Lockdown Learning: #5 Risk, failure, learning and resilience
Creative People and Places in Lockdown: responses and learning is a short series of five case studies that explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on CPP projects and how they responded. Each of the five case studies explores a different theme. In the fifth case study Kathryn Welch reflects on some of the themes that had emerged through earlier conversations and interviews with CPP Places.
Of all the restrictions COVID-19 has imposed on our lives, loss of touch and physical contact came up again and again in interviews with CPP Places. There was talk of the big, fundamental moments in life, such as hugging a grandchild or the traditional last washing of bodies so important in Muslim funeral rites. But we missed small moments of touch too - helping a neighbour over the road, a touch of the arm in conversation, the reassuring contact of sitting side by side with a friend. In conversation with CPP Places and some of the artists and communities they support, we’ve been exploring the role of creativity in supporting, overcoming and capturing this profound experience of 2020.
This case study - coming as it does at the end of a series - offered an opportunity to reflect on some of the themes that had emerged through earlier conversations and interviews with CPP Places. Almost all of those interviews began - in one way or another - with an acknowledgement of the things that haven’t happened this year thanks to COVID. Activity has been cancelled, business plans rewritten, recruitment delayed and fruitful partnerships paused or changed.
“The first few weeks of becoming Director was just me, like everybody, getting my own personal bearings. I was revving myself up to go, all guns blazing, have loads of energy, get on top of the business plan. And now suddenly, I'm confined to my living room” - Rebecca, Freshly Greated (CPP Great Yarmouth).
Nonetheless - despite and perhaps because of these conditions - new, interesting and really exciting activity has emerged from the conditions of 2020. As such, we set out to explore the lenses through which Places consider their success or failure, the factors that shape their appetite to risk, and the conditions that allow learning and development to flourish from failure.
1. Success or failure depends on what we're measuring
CPP Places are accustomed to thinking critically about the notions of success and failure. The impact of any project or activity is rarely based on one metric, but is understood to be multi-layered - considering the reach across a community, the quality of creative output and engagement, the nature of partnerships, and the depth of community-led decision-making.
“Action research is absolutely brilliant for this, because we're not commissioning you to make a piece of sculpture, we’re commissioning you to make the positive impacts that a successful piece of sculpture will have in that place, and for the people that live with it. It's not about just the end piece - it's about the impact of the end piece” - Nick, Transported (CPP Boston Borough and South Holland).
In this action learning environment, supported by a strong peer network across the CPP Places, there is a strong sense of welcoming and learning from the projects that go wrong, are unexpected in their impact, or that face difficulties along the way:
“I think the word failure has so many negative connotations, It'd be quite nice to find a way of reframing that a little bit. If you set yourself some goals, objectives, and you don't reach those objectives, in some ways, yes, that's failure. But I guess you then need to review, what are the parameters around failures. And also about success, too. When people talk about success. It's like, well, it might be a success in your eyes. But we unpick what success means as well” - Karl, First Art (CPP Ashfield, Bolsover, Mansfield and North East Derbyshire)
2. Failure helps places to test - and to advocate for - the approaches that work
Whilst an action learning mindset is well-established as part of the CPP approach, the additional pressures and restrictions of the pandemic have proved a fertile ground for testing this way of working.
For First Art (CPP Ashfield, Bolsover, Mansfield and North East Derbyshire) for example, the use of digital tools as a means of creative engagement had been a challenging issue long before COVID hit. The pandemic (and the impossibility of delivering in-person activity) was therefore an opportunity to invest in a riskier piece of programming - of a participatory piece of theatre delivered online. The risks of pursuing a digital project were, to some extent, mitigated by the impossibility of business as usual. In an environment where everything carried risk and uncertainty, it was easier to find the space to pilot something new. On the face of it, this event was enormously successful by many metrics - not least that tickets were sold-out. However, on closer examination the audience for this digital event - those who were able to join a digital performance in the early weeks of lockdown - was heavily centered on existing arts attendees.
“In terms of our target audience, you're trying to reach the lowest engaged people you can in the arts, and then you put the digital barriers layered over the top of that. And when you zoom out from that a little bit, it's obvious that the audience isn't going to engage with a live [online] theatre show. But I kind of felt like, at that time, this felt the right time to do something digitally. And maybe, in hindsight, we probably shouldn't have, [but] there was an urgency to do something” - Karl, First Art (CPP Ashfield, Bolsover, Mansfield and North East Derbyshire)
Whilst a sold-out show is never a bad thing, the dash to move creative activity online risked better serving only those who are already most able to access creative experiences, and exacerbating a digital and social divide in our places. That experience, and effective monitoring of the attendee data to give a true picture of the impact of that work - was important in shaping plans for supporting that community though the pandemic, and informed a later initiative to reach a wider community with a more accessible - in person - offer.
