Who Is Responsible for Building Your Organization’s Adaptive Capacity?

Stability within an organization provides a good safety net. But to create something bold and new, your team must commit to adaptability.

It’s important to balance stability and adaptability within an organization.

This is the fourth installment in the Cincinnati Chronicles, Rebecca Bromels’s reflections on her experiences with ArtsWave in the EmcArts New Pathways program.

I’ll admit it—“Building Capacity” is the workshop topic I was most looking forward to exploring. After discussing different frameworks for innovation and how much time, space, and teamwork is required to generate ideas that are truly “outside the box,” I really wanted to understand how leaders made building adaptive capacity a regular practice inside their organizations.

Of course, the answer is that no one solution works for every organization. Rather, each organization has to develop its own unique set of adaptive capacities.

Two types of organizational capacities

EmcArts defines organizational capacity as “a set of shared knowledge, skills or resources that an organization is able to consistently and reliably count on over time in order to design and execute work.” This can include everything from box office procedures, to the structure of annual fundraising plans, to rehearsal schedules for developing new work.

There are two types of organizational capacities: stabilizing and adaptive.

An organization that excels in stabilizing capacities maintains consistency and predictability. Both inside and outside, it appears to “run on rails.” But the momentum that is created by these capacities can be very hard to shift in the face of change. Feelings of security, safety and contentment make stakeholders loathe to question the status quo.

By contrast, organizations that are strong in adaptive capacities are, in my experience, thrilling environments to work in. When I joined Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, the organization was just five years old and rapidly expanding in all directions. At age 22, I felt like I was getting in on the ground floor of a promising start-up. I got to create new programs like the Shakespeare Summer Camp from scratch and work with any artist or staff member I thought could be helpful on those projects. There’s an excitement in coming to work when everyone feels they are working together to create real change. Some of our staff used to refer to themselves as a pirate crew—and I enjoyed being co-captain of that merry band in later years.

Balancing adaptive and stabilizing capacities

However, if there is not enough stabilizing capacity to balance all of this adaptive behavior, that exhilaration can dissolve into terror. Rich in ideas and poor in financial capital, those start-up years at CSC taught me some hard lessons about how hard it is to work in an organization that is trying to build the plane and do aerial maneuvers at the same time. People got stressed out and burned out. When a major programming innovation was implemented without time spent prototyping and experimenting on a smaller scale, the company nearly imploded. I’m happy to report that I was one of the many individuals who got to step up at that point and help move the company forward to a place of artistic and financial stability—Cincinnati Shakespeare Company is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary and become one of only 5 theatres in the nation to complete Shakespeare’s canon.

Ideally, an organization develops both stabilizing AND adaptive capacities. Innovation happens because of a disciplined structure to vet, test, and push out new ideas. The high-wire act of creating something new comes with a strong safety net.

Building adaptive capacity

The trick to systematizing innovation is to identify and develop adaptive capacities that lead to innovation—such as working across functions, something that happens automatically in many small, under-staffed arts organizations.

EmcArts has developed a remarkable rubric that identifies the adaptive capacities in highly innovative organizations. As participants, we were invited to have staff and Board members complete the rubric for our organization. Independently, we rated our organization on a variety of behaviors—from conflict resolution to support for innovation teams to leaders’ vision for change. Our combined scores revealed the innovation practices that organizations excel at as well as areas that might need work. At ArtsWave, this got us thinking more about how our organization is staffed and how we might work on issues of organizational culture to make sure that the strong vision of change from our leaders filtered down through all of our systems and procedures.

ArtsWave updates

This workshop landed at a busy time for our organization as we prepared to launch our annual community campaign in February, welcomed our new Chief Operating Officer Alecia Kintner (who has been a member of our New Pathways team from the beginning of the workshops), and continued to develop a five-year strategic plan for the organization. As the strategic plan took shape, I noticed how some strategies and goals related to stabilizing capacities while others were clearly innovations and efforts intended to improve adaptive capacities.

One of the questions that came up during the workshop was, “How do you make Board members champions of innovation and change when they’ve been recruited into the organization because of their affinity for the status quo?” My colleague who runs our arts Board training program wondered aloud if we should start including a discussion of the Board’s role in innovation as part of the series. Since many of the board recruits are matched with small organizations that may have great adaptive capacities, how can we train them to encourage innovation within those organizations?

[Header image from the Reykjavik Museum of Photography via Flickr.]

Rebecca Bromels is the Director of Communications of ArtsWave. A twelve-year veteran of the local arts community, she brings a unique perspective to ArtsWave and its expanded focus on creating and sustaining community through the arts. Ms. Bromels works with ArtsWave staff and volunteers to bring the organization’s new mission to life through unique events and engaging dialogues that connect people and advance the vibrancy of our community through the arts.