A few weeks ago I published an article comparing the impact of COVID-19 on arts and culture to the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.
Our industry has suffered a swift, devastating, world-wide impact with major repercussions for the future. So I explored three key traits shared by species that survived that mass extinction event, and what our sector can learn from them.
But I knew that surviving the arts and culture asteroid strike was just the first step. 66 million years ago, the ash from the asteroid impact eventually settled, the sun came out once again, and the survivors found themselves navigating a vastly different landscape.
I suspect we will soon find ourselves, dazed and blinking, in a similar situation.
And so I began to consider another question: What can we learn from nature about how to recover and evolve?
To help me wrestle with this question, I reached out to our Tessitura friends at the California Academy of Sciences, a world-leading science and learning institution with a strong focus on the study of evolution.
I was lucky enough to be introduced to Shannon Bennett, PhD, Cal Academy’s Chief of Science (at right). Shannon was intrigued by my question and game to chat. She is in great demand right now, as coronaviruses are a specialty of hers, so I was especially honored that she carved out some time to discuss this topic with me.
Shannon suggested three elements that best predict natural resilience and adaptation after a mass extinction event:
- A diverse community provides species with greater resilience and tolerance to disruptions
- Frequently combining genetic material produces many new varieties of species
- This multitude of diverse species increases the odds that newly adapted species will thrive in changed environment
From these three guideposts, I started down an arts and culture evolutionary rabbit hole that led me to better understand the critical importance of diversity, the benefits of prolific collaboration, and the case for experimentation when instinct suggests otherwise.
How to Mitigate Risk with Diversity
“Just look at your 401(k) to understand the importance of diversity,” Dr. Bennett noted, highlighting that a well-balanced portfolio includes a mix of both safe and aggressive investments. Whether it is an investment portfolio, a coral reef, or an arts organization, variety mitigates risk and fosters innovation.
To illuminate the importance of diversity in reducing risk, Dr. Bennett uses the example of a forest. Researchers find that a diverse forest has better odds of bouncing back after a fire than a less diverse one.
Photo by Mark Pell from Unsplash
Why would that be? Some of the trees in a diverse forest are centuries old, have lived through other major disturbances, and are robust enough to tough it out. A diversity of ground cover increases the chances that some species will survive to begin the process of renewal, even while others may be wiped out in the fire.
Just like a balanced stock portfolio, diversity provides redundancy, increasing the odds that a forest will survive a fire. On the other hand, a forest with little diversity, such as a man-made lumber forest, is unlikely to recover at all.
What does this mean for arts and culture? Diversity in revenue streams is key to mitigating risk. Having a balanced income “portfolio” of fundraising, membership, grants, sponsorships, ticket sales, ad sales and retail can help ensure survival. If a calamity wipes a few of these out, it is likely that others will still be standing.
If your portfolio was overly reliant on one aspect before COVID (I’ve heard of some performing arts organizations where ticket sales were 90%+ of their portfolio), consider how you can start the process of rebalancing now.
“Diversity in revenue streams is key to mitigating risk. Having a balanced income ‘portfolio’ of fundraising, membership, grants, sponsorships, ticket sales, ad sales and retail can help ensure survival.”
Diversity is a two-sided coin. On one side, as noted, it reduces risk. On the other side, diversity fosters innovation both within and outside a cultural organization.
Let’s Talk About Sex
Photo by Simon Berger from Unsplash
How does variety in the natural world foster innovation? “It all comes down to sex,” Dr. Bennett explained with a laugh. “I know putting it that way can be a little surprising, but evolution doesn’t happen without sex. Whether you are talking about two bacteria or two humans, sex is the act of recombining a distinct set of genes in unique new ways. It is like reshuffling the genetic deck of cards.”
The more diversity in your ecosystem, the bigger your deck of genetic cards. The bigger your deck of genetic cards, the more opportunities for innovative new combinations of genes. Over time, all this card shuffling results in flora and fauna of different colors, shapes, sizes, and capabilities. Given enough time, natural selection favors those species best able to adapt to the new environment.
So what does this mean for arts and culture? Diversity can accelerate innovation both within your organization and through external partnerships.
How diversity leads to innovation within an organization
Just as a diverse forest is more resilient than a man-made monoculture, plenty of studies prove that a diversity of backgrounds and life experiences leads to more ideas, more perspectives and more innovative teams.