Additionally, the testing and evaluation of more challenging initiatives (such as a digital offer, in this case) can be a valuable experience in confidently championing a different kind of approach in CPP Places. Long-term, getting things wrong is valuable ammunition in advocating for the communities you know:
“The data we've got back from that suggests, and I wouldn’t even call it a failure. I just call it a learning experience. And, I think what it does as well, the depth of all the evidence gives you ammunition to have more confidence [in future decisions]. So [now] we've got the data and the confidence. And it's the data that backs up the belief” - Karl, First Art (CPP Ashfield, Bolsover, Mansfield and North East Derbyshire)
3. Fail fast, and fail better
The move to new ways of working and new types of delivery during the pandemic has brought new kinds of risk, challenge and failure. CPPs needed to test - with and alongside their communities - what might work in the new landscape of the pandemic. Inevitably, there have been times when an offer hasn’t hit the mark, and Places have had to embrace quite direct feedback from their communities:
“[We were] commissioning a brand partner. So we produced this beautiful branding brief and put it out there - and we got a load of stuff back from brand agencies saying that, you know, this is wrong. You’re asking us to share our ideas in advance of paying us. And so what we did was change that and said - gives us ideas on how you’d do the process. It [has been] a learning point for how you engage with creatives” - Zulf, The LEAP (CPP Keighley & Bradford)
In these cases, the learning-focussed approach of CPP Places - embracing feedback and being open and humble enough to change your mind and admit when things aren’t right - meant that they were well placed to evolve quickly to get to a programme that does work:
“My experience is that it's better to fail fast, and be brave enough to say, we got that wrong. So that's what we've been doing. We're getting feedback; we don't need to wait four months or two years to learn that it didn't work. We know now, let's cut our losses. Fail fast. And fail better - by learning the lessons of failure. And in that you get innovation as well. So you learn how to do things better to improve the ways of working” - Zulf, The LEAP (CPP Keighley & Bradford)
4. There are many stakeholders in defining a place's appetite for risk
CPP Place teams do not operate in isolation. On the contrary - their success depends precisely on their ability to navigate complex landscapes and build productive partnerships with a whole range of people and organisations - from individuals and community groups to councils, funders and institutions. This can profoundly shape a Place’s ability to take risks in their programme:
“[In] the relationship with the local authority, they need to be nurtured, they need to be given confidence, so you can't go faster than them if you want them to be a partner” - Nick, Transported (CPP Boston Borough and South Holland)
Some Places highlighted a tension between the CPP approach - which typically works slowly, collaboratively and responsively - and the expectations of other stakeholders. Examples shared included the requirement from local authorities to spend money by set deadlines, a (perceived or actual) expectation of programming high-profile events to be seen to be making an impact with funding, or pressure to preempt community decision-making by developing concrete delivery plans. In some cases, the pandemic has offered an opportunity to step back from these expectations and do things differently:
“I think it would be very easy, in normal times to feel a lot of pressure… in that first year, particularly, to be like, yes, we've got this huge chunk of public money, we need to be seen to be doing - and doing big stuff, rather than giving ourselves the time and permission to do the smaller, quieter relationship building stuff. And I think that [not having that pressure], that's going to be a strength ultimately” - Rebecca, Freshly Greated (CPP Great Yarmouth)
Arts Council England plays a vital role in giving Places explicit permission to try new approaches. Their response to the pandemic, in quickly adapting grant conditions to reflect the new landscape, has been vital:
“I'm amazed that I feel really so positive. And I think it's because I can see the energy we're giving to community engagement, and the fact that I've been given the okay by the Arts Council - to reprofile my budget, for example. That it's okay to be dynamic in that way. And having that permission - it just changes everything” - Rebecca, Freshly Greated (CPP Great Yarmouth)
The effectiveness of the adaptable CPP approach over lockdown, combined with close connections between CPPs and their wider stakeholders, has encouraged others to adopt and share some of their approach:
‘As a result of COVID, Arts Council England has had to be much more flexible in our approach to working with funded organisations. Out of total necessity and through our Emergency Response Funding, we've had to be able to say to organisations, ‘Obviously you’re going to have to experiment with your activities over the next year, and that’s okay’. We're putting our trust into their expertise and overtly giving them permission to try new things and learn, [saying] ‘Here's the money, you've got the idea, let's develop it together’. And I think our experience with the success of working in this way with CPPs in recent years, may have contributed to our confidence to be able to do that” - Sara, Arts Council England.
5. Conclusion: Finding confidence in uncertainty
As we approach the end of a year that could so easily have been defined by its failure, what is remarkable is the success and optimism that characterises so many Places. Whilst the pandemic has doubtless brought disappointment and cancellations, these impossibility of going ahead with existing plans has also brought time for reflection, deeper engagement and a renewed endorsement of the CPP approach:
“It's enabled me to take my foot off the accelerator. Just start to reflect on what our programme is about. Who is it for? And where do we want our biggest impacts to be? And I think I'm moving towards a sense that things should be smaller and more intimate and more gentle, at least for the next year. And so that gives people space to gently get involved to be more confident to be more expressive of themselves in their own needs” - Nick, Transported (CPP Boston Borough and South Holland).
The uncertainty of the pandemic has underlined the value of a flexible, adaptable approach, and the action learning mindset of the Places has enabled them to test, refine, and where necessary to scrap new ideas. Both the successes and the failures of new approaches trialled during the pandemic have given Places the confidence - and the evidence - to understand what their communities need in the new normal.
“My hope is that when [the] COVID storm passes, in, whichever way it's going to pass, we can come out much bigger and brighter, with some money that we have pushed backwards, and with communities who are super engaged and have been with us - through what could [have been] a massive failure of COVID. But actually, they have spent that time getting to know us, they're making the decisions with us. We’ve spent the time getting to know them, and they know that they're in our crew” - Rebecca, Freshly Greated (CPP Great Yarmouth)