Businesses where people look, sound and think the same are playing a high risk game, says Mark Robinson
The business case for diversity? Adaptive resilience? Don’t shout ‘Buzzword Bingo’ and turn the page, please. Let me say why I think embracing diversity might help make you stronger, with more options for change when you need them, and therefore less vulnerable – without giving up what you believe in. (Unless you believe in only making art for rich white people in which case you may move along now.)
The Law of Requisite Variety states that ‘the more diverse a network, the greater its ability to respond to change.’ Tony Nwachukwu of burntprogress and I recently investigated a hunch that embracing creative diversity was not an extra burden but actually a potential source of strength, and we found this Law to be true. This work1, commissioned by Arts Council England (ACE) to support its relationship managers, looks at diversity as a particular dimension of adaptive resilience.
We use ‘diversity’ and ‘diverse’ in their broadest and most literal sense: to refer to things or people that are ‘not the same, different from each other, divergent, various in nature’. This encompasses creative diversity, workforce diversity and audience or market diversity. Put simply, we believe businesses where people look, sound and think the same are playing a high risk game, and especially so in the arts. Creating a more diverse business provides multiple perspectives and can connect you to more people – or markets, if you prefer that language. This then encourages even more people from many different sources and backgrounds to join you, so audiences benefit from the best talent around. Commercial sectors increasingly accept this business case: our paper includes a case study of a large law firm.
We found the mindset of the leaders and the organisational culture they nurture to be the key factor. This is more important than diversity policies and procedures, necessary as those are in many ways. (Although we did hear from people who thought they were positively damaging.)
We identified four aspects to this leadership mindset. It needs to be:
Reflective: Leaders can encourage a reflective mindset in their teams, taking on board and sharing data and views from many perspectives.
Open: Exemplars constantly refuse to become fixed structurally or in their offer, and invite in other views and voices for honest, non-hierarchical dialogue.
Adaptive: An adaptive mindset can encourage and manage change in the culture of organisations, around authentic core values and shared purpose so you are in control.
Responsible: Leaders have a responsibility to the cultural ecology as well as their organisation and a responsibility to use public investment for broad public good, nurturing new and diverse groups, artists and audiences.
Diversity is most powerful when actively structured into the culture at all levels. (I’d say the same if writing about the creative case for diversity too.) This might mean reserving places on the board for young people, like Contact Theatre in Manchester, or rooting induction processes in local communities as Punch Music in Birmingham does, literally sending new staff to walk local streets to get to know their audiences. It must also recognise and manage the challenges a diverse approach can bring. Where this holistic culture is not in place, an apparently diverse workforce, or those elements of difference within a workforce, can be overwhelmed, or even rejected by the dominant ways of doing things. (A difficult pattern observed by some members of under-represented groups when stepping into organisations.)
Embracing diversity is not a universal panacea. If it’s so helpful, you might ask, why was such a high proportion of Black and minority ethnic and disability-focused applicants to ACE’s National Portfolio rated as ‘weak’ on finance and management? Organisations that serve particular ‘identity-focused’ audiences can find it difficult to build the broad audience base and organisational assets that create a range of reliable income streams. By serving ‘the margins’ and representing the under-represented, they invigorate the mainstream but risk remaining marginal themselves.
The case studies suggest ways forward from this dilemma, and underline the business case. Developing 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 musicals transferring to the West End, can be beneficial. Taking a flexible approach to company structures, as Watershed has done, can maximise financial, cultural and resilience returns. Heart and Soul and DaDa demonstrate the benefits of focusing on production and promotion of the artistic aspirations of diverse communities. Strategically building unique skills and networks can bring multiple benefits: new income streams, greater profile, staff development and, perhaps most importantly, breaking out of the ‘diversity’ pigeonhole.
Seven useful things for any organisation to do:
1. Build a diverse workforce and talent pool
2. Nurture a diversity of markets and partners
3. Diversify your assets to diversify your markets
4. Be open and transparent to increase diversity
5. Develop your own clear business case
6. Gather good data and stories and share them very actively
7. Be as flexible as possible.