In addition, mingling your teams and departments can lead to a variety of unexpected discoveries. Encouraging your staff to work across departmental lines and sit in on one another’s meetings can lead to any number of spontaneous ideas. For instance, here at Tessitura, within days of the COVID-19 crisis, we created five new cross-departmental leadership teams to navigate our company through this evolving situation, and after nine weeks in we can’t imagine life without them. It has accelerated our innovation, responsiveness, and teamwork.
Bottom line: Cross-pollination isn’t limited to plants.
“Mingling your teams and departments can lead to a variety of unexpected discoveries. Cross-pollination isn’t limited to plants.”
How diversity leads to innovation between organizations
Reshuffling the idea deck benefits more than a single organization. Cultural organizations that prioritize frequent and prolific collaboration with other businesses may be more likely to innovate and evolve.
A wonderful example of the power of unexpected collaboration comes from Ballet Arizona in Phoenix. One of their most popular events is their annual spring series of performances presented in collaboration with the Desert Botanical Garden. It is an evening of ballet on an outdoor stage, surrounded by natural beauty and accompanied by the sunset.
Ballet Arizona performing Round at the Desert Botanical Garden
In normal times, these performances are a revenue bonanza for both organizations. One might not naturally expect a ballet company to collaborate with a botanical garden, but as Dr. Bennett suggests, it is just this sort of unexpected collaboration that can “reshuffle the deck” and lead to innovation. In this case, both the Ballet and the Garden have attracted new audiences and invented a transcendent experience for Phoenix.
As some industry data is suggesting that outdoor experiences are likely to be the first cultural experiences that audiences will feel safe returning to post-COVID, Ballet Arizona may have found an unexpectedly strong collaboration to help them survive in this new environment.
Bottom line: Every new collaboration is an opportunity to adapt and grow. How well is your organization reshuffling your deck?
Diversity combined with comingling of ideas leads to innovation. Dr. Bennett’s final insight wraps all these ideas together into a larger framework by explaining how biological communities architect themselves around diversity, collaboration and innovation to survive.
“Every new collaboration is an opportunity to adapt and grow.”
Architecting for Resilience
A colleague of Dr. Bennett’s at Cal Academy, Peter Roopnarine, has spent several years researching the resilience of biological communities after mass extinction events, such as that asteroid strike 66 million years ago.
(A biological community is defined as a collection of individuals of multiple species who interact with each other and their environments. A forest, and all its residents, is a biological community, for instance. As is a savanna or a coral reef.)
Photo by Nolan Krattinger from Unsplash
One key finding of Roopnarine and his colleagues is that a healthy biological community appears to take on its own kind of sentience to ensure the resilience and stability of the greater community.
In one example, an ancient biological community “allowed” certain species of carnivores to go extinct when they began to throw the community’s food chain out of balance.
Dr. Bennett suggests that this represents what she calls a higher level biological “architecture”. This architecture encourages diversity, fosters new species to appear and rewards adaptations that better meet the needs of community itself.
What does this suggest for the business of arts and culture? If the resilience of your arts and culture organization requires diversity, collaboration and innovation, then you need to have an architecture in place to facilitate those. It is one thing to say you value diversity, collaboration and innovation — chances are most of our mission statements include those words.
But words are just words unless you have built your business around those words.
Dr. Bennett returned to the example of the forest to make her point. “An old growth forest isn’t simply a diverse collection of species. It is a biological community made up of species that have co-evolved together.”
You cannot force diversity, collaboration or innovation. Rather, each of these aspects needs to be a core part of your architecture as a business: from mission to values to strategies to culture.
In some cases, the flora and fauna have evolved alongside each other over millennia, creating rich connections and symbiotic relationships. It is the foundational community architecture that has allowed this.
The lesson for the business of arts and culture is clear: you cannot force diversity, collaboration or innovation. Rather, each of these aspects needs to be a core part of your architecture as a business: from mission to values to strategies to culture. They all need to co-evolve in your organization.
• • •
Each of planet earth’s mass extinctions has been followed by an abundance of new life that could never have been imagined prior to the calamity. I look forward to watching our diverse, collaborative and innovative sector evolve on the other side of this asteroid strike.
Art imitates life. And life, as they say, always finds a way.