Leading for Change
“Change and decay in all around I see”
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
These two quotes illustrate the wide-ranging spectrum of thoughts and feelings on change. On the one hand, change is about the loss of the way things were, good things, certainty, comfort, calm and knowing exactly what you needed to do. On the other hand, change is fantastic and you can change the world just by altering your daily habits and approaches.
The truth lies somewhere in between. We have to acknowledge now that change is just the way it is. Technology is driving a lot of that but so are many other global factors such as wars, climate, and movement of people.
In truth I quite like change. I used to work in the BBC and the reason I stayed there for almost 13 years was that their constant change gave me the chance to do different jobs in different parts of the UK which I really valued. I’m not on many boards but I am on the board of Building Change Trust which for nine years has been working to bring about strategic change right across the voluntary, community, and social enterprise sector. I don’t see change as something to fear but it’s not an easy road either.
In the cultural sector, change can be reduced to fighting changes in funding or in our case fighting the changes to reduce funding. It’s no fun to have change forced upon you and having to make changes under the threat of dwindling resources.
In thrive, like many in the sector, we’ve spent a lot of time over the last three years changing. We didn’t do it for change's sake – we did it because it’s vital to regularly look at your core purpose and ask yourself why do we exist and are we still delivering well on a relevant purpose?
For us, the answer was we needed to re-focus our purpose – not to unlock lots of new funding necessarily, although that would be nice, but to be clear to ourselves and to those we support and partner with what value we can bring to the sector and its audiences.
We’d been focusing on audiences since 2000 when Audiences NI began but the cultural sector, local government, audience behaviours and motivations and the cultural offer across NI have all changed significantly in the intervening years. Once we’d agreed our re-focused purpose we set about making changes around governance, staff structure, policies, products, and services. We changed our business model to remove membership as a barrier to cultural organisations accessing knowledge, skills and support around audience development. This was because we believe passionately that audience development is essential to sustainability, not a nice to have. We are already seeing many more different types, sizes, and locations of organisations accessing our support than previously. We changed our approach from thinking about outputs to outcomes and how we can evidence that which has transformed the conversations we now have with organisations. We make sure that no research leaves us without an indication of what to do with it and yes we also changed our brand and name too.
I’d like to say our change process was easy, smooth, and complete. It is none of those and as I grow older I can see it never will be. External factors might be beyond my control but I still will have to react to them or even anticipate them coming and take action. The world isn’t going to stop changing just because I’m a bit tired (and at the moment I know many of us are). Change is very scary for most of us because it might not work. It means as individuals we at the very least may have to change our actions but also maybe our attitudes. The unknown is not a place of comfort but with small steps and remembering to reflect and celebrate each win, change becomes what you do as usual. Even if things do go wrong and they will, that’s not the end of the world. You can sit down, re-group, and change your plan! This is a real challenge and can seem a bit unfair but it’s what we’ve always done and will have to continue to do.
There are lots of books and studies on the models of change and how you successfully create change across organisations. Some of them are worth checking out because what change approach works in one place won’t necessarily work for all. But here are my own five learnings I am taking from this change process into the next one… and the next one and… well you get the idea.
- You cannot do it alone. Whatever your role in your organisation you need everyone on board with change or else it won’t work. So invest time to help staff, board, volunteers, funders, and partners to come with you as you develop your plans. We benefited from taking part in the CO3 Path to Impact Project which put us through an organisational health-check allowing us to take action in the areas we needed to. This process helped us to see the wood for the trees and kept constructive conversations going especially between the team and board.
- Purpose is where it begins and impact is where it ends. Change for change’s sake isn’t good so begin by thinking about why your organisations exists and if that need is still there or is there another purpose that you should deliver. Then think about the difference you want to make – not how many things you do but what difference will you make to those you work with. Try and work out how to show that.
- There will be times when it feels too hard. This is when your team and your purpose kicks in. There was a reason you started down this road – don’t lose sight of that even if it seems like it’s taking forever to move things on.
- Fail fast, learn without blame and move on. This is a mantra of those who work in the tech and digital sector. Failing is fine, as long as you do it, learn from it and move to the next version. Boards, funders, and partners all need to support staff to do this.
- Celebrate it when it works and you can see progress. It might be a small win like having a conversation with a potential new partner that wouldn’t have happened before. Or it could be something more substantial like getting feedback from those you’ve been delivering work with saying that it really helped them with their outcomes.
Days fly by and we are always too busy. But most recently the 30th of January this year was a day when I paused and felt like change was becoming real and more normal – why? Well, Claire-Rose was leading on two tailored sessions on GDPR which was meeting an emerging and acute need from the sector with five organisations big and small from across the cultural sector taking part. She had devised one beginner’s basics session and then one that was for those with box-office systems using the talents of two external speakers for the more involved learning. In the office, we were working on a new partnership involving an innovative approach to arts and heritage working together in NI. At the same time, Fiona and Chris were interrogating data to deliver audience insight for a planning session with a local council around their cultural strategy.
So that’s a real change in the outputs we were delivering and who we were delivering for - but what about the impact?
The GDPR work has already made a difference with organisations feeding back that they have now started to implement changes to how they work with data. They say they’ve gone from confused to in control. The new partnership is still in development but if this one doesn’t happen we will work with these partners again and if it does we will access a new funding stream and target a new audience for a particular aspect of the cultural sector. Finally, the council wants to delve deeper into the data to help drive decisions around their cultural provision for their residents.
We will all have examples of when change works but it’s easy to gloss over them as we meet the next big thing head-on. I am proud of the changes we are making and continue to make and I hope we can become more impactful despite the challenges the sector faces. Maybe the thing to bear in mind about change is this:
“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”
Margaret Henry leads the overall strategic planning and direction of thrive audience development (formerly Audiences NI). She is responsible for developing partnerships across the cultural sector and delivering good governance, impact and sustainability. She has extensive strategic marketing and leadership experience across the public and cultural sectors. Margaret is on the Board of Building Change Trust, a founder member of the Arts Collaboration Network and a nominee in the Leading Organisational Change category at the 2018 CO3 Awards.
Thanks to Henry Francis Lyte, Margaret Mead and William Arthur Ward for their words of wisdom.