisation structure says something about the organisation, and about how it thinks the world works, as does how we structure the audience or participant experience. (You might, in this context, describe 'strategy' or as being 'how we think our world will/should work' or 'how we intend to work in this world to achieve our goals'.) One of the noticeable things in a number of the case studies Tony Nwachuwku and I researched for our recent paper was the deliberate openness and flatness of many of the structures. This helped avoid silos building up and encouraged networks, communication and customer-focus. This becomes harder to maintain as organisations become bigger, but definitely seems to have benefits for small to medium-sized organisation. The nature of the offer to the audience or partners is often also visible through structure - is it clear, is it easy or user-friendly, for instance - or is it clunky and layered, with frustrated or confused decision-making - the 'I'll have to talk to my manager/take it to Senior Management' syndromes?

Finally, I really like Dobyn's description of structure as strategy imposed upon time. In his essay this is mainly the time it takes to read a poem - reading as time-based experience, with structure playing with expectation and surprise. But it also makes me think of the way structures are best seen as temporal, maybe even temporary, rather than fixed. Among other things this reminds us that structure is there to serve the purpose and the work, not the other way round, as true in business as it is in poetry.

(Picture above from a fascinating article by Bill Benzon at, used under Creative Commons.)

Sunday, 18 September 2011

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

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Creative Case for Diversity

It's been Decibel week in Manchester this week, Arts Council England's performing arts showcase for diverse work. At a symposium on the Creative Case, ACE's new approach to diversity and the arts, I presented with Tony Nwachukwu to introduce a paper called the Role of Diversity in Building Adaptive Resilience, which is now available on the ACE website. (You can see Tony using his years of experience as a bass player to not pull faces whilst I talk on the Creative Case site here.)

The symposium was a really interesting day, with a lot of enthusiasm and a sensible amount of skepticism about ACE's new agenda for diversity - summed up best as 'let's talk about art and diversity within it, not labels first and arts second'. That this is not so simple was apparent from some of the debates though, such as the tension apparent between proper acknowledgement of identity (or multiple identities) and desire to have your art considered simply as art and differences of opinions as to whether margins/mainstream are useful terms. (Margins no, mainstream probably.)

I welcome the Creative Case, and feel the biggest challenge remains not the consideration of artists from particular backgrounds but the introduction of far greater degrees of diversity and difference to what we currently call mainstream organisations and their staff and programmes. We need the kind of emphasis on diversifying the workforce and in particular the leadership that can be found in some other sectors - one of the case studies describes how this is happening in a major law firm. This is particular responsibility for board members when recruiting. Despite our sector's rhetoric about risk, many currently look for someone like the last person, with a safe set of skills.

As someone pointed out, class and education are arguably at the root of this. Do you really have to be a graduate to work in the arts, for instance? You'd think so, looking at job descriptions. In fact, you might suspect you need an MA these days. As someone said on Twitter, if we're worried about tuition fees making the arts a middle class ghetto, we could always change our recruitment patterns and stop making a degree obligatory. What are the benefits of diversifying and multiplying the perspectives we bring to our work - that is at the root of our paper, and for me the heart of the creative case. 

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Movingpictures 13: Brian Turner

Brian Turner is an American poet who served in the US army for seven years, including a year in Iraq. His book, Here, Bullet was published in the UK by Bloodaxe Books. It is a rarity in being a book about war, written from first-hand experience, although his cv is not its main virtue: that comes from the writing. I've been back to it this week for no doubt obvious reasons.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Some thoughts from the Banff Opera Colloquium

As I mentioned last week I spent some time last month in Bannf, in Canada, at the Bannf Opera Colloquium, co-presented by and the Banff Centre, and pulled together in great style by Christina Loewen of The theme of the colloquium was 'leadership in a changed world' and the programme was in part built around ideas in my paper Making Adaptive Resilience Real. I did a keynote on adaptive resilience and then led a workshop, but was active throughout the colloquium and closed with a bit of rapportage.  (Isn't colloquium a good word, by the way, to describe people getting together to talk about their situation and possible solutions - better than symposium or seminar or even conference, despite, or is it because of, its plummy Latinate quality.) As those who've met me in the last couple of weeks and been foolish enough to ask 'How was Canada?' I could blether on about this for a while, but there's are a few things I took away it may be worth sharing. (Leaving out the mountains, obviously.)

Firstly, and happily, the frameworks of the adaptive cycle and the 8 characteristics I set out, were useful tools for the 40 people attending to use to grapple with what's facing the opera sector in Canada, giving context but also allowing focus on key areas. Rereading the paper I realised how rooted in the English context it is, for all it was informed by thinking elsewhere, but the framework did seem to travel well. (Maybe, as Patrick Kavanagh wrote, 'parochialism is universal'.)

The participants were a mix of senior executives - mainly CEOs and artistic directors as you might expect - but also board members and chairs. This gave a richness to the conversation, with different perspectives, and is not something I've seen too often in the UK. A number of opera companies had also brought more people from their management teams, allowing them to work on the issues together, rather than 'hold' the challenge at the top. This openness increasingly feels like a positive way forward - both for organisations and for the titular leaders who can share the burdens of change.

As I expected, the role of board members and executives in raising funds was both taken as read and informed much of the discussion, in a way it rarely is in the UK. It may just have been my 'tourist' perception, but the conversations between execs and board members seemed closer and more comfortable than I have often observed at home, perhaps because created by that ongoing, joint-project of cultivating donors. (I have seen it between CEO and chair, but most often in the context (or wake) of a capital project, or when fundraising.)

Three themes related to the characteristics of adaptive resilience which emerged from the colloquium were the importance of developing a shared narrative based on core purpose for Canadian opera - to influence government, funders and the public alike, strengthening networks and collaborations and leadership. Marc Scorca of Opera America gave a great keynote about leadership which I'll return to (i.e when I find my notes...) Leadership which creates the richest possible culture of shared purpose increasingly feels like the vital driver of resilience, and the sectoral challenges of developing a genuinely diverse leaders at all levels increasingly urgent.

I also learnt you should never surprise a bear when it's eating: if you see one, make sure it knows you're coming. There's a moral in there somewhere...

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Questions about galleries: what I did in the holidays (part 2)

It's good to do things on your holidays that you might not ordinarily do. Even so, I generally fall into the 'culture vulture' type of holiday-maker - tromping round cities visiting galleries and museums, book and record shops, concerts, theatres if I can understand the language, that kind of thing. This year's holiday, a trains and old friends one, was exactly that, starting in one of the summer's hot spots - Hackney. Moving on to Brussels and Holland, however, we began doing things we don't usually do - eating Ethiopian (if you're ever in Brussels go to Kokob, it's fantastic), cycling - and paying to get into art galleries. This in particular made me ponder a few questions. (To which I'll also posit some simplistic answers.)

  • Was there a connection between the not insubstantial amounts we paid to get into really fine contemporary galleries like Wiels and Bozar and the lack of people in the galleries? (I've seen more people in UK galleries on a wet Wednesday morning.) The shows we saw were mainly excellent and ambitious - the Jeff Wall retrospective at Bozar in particular, juxtaposing his photos with pieces that inspired him. They were big and value for money. But there were few people there. My simplistic answer?: Yes, despite the truism  being that research shows price is not the main barrier to attendance at the arts. (Google that phrase if you want some research about that - it's slightly more nuanced, but generally observed.) But whilst price may not be the barrier, the entry fee stands for a show of commitment - you need to be committed in some way - to the show, or the visit - rather than simply curious or sheltering from the rain. So once that commitment to attend is built, price  - more or less, if I'd not been on holiday I might have thought twice - is not a barrier - but free entry can be an incentive for the un-committed.
  • Or was it the contemporary nature of the work which was off-putting, as the museum galleries we visited were all heaving. Even Andy Warhol at the temporary Stedilijk in Amsterdam had a stroll in factor whilst the nearby museums had long queues for van Gogh, Rembrandt et al. Does the 'subscription' model of getting on in the visual arts actually lessen the audience for new work, by creating a popular demand for 200 years of subscription before making something part of a tourist/visitor experience? Simplistic answers: yes to both. Many people just don't trust contemporary taste and prefer things to have been 'resolved' by art history. (Not saying I agree, or think it's healthy. It just seems the case.)
  • It was noticeable how, let's say, 'undeveloped' the secondary offer - catering especially, but also shops to a lesser degree - seemed to be in the galleries we visited - why was this? Simplistic answer: having paid to get in, people are less likely to want to pay for lunch in the venue, and maybe the venues have a mix of ticket and public income that reduces the need to really focus on a notoriously difficult area. as many UK galleries testify, if you don;t really think the offer through, you end up with mediocre shops and cafes. Also, if the place is not one you can 'drop into' or have informal meetings in, as the cafes and bars of many UK arts venues are, they are limited in potential, and - for me - don't feel as good. 
  • Final question was, are European galleries - or perhaps more accurately, the European curator grapevine/network - behind an odd trend I've noticed for curators getting their name headlined on posters and brochures and in big letters on gallery walls. Almost all the contemporary galleries seemed to emphasise curators almost as much as artists - and at least one listed the CEO and his team alongside that. This may well be connected to the 'subscription' model for curators - ie, never mind the audience, did peer curators like the show? - but as a punter I find it distracting, as for me curators are not auteurs any more (or less) than the editors of, say, novels are. I imagine the case is, firstly, credit where it's due (they're the poor devils who have to dig out those Lyotard quotes for the brochures after all) but also the curating is a fundamental part of the gallery experience, and the visitor should be aware of it. Simplistic answer: perhaps, but I'd rather avoid following this particular trend, please, and stick to the credits and the acknowledgements - and the gradual awareness of a curator's work and influence that comes from helping artists make great shows.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Back to school special (What I did in the holidays pt 1)

