Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Wednesday Word of the Week: Resilience

This is a word I think we’ll be hearing a lot more of this year and next, in the arts as elsewhere. Enjoy it now before it gets tiresome. It draws on thinking in the field of ‘ecology’ – a word I’ve been using a lot lately in describing the needs of the sector, though there is also a strand of thinking about personal or 'emotional resilience'. This sees the sector not as a fixed infrastructure which may or may not reach a state called ‘sustainability’, but as a system or field where individual elements will grow, shrink, give birth, die and mutate, with organisations of different size and nature both co-operating and competing for the greater good. It also draws, as that description might suggest, on systems thinking. It’s not about simply pulling a lever or inputting something to get an output – it’s about often overlapping systems and their impact. (This is one of the reasons I don't think simply protecting funding is the answer to all the issues of the recession - unless we understand the complex systems at play that may only be a sticking plaster.)

So the best definition of Resilience as it applies to the arts sector I’ve seen is ‘the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function’. For the arts the ‘disturbance’ (not always a negative) might be loss of funding, sudden influx of funding or commissions, change in funders’ priorities, change in environment (eg a multiplex opening down the road from your arthouse cinema), changing audience patterns, changing technology and so on. Many arts organisations are already highly resilient, but there may more that can be done by thinking this through as a sector. Size does not guarantee resilience – note, for instance, that the best independent record shops may be surviving the download era better than the chain stores.

I plan to return to some of these themes over the next month, as they seem some of the most urgent things to think about, and there a number of possibly fruitful parallels I want to throw up to be challenged. (I’m currently pushing Resilience Thinking by Brian Walker and David Salt onto people – it’s a really good exposition of these ideas. There’s an article summarising them here .)

I also recommend an article by Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz about the ‘Six Habits of Highly Resilient Organizations’. It's worth thinking whether your organisation does these things:

1. Resilient organizations actively attend to their environments.
2. Resilient organizations prepare themselves and their employees for disruptions.
3. Resilient organizations build in flexibility.
4. Resilient organizations strengthen and extend their communications networks – internally and externally.
5. Resilient organizations encourage innovation and experimentation.
6. Resilient organizations cultivate a culture with clearly shared purpose and values.

No comments: