Diversification as Disruption

endofrunwayOver at Museum 2.0, I’ve been sparring with Nina Simon and others about the new guidelines and funding strategy at the James Irvine Foundation, all emerging out of the revelation from Nina Simon that the Irvine folks are having trouble getting great proposals that align with their new “participatory” strategy.  Take a look there for more of the specifics, and if you really have some time read my long and academic dissection of Irvine’s new policy and how it’s problematic over at Artivate, but what follows is a sort of tangentially-related set of thoughts about why arts organizations are structured as they are, what that means for embracing “core shaking” changes like participatory arts practice (or, for this entry, diversification, which is where my brain is right now), and how the funding structure seems to exacerbate rather than mitigate those issues.

Last week, I was at a mini-conference hosted by the Duke Foundation (and curated by the good folks at EMCArts) that was in part designed to get at the sticking points around sustainable innovation inside arts organizations.  There were a lot of takeaways, but one that I think was tremendously valuable was this comparison between the for-profit and non-profit sectors in terms of innovation (and here, let’s say that diversity, as old a concept as it is, carries many of the same disruptive possibilities as any other innovation—which is to say, change).

In a for-profit organization, innovations are incubated for years, tested and retested, and then set loose in a beta environment where they are expected to have issues, need continued subsidy, and perfected.  Even after they go through beta, they often are given “runway” space—a few years floating on general operating funds before they clear a profit and/or have demonstrable positive outcomes.

In non-profits, of course, that runway is truncated almost to nonexistence.  We must, by virtue of working so close to the bone financially, have relatively quick assurances of (1) positive outcome and, more importantly, (2) little or no negative outcome in order for something to be worth it and to become integrated long-term in the organization.

Foundations often use their funds to drive change without (and I say this without judgment, really, knowing the higher financial outlay this would require) providing the runway for long-term integration of that change.  Funding priorities change with relative frequency, leaving organizations with vestigial programs built off of no-longer-existing funding and conflicting priorities—and that’s just when it something that doesn’t necessarily harm the core business (like, say, educational programming).  Diversity is bigger than that—it requires more care, more time, and the very real possibility that bringing on one group means off-boarding another group.  When it comes down to it, diversification isn’t, I don’t think, about convincing people of the good of doing it—it’s about allowing them the room and security to try without the fear that such effort might destabilize the organization.

In 1999, two researchers published an article in the Journal of Sports Management called “Managing Cultural Diversity in Sport Organizations: A Theoretical Perspective.”  The two researchers, Alison Doherty and Packianathan Chelladurai, use the frame of sports to actually take on some very fundamental questions about what diversification can do (positively and negatively) in workplaces in general.

The Positive and Negative of Diversification

Doherty and Chelladurai draw on a whole lot of extant research into the effects of diversification in the workplace.  In the positive, they note:

“In comparison to homogeneous groups, racially and ethnically diverse groups make more cooperative choices, are more creative, and produce higher quality ideas when faced with a brainstorming task…In addition, although racially and ethnically diverse groups were less effective than homogeneous groups at the outset of a complex problem-solving task, they eventually interacted as effectively and performed better with regard to the range of perspectives and alternatives offered.  Shaw (1981) reported similar findings from a review of research on gender-mixed groups…As work groups become more tolerant of different points of view, their organizations become more open to new ideas in general and generate more and better ideas.” (284)

On the negative side:

“The organization is at risk of increased ambiguity, complexity, and confusion caused by different perceptions and miscommunications resulting from cultural diversity…Diversity in age was negatively associated with frequency of communication…[and] individuals in the racial and ethnic minority experience more stress in an organization and are less satisfied with their careers than their nonminority counterparts…Research indicates that group diversity in age, race or gender is associated with reduced commitment, increased absenteeism, and increased turnover for all members.” (285)

Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the benefits of staff diversification are long-term, whereas most of the downsides are short-term.  As humans, generally, we yearn for what the article calls “parsimony, consistency and meaning” (286)—things which are disrupted, at least temporarily, by diversification.

