Judging by the Facebook and Twitter posts I’ve seen over the last week or so, I have the impression that not many people were sorry to see the back of 2013. For me, it was a bit of a roller coaster year – periods of delight and creativity interspersed with periods of disappointment, doubt and general bloody mindedness –  you  have to get through the s**t somehow!  That’s resilience! The year ended well, though – working with arts organisations as first time clients from Bradford and Leeds across to Hull and Scarborough.  Having spent many years in CidaCo working internationally, I experienced real delight in discovering the multi faceted face of the arts in our region.  Again and again, I was thrilled by the courage of the organisations I dealt with – I’ve said for a long time that courage is the essential prerequisite if you are going to run a small business: but it seems doubly true if you are running an arts organisation: you have all the risks and challenges of running any business which are then further complicated by the imperative of sustaining the artistic integrity of your work  – and sometimes, often, there can be inherent conflict – your head says one thing, your heart says another, and for those cynics out there, no, it is not true that following your head is always the right thing to do – most of us who have had any success in the arts will have had experience of following our hearts and watching the world light up –  you can’t predict it, you can’t teach it, all the ‘sensible’ people are screaming at you, but, my god, it’s that moment of magic that defies logic and illumines our lives – it’s what we all work for.

I mean, let’s not get sentimental about this – when it goes wrong, it’s hell – no question.  But working in the arts is inherently about risk – if you want to do great work, you have to acknowledge that it isn’t going to be safe.  When you get to the point of leading an arts organisation,  where you can make things happen,  the responsibility is huge.  But the answer isn’t to play safe.  Time and again in my career, I have watched (and sometimes been part of!) situations where really great artistic leaders, usually under pressure of finance , have attempted to play safe, to play to the lowest common denominator, to copy apparent formulae for success (“Look, that did well: if we copy the formula of big name star, leading director, renowned composer, famous writer, we’ll be okay”) only to find that the audiences stay away in their millions, with all the implications that brings.  It’s hard, this business of being a great artistic leader.  But, if you really want to make great work, then you have to take the risks.   Which is where resilience comes in.

Seth Godin (if you don’t know of him, google him after you’ve read this – he’s an interesting thinker) recently posted a blog about three ways to deal with the future: Accuracy, Resilience and Denial.  It’s worth reading (link below) but, about Resilience, he says: Resilience is the best strategy for those realistic enough to admit that they can’t predict the future with more accuracy than others. Resilience isn’t a bet on one outcome, instead, it’s an investment across a range of possible outcomes.  And I think this is the key.   If you are to ride the advancing waves of economic and social change, and the consequential, fundamental change in the ecology of the country’s arts, then you need to be thinking and acting on this.   This is why adopting an approach that embeds resilience within your organisation, that makes resilience the keystone of your leadership, impacting on every policy, every decision, at every level, and adopted by every member of staff, is critical to sustaining your organisation whilst simultaneously supporting your risktaking..

This is the key difference between resilience and stabilisation.  Resilience acknowledges, supports and even demands the taking of risk – it underpins the creative and fast moving approach that characterise the best arts practice.  Stabilisation, so long the ambition for so many in the sector, is now seen as mere 20th century thinking.  As Professor Rita Gunther McGrath, a professor at Columbia Business School in New York and one of the world’s leading experts on strategy, points out:  “The presumption of stability creates all the wrong reflexes. It allows for inertia and power to build up along the lines of an existing business model. It allows people to fall into routines and habits of mind. It creates the conditions for turf wars and organizational rigidity. It inhibits innovation.  It tends to foster the denial reaction rather than proactive design of a strategic next step… A preference for equilibrium and stability means that many shifts in the marketplace are met by business leaders denying that these shifts mean anything negative for them.”   Instead, the long held dream of stability in arts organisations must now give way to a practice that is highly flexible, agile, embracing a constellation of emerging business principles that “builds upon the ethos of imagination, exploration, experimentation, discovery and collaboration” (Steve Denning, World Bank),  an ethos claimed by most arts organisations.

In 21st century England, our arts organisations must become canny in applying their skills in “improvisational entrepreneurship[1]  strengthening their technical skills (business modelling, financial planning, strategic management etc) and then taking an informed view of new opportunities that make sense in the context of their own organisations.    Leaders have to be prepared to move away from much of what they have worked on throughout their careers, i.e. honing a highly efficient and effective organisation that minimises the risks, reduces the surprises and works away in a highly predictable and steady way.   Now they need to develop an innovation-geared organization that has clear goals, principles, values and attitudes, one that is working towards a range of organisational possibilities.   This organisation must be ready to capitalize on emerging opportunities and aligned to exploit them.  They must have in place the capabilities to build rapidly on these opportunities, and to exploit them through new learning, new insights and growing connections, thus extending the possibilities even further.  The strategy will have to adapt constantly, giving the organization a new, more demanding, competitive advantage:  one that is built on anticipating and managing constant change, never standing still, always evolving[2]

[1] “Creative organisations are under-capitalised and under-managed.  They get by with improvisational entrepreneurship”  (Charles Leadbeater, 2004)

[2] Paul Hobcraft, leading innovation author and blogger,

Anamaria Wills
Twitter: anamariacida