The ArtsWave team met for the second New Pathways for the Arts workshop with our colleagues from 19 other local arts organizations. This workshop concentrated on exploring different frameworks for innovative practice and participating in exercises designed to spark truly innovative thinking.
For this post, I wanted to share my responses to three of the frameworks we discussed and outline my favorite lateral thinking exercise from the workshop.
Exploring three frameworks for change
Our workshop began by looking at three different frameworks for change. Richard Evans, our facilitator and EmcArts president, encouraged us to think about a recent change at our organization as we considered each framework, and identify parts of our change processes that we had executed well and poorly.
Acknowledging the emotional process of change
For me, Glasl and Lemson’s “U-process” framework offered one of the most important insights of the day: change is an emotional process.
The linchpin in the U-process is “testing the will for change.” This idea states that you must deal with doubt, resentment, and fear before moving forward with the process of renewing shared values and implementing a new vision and strategy. It asks change agents to help stakeholders uncover and examine their feelings about the change before attempting to embrace new ideas.
While we might wish to approach change from a purely objective and analytical place, we have to respect the fact that change can provoke a strong emotional response. You would think that arts organizations that make it their business to evoke powerful responses in their customers and rely on strong emotional ties to the work to motivate their staff would naturally understand this idea. Yet, I have often been in the middle of strategic planning retreats where the directive is to “leave emotion out of this” and “look at this from a business perspective.” It’s refreshing for New Pathways to remind us that good businesses pay close attention to their customers’ and employees’ feelings, especially in times of change.
Finding time and space to innovate and fail
Finally, we took a look at the EmcArts Framework for Innovation, a sort of hybrid, Mobius strip process that relies on a small team early on. This team must have “island time” that can be used to build adaptive capacity across the organization, and a repeating prototype phase that allows for testing and failure.
Creating “island time” away from daily pressures
Several people commented on the paradox of needing to give the innovation team “island time” to work differently away from the prevailing assumptions and daily pressures of the organization. “Island time” gives the team a chance to practice lateral thinking, investigate practices outside the field that could be adapted to solve the problem, and allow fledgling ideas to develop. As a person who loves generating ideas and talking them through, this sounds like an ideal experience—although perhaps that’s because I imagine it happening on an actual Caribbean island.
One participant asked, “So, at what point to you build the bridge back to the mainland?” Several people had been burned by the experience of creating a new plan in isolation with a small team, only to meet serious resistance when they brought the work to other stakeholders.
I like New Pathways instructions on this point: “Communicate outside the team more than you think is necessary about the proposed innovation.” For our team, this question made us realize that we needed clarification about how and when our team would be integrating this innovation work with the rest of the organization.
A prototyping phase allows for experimentation
The idea of prototyping is strongly appealing. “Fail safe and fail early” reminds me of the Samuel Beckett quote we used to have painted on the wall of the rehearsal hall at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company: “No matter, try again. Fail again. Fail better next time.”
As artists, we embrace the concepts of experimentation, rehearsal, and trial and error. We understand that making art requires taking a risk. Yet, arts organizations have become incredibly risk-averse. We hate the idea of failure and many ideas die on the vine because we cannot stomach the idea of telling funders and board members that we tried something and failed.
Trying out innovations in a low-stakes environment
EmcArts points out that prototyping means repeatedly testing new ideas in low-stakes environments, with clarity on what you’re trying to learn from each experiment. In theater, an actor might try delivering a line thirty different ways in rehearsal, but then adjust it after the director watches audience response in previews (a low-stakes environment with lower ticket prices and no reviewers). We need to identify safe places to rehearse and preview innovations and not be afraid to return to them again and again until we get the response we want.
Richard Evans noted that for small organizations, prototypes often wind up being major business decisions because they feel that they lack time and money to run small experiments. Again, it strikes me how much we approach our work from a position of scarcity. Do we really not have time to test and learn? Why do we understand the value of that time for artists but not for administrators? How can funders like ArtsWave encourage experimentation and productive failure?
“Innovative transfer”: an exercise to generate new ideas and shift emotional response
After thinking about ways to organize an effective change process, we returned to the most daunting aspect of innovation: generating truly new ideas.
We did an exercise called “Innovative Transfer” that showed us how considering our own emotional response to different kinds of change in our lives can provide insight on coping with adaptive challenges. When asked to list feelings that our adaptive challenge inspired, I listed the following:
- nervousness about meeting new people
Then, we were asked to list other situations that evoked some of these same feelings. I immediately thought of the first day at a new job. We then listed strategies that we had used to meet that challenge successfully. My list:
- Listen more than talk
- Ask questions about others’ work and history
- Leverage known contacts to make new connections
- Share a personal story
Transferring emotional response to an adaptive challenge
For the final part of the exercise, we thought about whether these successful approaches suggested new ways to tackle our adaptive challenge.
Aha! We could spend time listening first to the community volunteers and groups we want to engage, using focus groups or surveys. We could build a collection of personal testimonials from stakeholders.
Not only did this help me breakthrough to some clear and practical ideas, but I felt more confident about my ability to execute those strategies. After all, I’d survived that first day at ArtsWave two years ago! What a sneaky and effective emotional transfer.
Thinking about next steps for the ArtsWave team
Our team agreed that next key steps would be clarifying how our process should dovetail with our strategic planning process now underway. We will also find time to bring our fellow staff members and board members up to speed on our learning, and check on their emotional responses. Personally, I resolved to think about the communications department as more of a laboratory and less of a factory floor.
What experiments can I run to help test our new assumptions and hypotheses? Stay tuned!