Well,before I took a summer break from blogging, I left you with thoughts of peace, love and understanding... how'd that work out for you, then?

Further global financial turmoil, riots and panic on the streets of London, sharp turns to the right by the 'moral' centre of the government, drip by drip exposure of the scandal that is Tory education policy, hurricanes, earthquakes, Preston North End getting beat and conceding 4 (four!) at home in the first game of the season in flipping League One... Sometimes, it was only being so cheerful as kept me going.

 I wouldn't want you to think the radio silence here was because I was on a beach or in a depression, so to get back to business as usual, allow me a little warm up reflection.

After helping MMM present plans for a re.volution to partners and potential funders, I ran straight off to Europe with my wife where we paid through the nose to go into some pretty empty contemporary art galleries and some very full museums/galleries in Brussels and Amsterdam (see next blog for some questions raised by that). We then hotfooted it back to Stockton-on-Tees to see how the council were spending our money - fortunately wisely on the Stockton International Riverside Festival and Stockton Weekender. The Weekender was a paid for event for the first time, which seemed to work well, with good audiences, although one day was rather marred by torrential rain.  (Maximo Park, fronted by local-Billingham-boy-made-good Paul Smith, brought the crowd round in the end though.) It also became clear there's too much comedy around for people to pay for it in a festival context, which made me wonder what there is to learn from the ubiquity and popularity of comedy nights, the extent to which they are creating income for arts venues, and whether people ought to be thinking now about what happens when that bubble bursts/balloon goes down? (I'd suggest it's in the late Consolidation phase...)

The highlight of the second half of the summer (apart from hearing my daughter had got the grades she needed to get into university this year, thus avoiding the higher fees, phew, what good forward planning that was 19 years ago) was involvement in the Banff Opera Colloquium organised by, the voice of Canadian opera. I'll write about this separately, but it was a great chance to work with the frameworks of adaptive resilience with a whole sector, in a non-UK context, and as luck would have it in a beautiful place at the Banff Centre

Next, suddenly, September, which always means a new start. No matter how long it is since you left school, that new term feeling persists. (It persists even though, as of this September, I don't even have any kids going back to school.) Workwise, a couple of new projects are getting going, more of which anon, and  this month's work-travels are happily in Northern England: Wallsend, NewcastleGateshead, Manchester, Middlesbrough and Wakefield. It  may not be God's own country, but it's certainly mine. 

There's a lot of important tectonic plates shifting at the moment - especially in England. The effects of March's ACE announcements continue to become clearer, with some organisations powering up to become NPOs, many conversations being brought to you by the letters K, P and I as they'd say on Sesame Street, and some people now announcing closure or wind-up. (Sydney Thornbury from Webplay is bravely and importantly writing about 'winding up fabulously' on the NCVO website.) New initiatives around digital and philanthropy, and museums funding will play out over the next few months. (In relation to museums, the report by Estelle Morris is very much worth reading. In fact, it's worth reading in relation to arts and culture generally.) Audiences and local authorities will also, in their different ways, let us know what the impact of the recession is on their culture-spending. 

And hopefully, some artists will surprise us and respond to all that other stuff in brave and imaginative ways, with fresh vigour. If there's one thing I'm sure of it's that the arts need to engage with the messiness of global finance, riots, politics, individual and collective responsibilities and behaviour, morals, cultures, education and so on rather than turn away from it.  I know from my own writing efforts that's easier said than done, and David Hare agreed just this weekend, but it feels as urgent a task as anything to do with changing funding patterns.  (You can probably leave worrying about Preston North End to Phil Brown and poor souls like me though.)