Cultures of Similarity and Diversity

The article posits that this tension between the short-term issues and long-term benefits of diversity place the success or failure of such efforts squarely in the hands of the management at the organization.  The authors posit two dichotomous organizational cultures, an “organizational culture of diversity” and an “organizational culture of similarity,” laying them out as a set of competing values and assumptions (the most germane of which are sampled here):

Culture of Similarity

Culture of Diversity
Rigidity Flexibility
Risk avoidance Risk acceptance
Conflict avoidance Conflict acceptance
Present orientation Future orientation

Overlaying the “typical” arts institution (perhaps giving the caveat of “of a certain size and stability”) with these values and assumptions, the comparison, at least to me, is unfavorable.  Is that institution relatively rigid in structure, or relatively flexible?  Is that organization inclined to (and/or in a financial position to) accept risk, or is it more likely to avoid risk where possible?  Ditto staff-level conflict: is conflict accepted as part of the process, or avoided where possible?  Finally, does that organization generally find itself oriented towards the present or near-future, or more towards long-term trends and needs?

Valuing vs. Managing Diversity

The authors go on to discuss another extremely valuable distinction having to do with diversity, which they set up as the difference between “valuing diversity” and “managing diversity.”  Valuing diversity is what you might expect—caring that diversity exists.  The authors describe it as “an attitudinal construct encompassing a mind-set of openness to diversity among people.”  As (mostly liberal, mostly open-minded) artists, it seems fair to say that we most likely to “value diversity.”  Where the distinction comes is in this concept of “managing diversity,” which is “a behavioral construct encompassing actual strategies that a group or organization can undertake to capitalize on the diversity of its members.” (289).  Which is to say, not just caring about the idea of diversity, but setting up structures and systems that allow for diversity and the various types of disruption it can create.

The Tension between Stability and Change

I think this article confirms something that I’ve been trying to sort out for a while, which is that:

1)      We can both value diversity and resist it at the same time within our organizations, and that resistance can be entirely subconscious.

2)      In the end, that resistance often emerges as a need to avoid potentially damaging short-term disruptions in the face of more abstracted long-term gain.  (See also: fear of losing subscribers)

This article also forces me to reflect on the strange relationship that arts organizations have to various groups to which they are beholden, that perhaps reinforce the more myopic and present-facing view that may stand in the way of diversification.  I’ve already touched briefly on this fear of losing those most loyal patrons—a fear which, rational or not, is not something to be taken lightly.  But the other area where this can emerge, I think, is when we think about the foundation-organization relationship.  I think that foundations are driving a lot of the movement in terms of diversity—interestingly on both sides.

I do not think that (most) arts organizations maintain cultures of similarity out of an innate desire to hold back diversification.  Instead, I think that the leaders of those organizations either consciously or subconsciously understand the ramifications of moving from “valuing diversity” to “managing diversity,” and that those ramifications are scary, even up against the possibility of losing funding for particular initiatives.

Dougherty and Chelladurai end their article discussing “environmental pressures,” to which, among many other things, I would put foundation funding.  They say:

“Environmental pressures can also provoke the transformation of organizational culture as members are forced to adapt to external changes…It might be expected that these environmental forces will challenge how diversity is managed in the organization…[but] organizational culture is not quickly or easily manipulated and changed.  Just as individuals do not easily give up the elements of their identity…so groups do not easily give up some of their basic underlying assumptions simply because they have been challenged. (293)

To this I would add, “especially when the challenge is to something so fundamental, and the assumptions, wrong or right, have been carrying the organization for decades.”

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    You might be interested in Milliken and Martins (1996) Searching for Common Threads: Understanding the Multiple Effects of Diversity in Organizational Groups. Academy of Management Review, 21 (2), 403-433.
    – Linda