Cultural institutions are facing an incredibly challenging and uncertain future. Theatres and music venues are unaware of when they’ll be able to raise their curtains, while museums and art galleries are likely to be able to reopen in the coming months only with strict social distancing measures in place. The survival of these institutions is fundamental to the rebuilding of our society, but many institutions will have no choice but to drastically adapt their ways of working or face closure. Yet it’s not the first time cultural organisations have had to respond creatively to external challenges. Back in 2010, we looked at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s journey doing exactly this, while staying true to their core purpose.
You can read All together: a creative approach to organisational change here, and the executive summary below.
This report was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in February 2007. The RSC had embarked on a major programme of change in the way it is led and managed, to mirror the physical transformation of its home in Stratford-upon-Avon. The RSC wished to extend the principles of ensemble, as applied to the acting company, to the whole organisation, in both its internal management and external relations. This would be carried out by the management of the RSC, advised by the consultant Dr Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge. The cultural team at the think tank Demos was asked to follow this journey, observing the process and reporting back through this publication. The RSC hopes that the experiences recorded might be useful to other cultural organisations as well as the wider business community.
The concept of ensemble
Historically the RSC has described itself as an ensemble – a French word meaning ‘together’ or ‘viewed as a whole’. In the theatre, it has the specific meaning of a group of actors who work together in a collaborative fashion over a period of time. Over the last three years the leadership of the RSC has sought to extend what they describe as the ‘usefully ambiguous’ idea of ensemble beyond the rehearsal room and the acting company into the whole organisation. The principle has been used to bring about changes in attitudes, behaviours and practices.
Ensemble should be thought of not only as a management tool, but as a set of moral principles that remains constant as a guide to leadership decisions and administrative actions. Ensemble is a value, as well as a description of a particular way of organising people: a way of being as much as a way of doing. It is also a moving target in that it can be rearticulated to meet changing needs and circumstances.
The principle of ensemble as an organisational practice
Organisations need to build systems that are not just optimally efficient in a specific set of circumstances, but capable of changing to meet new circumstances: in other words, organisations need internally generated resilience. In turn, that resilience is generated by creating shared terms of engagement – they cannot be imposed – that govern the relationships between different people and functions.
It is the job of leaders to develop both organisational interconnectedness, and the capacity of individuals and departments to work together. Instead of attempting the now impossible task of micromanaging specialised, knowledge- driven functions, leaders must pay attention to developing the norms of responsibility, honesty and trust within the organisation that enable people to work together.
Ensemble addresses exactly these questions of instilling behavioural norms through strong values, while reconciling the individual’s needs for creative expression, reward, and liberty, with the need to be part of a social system that is efficient, responsive and liberating rather than conformist, restricting and inefficient.
Results of the application of the ensemble principle at the RSC
Organisational development, guided by ensemble principles has helped the RSC to achieve artistic success, improved financial performance and morale, and made operations and productions more efficient.
Leadership has played an essential role in aligning the values of ensemble with strategic objectives and organisational change. This has been achieved by employing rhetorical power and judicious intervention, and by balancing organic evolution with an intentional programme of change.
Change is a continuous process, not an event. Most organisational change succeeds after five years, if at all (it is estimated that 75 per cent of attempts to change organisations fail). (1) At the RSC, significant progress has been observed after two and a half years, although the company still feels that there is more to learn and do, and wants to extend the principle of ensemble to its relationship with audiences.
Internal change processes need to align with external conditions. Creating a common understanding of external expectations of the organisation is one essential function of leadership.
Some of the organisational changes that have happened at the RSC are conventional, though not necessarily easy to achieve: improved communications; delegated responsibilities; more transparency; greater resilience; accessible leaders. Other aspects of the RSC’s development are less conventional and offer useful lessons.
Distinctive lessons learned
Emotions are important – acknowledge them
A remarkable feature of the RSC’s leadership and management style has been the regular and explicit reference to emotions. Very few leaders in government or the corporate sector speak openly about the emotions that everyone knows are a major feature of organisational life.
Leaders are at the heart of a network, not at the top of a pyramid
As Henry Mintzberg puts it, ‘a robust community requires a form of leadership quite different from the models that have it driving transformation from the top. Community leaders see themselves as being in the centre, reaching out rather than down.’ (2)
The realisation of creativity rests on collaboration
As a leading cultural organisation, the RSC lives and breathes artistic creativity. But every organisation has to adapt, innovate and be creative to some degree. The RSC’s experience shows that creativity can only be realised through collective and collaborative endeavour, and the more that is facilitated–through good communications, a strong common culture, the creation of the right set of attitudes and so on–the more likely it is that an organisation will be able to experiment, and hence to innovate well, across its whole range of activities.
Conceptual simplicity is the best response to organisational and contextual complexity
Every large-scale organisation is complex, and every organisation exists within a changing and multifaceted context. Difficult and demanding tasks need to be underpinned by clear and comprehensible concepts that everyone understands and can feel part of, both intellectually and emotionally. The RSC is a compelling example of a complex organisation with a simple message: when asked what was the purpose of the RSC, our interviewees repeatedly expressed the same aspiration: to be the best theatre company for Shakespeare in the world.
(1) See Holbeche, The High Performance Organisation: Creating dynamic stability and sustainable success
(2) Mintzberg, Harvard Business Review, Jul–Aug 2009, p142.