Chicago Chronicles: Lincoln Park Zoo on The Roots of Innovation

New Yorker Cartoon by Leo Cullum

An accountant, a scientist, a fundraiser and an educator walk into a room….the beginning of a bad joke, right? A casting call for the season’s newest sit-com? Nope, it’s the makings of an innovation-focused museum dream team representing Lincoln Park Zoo in EmcArts New Pathways Chicago program. Though we’re all game for a good laugh, our team has set our sights on something more serious – seizing this opportunity to foster innovation at our beloved institution.

I’ll be blogging here on ArtsFwd about each of the six workshops, sharing what we’ve learned and how we’re applying it at home. I invite you to post questions and comments and I’ll do my best to respond. My goal is to make our process as transparent as our results, so that others can benefit from our successes and challenges as we attempt to boldly address the barriers to innovation in our institution.

Workshop #1: The Roots of Innovation

As we headed into the first workshop, we realized that it’s a bit ironic that a zoo specializing in the care, study and conservation of species representing millions of years of evolution, natural selection and adaptive change hasn’t fully embraced the spirit of innovation. A few minutes observing the giraffes craning their necks to reach that last tender, delicious leaf or a flash of the male zebra’s stripes as he dashes by are daily visual reminders that the natural world is full of and open to innovation.

So then why are we so risk-averse? What are our barriers to innovation? Of course, the answers to these questions are numerous, complex and specialized. So, it was especially helpful that the first workshop provided a much needed opportunity to reflect on key issues related to innovation and common struggles. The workshop provided a critical–but fair– retrospective analysis demonstrating how our pursuit of the Holy Grail– “organizational stability”–may in fact thwart our attempts and suppress our appetite for innovation. But wait…stability isn’t a bad thing, right? No, but it can be if the demand for stability is dominant and pervasive, leading to the exclusion of creativity, ingenuity, responsiveness and adaptability. To achieve optimal sustained public impact and value (i.e. to advance the mission of our organization with maximal public support), these forces must be in balance; the pursuit of organizational sustainability must be counterbalanced by a commitment to maximize our adaptive capacity.

A world-renowned institution and cultural icon in the city of Chicago, Lincoln Park Zoo is nearing our 150th anniversary. With a large and active board of directors, world-class facilities, expert staff, countless dedicated volunteers and generous financial supporters, the future of Lincoln Park Zoo has never been brighter.

Lincoln Park Zoo is stable, established and trusted, so when it comes to overcoming technical challenges, the zoo leads the pack. As a science-based organization, we excel at data-driven problem-solving and rational strategic planning. Yet our day-to-day decision-making is typically constrained to a set framework, in which we often fall back on the tried-and-true approach, industry standards or “best practices”, while shying away from “next practices”, innovation or risk-taking. However, we recognize the need to move from asking the question “Why?” to “Why not?” For Lincoln Park Zoo, the New Pathways Project comes at a pivotal time, launching us toward an even more dynamic future.

Identifying an Adaptive Challenge

During the final exercise of the workshop, we were challenged to pinpoint an existing assumption within our organization and to define the corresponding adaptive challenge – to name a long held, but potentially flawed belief – and then to parse out the nuances, identifying how this assumption is holding us back. The final step in this exercise was to formulate a new hypothesis – a revised statement that pointed toward a more desirable outcome working to advance our mission. Finally, we were coached to create a revised hypothesis, a new statement pointing us toward a mission and action oriented future.

As a free zoo in a major urban area, we are often confronted with the challenge of serving an incredibly diverse and seemingly infinite visitorship. With multiple gates and no turnstiles in place, we have never had the ability to accurately count our daily visitors in an affordable, sustainable way, much less understanding our visitor’s motivations for visiting, attitudes and opinions about Lincoln Park Zoo in advance of their arrival. As a result, we have limited ourselves in our understanding of our visitors and have attempted to be everything to everyone all the time. Not an effective or sustainable strategy.

Through this process, a new hypothesis began to emerge, “Because we try to be everything to everyone – and this isn’t possible – we will advance our ability to make data driven decisions about our programs and services to maximize public value without being paralyzed by every small constituency.” We believe this new proposition provides us with clear direction to provide more effective and successful programs and services, and ultimately maximizing public value.

My Takeaway

In my 15-year zoo and aquarium-based career, I have been fortunate to work with a number of individuals who have consistently fostered innovative thinking and adaptive change by renouncing long-held assumptions and challenging themselves and others to “Just say yes”, even when all other arrows point towards “no”. As a result, I aspire to consistently respond to new ideas and risk-taking with a “yes”, approaching challenges and opportunities with a focus on what’s possible, instead of what can’t be or what’s been done before. Fortunately, I’m not alone in this endeavor, as Lincoln Park Zoo and my zoo colleagues are equally engaged in the “innovation conversation.”

I’m closing with perhaps the most significant insight to date on the topic of innovation for me personally. It may not be particularly illuminating to the reader, but bear with me! In reviewing this blog entry, I had the realization that as I aspire to be an adaptive leader, to truly embrace innovation and to foster an adaptive culture at Lincoln Park Zoo, it’s not just my response to innovation that matters. I too need to be an innovator! I embrace this as a challenge to myself. Not only do I want to recognize and endorse innovation, I also need to challenge the status quo, by creating and imbuing innovation throughout my own work. This team process inspires me to continue to make Lincoln Park Zoo the place where people gather to learn and wonder—not only at the diversity and beauty of our natural world, but also at the innovative spirit reflected throughout the zoo. Stay tuned, the best is yet come!

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