Identifying Adaptive Strengths and Weaknesses

In order to sustain public value, arts organizations must strike a balance between being stable and adaptive.

Innovative Stuff

This is the fourth installment in the Chicago Chronicles, Rachel Bergren’s reflections on her experiences with the Lincoln Park Zoo in the EmcArts New Pathways program.

In my career as a zoo professional, I have had the pleasure and privilege of meeting some pretty amazing individuals – both people and animals. Recently, I met Simone, a raven who lives at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island. Simone sustained injuries and was rescued and treated by the humane society, where he was kept in close quarters to facilitate his care. His physical recovery progressed in this setting, but Simone seemed disengaged with his caregivers. After his recovery, it was determined that Simone wasn’t strong enough to live on his own, so he came to live at the zoo, where his enclosure is spacious and filled with items that he finds visually and intellectually stimulating. His trainer at the zoo describes Simone as a completely different bird than from his time at the humane society.

Corvids, the family of birds to which ravens belong, are capable of very complex cognitive abilities, including tool use and problem solving. You might say they have very strong adaptive capacities. Simone is no exception. He is responding well to his new home because his enclosure at the zoo and the training program provide an optimal balance: a stable environment, and opportunities to try new activities and behaviors.

Simone’s story is an animal-inspired illustration of our most recent New Pathways workshop in Chicago, where we explored individual and organizational capacities – the knowledge, skills and resources that we can consistently and reliably count on in order to do our work.

Stable organizations vs. adaptive organizations

Like Simone, arts organizations have the tendency to operate within one of two opposing “comfort zones.” Some organizations are celebrated for their staying power and constancy. Individuals associated with stable organizations describe themselves as feeling “confident,” “efficient,” and “secure.”

Other organizations are admired for their risk-taking, experimental and inclusive nature. Individuals operating in adaptive environments often report that their work is “engaging,” “exciting,” and “creative.”

However, when taken to the extreme and without leaving space for the other, each of these tendencies can be detrimental to the overall health and longevity of the organization.

Identifying stability is relatively easy

A view of the Lincoln Park Zoo.
A view of the Lincoln Park Zoo.

To me, stability is easier to recognize as an organizational trait. Stabilizing characteristics are visible and tangible, especially in a city like Chicago, where there are many long-lived, cultural organizations. But excessively stable organizations may become synonymous with “boring” and “obsolete.” We may be a century’s old “pillar in our community,” but have no relevance to the young families who walk by our gate every day. Likewise, overly adaptive organizations may be seen as “chaotic” and “ephemeral.” Without stabilizing capacities, today’s good ideas get lost.

In order to build and promulgate sustained public impact and value, organizations must strike a balance between these two worlds.

Identifying adaptability is often difficult

Uncovering an organization’s adaptive traits can be more challenging.

Yet, there are some telltale signs of adaptive organizations, such as: engaging in collaborative initiatives, responding flexibly to customers and constituencies, and designing and implementing new ventures. But how do we know if we are optimizing our adaptive abilities and, more importantly, how do we know which of our adaptive muscles needs strengthening?

Self-assessment using an innovation rubric

As part of the EmcArts New Pathways program, Lincoln Park Zoo completed an online Innovation Rubric to self-assess our adaptive capacities.

Each of the 24 respondents was asked to rate the zoo’s capacity to innovate across three different focus areas, including 43 specific capacities. For each capacity in the Innovation Rubric, four different behaviors – representing varying levels of adaptive capacity – are described, and respondents select one rating (on a scale of 1 to 4) for each capacity.

Lincoln Park Zoo scored the highest within the Engaging Stakeholders and Relating to the External Environment focus area, reflecting how the zoo’s planning procedures make use of findings from external trends and innovations. With a rating of 3.04 (out of 4.0), this is an area in which the zoo shows strong adaptive muscles. This finding is consistent with Lincoln Park Zoo’s vision to be the preeminent 21st-century zoo, setting and raising the standards within the zoo and aquarium community.

The zoo scored the lowest in the Leading Innovation focus area, indicating that the zoo’s decision-making processes for conflicts are clear to some, but lack flexibility. With a rating of 1.96 (out of 4.0), this is an area where strengthening is needed. While we wisely assess external forces, when a clear path or direction is not obvious, we struggle to make decisions, a state I affectionately refer to as “analysis paralysis.”

Acknowledging the need to be reflective

An organization must be self-aware and intentional in making the changes needed to build up its adaptive muscles. The Innovation Rubric exercise provided important information about our adaptive strengths and deficiencies at the Lincoln Park Zoo. We are now better prepared to focus on improving our abilities related to conflict resolution. Likewise, we can promote innovation by sustaining our practice of including timely discussions on findings from the external environment into our planning processes.

Have you or your organization used any tools like the Innovation Rubric to think about your adaptive strengths and weaknesses? The ArtsFwd Toolkit also provides several “quick bites” for your innovative thinking and examples of activities to try out at your own organization.

Rachel Bergren is Lincoln Park Zoo's Vice President for Education.

  • Hi Rachel, I am a sucker for parables featuring birds, but I think that Simone’s story is a great way to illustrate what’s possible when things are shaken up (in the case of arts organizations, when an innovation-friendly environment is kick-started or established). How did you follow up this initial assessment with the Innovation Rubric? Are staff members encouraged to think in terms of these competencies day to day? Do you come back to the rubric every so often to see how you’re doing with respect to your starting point? I’m curious because one the things I think about a lot is how to combine this kind of high-level thinking about organizational competencies – and what makes innovation (or balance between innovation and stability) possible – with daily and yearly organizational cycles.

    • Rachel Bergren

      Hi Anna! Thanks for your comments and questions. I absolutely can relate to your wonderings about how to take a high level analysis like the Innovation Rubric from the theoretical to the practical. Honestly…we are still processing this information and have yet to determine exactly how we will use it moving forward! My initial thoughts are that we need to incorporate aspects of the compentencies into our strategic planning process—identifying goals related to building on our strengths (such as, our natural inclination to look outwardly), while tackling areas where improvement is needed (as with our apparent aversion to decision-making). Integrating innovation competencies into our strategic plan and preformance measures will be critically important, because if it isn’t in the plan, then it isn’t a priority.

      We intend to start a new strategic planning process this summer, in fact; we are wrapping up our current strategic plan in the next year. So, the timing of this new self-awareness is fortuitous as we embark on our next phase of planning!

  • Rachel, Thanks for your response. Your approach sounds similar to ours here at UMS (our UMS Lobby project was part of the EmcArts Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts). We often come back to the spirit of innovation and self-awareness generated during that process, and perhaps related, the years that followed this process of innovation surrounding the Lobby project involved a heavy dose of change in other areas of our organization. I think you’re right when you say that if it isn’t in the plan, then it isn’t a priority. I continue to explicitly incorporate some of the competencies which we identified during our innovation process into my work plan and objectives for each year, for example, so that my work is evaluated against development of these competencies. We’re moving into another phase of our Lobby project next season and I’m looking forward to continuing to track how we do. Thanks for sharing your procedure for gathering this feedback; I’m keeping it in my back pocket as part of the tool kit for continuing innovation.

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