Cleveland Chronicles: The Value of Innovating in Phases

This is Corey Atkins’s second post about his experience in EmcArts’s Engaging the Future program in Cleveland.


Our “Go Big or Go Home” centered society loves rushing to extremes, and extremely fast. We want cars that can go from zero to sixty miles per hour in a flash, ‘reality’ TV that skews toward the surreal, and start-up ideas good enough to vault us overnight into the pantheon of Google, Instagram and Facebook. But in our fifth Engaging the Future workshop we discussed “resourcing innovation,” and why, when it comes to new initiatives in our organizations, getting too big too quickly is more likely to lead to a figurative fight with the Winklevoss twins than to the Next Big Thing.

Using different types of capital to establish metrics for success

We began by discussing the different types of capital necessary to create an engagement ‘start-up’: Financial, Intellectual, Human, and Social. These can be applied in traditional measures of success for engagement programming—respectively, for measures like attendance or ticket sales, audience feedback or make-up, retention, or social media hits. But as we talked, we began to realize that assessing the ‘ROI’ of these kinds of capital, when it comes to measuring the success of innovation, could also be a red herring.

measuringtapeHow do we actually measure success?

If 12 people, not 75, showed up for the first foray into a new program, did that mean it was a failure? Not necessarily. The program may have been rich in intellectual capital (say, bringing dramaturgy, community and artists into an interaction where each part energized the others), but poor in social capital (word about the event didn’t get out effectively, partnerships weren’t formed or didn’t pay off). What if Mark Zuckerberg had given up because the same jerks who wouldn’t let him into their finals club didn’t like Facebook, either? If that short-sighted (and fraternity-based) measure of social capital had outweighed the intellectual or financial, we may still be airing the mundane details of our lives—horrors!—on MySpace. So then, when aiming for successful engagement innovation, how do you measure “success”?

Phases are essential, ongoing, and strategic

The key to the “success” question is the utilization of phases. Your mom was probably right when she dismissed your high school Goth period as “just” a phase. But when building a new initiative or program, phases are essential, ongoing, and strategic. Innovation can be approached in three phases:

1. Design, Research and Experimentation

2. Repeated Prototyping and Assessment

3. Implementation and Scaling

When you use these distinct phases as parameters for metrics and gathering data, goals will be clearer and more immediately reachable. You’ll realize that ‘success’ is entirely subjective; in fact, your definition of success will very likely change. Phases of innovation let you understand and embrace ‘failure’ as an important step in assessing metrics and goals. Phases help you understand where you are in the process of development, and, ultimately, support growth in a calculated and manageable way.

A new strategic plan at Cleveland Play House

I’ve been at Cleveland Play House for a season and a half, and in that time we’ve implemented four major engagement initiatives, in addition to countless other show-specific programs and events. When I began, it was a brand new position at a time of major organizational change, and year one was all about experimentation. But this season, coinciding with the development of a new, organization-wide Strategic Plan, we’re aware that we need to approach our engagement efforts with a more specific process and eye.

jump-aheadFacing frustration when skipping phases

During the Resourcing Innovation workshop we discussed how each of the four kinds of capital can function through phases and across time. This process brought me to a realization: although the majority of the initiatives I’ve begun at CPH have been successful by traditional standards, they have left me feeling somewhat frustrated. I realized that this frustration is generally because every single one of these programs was started at Phase Three (Implementation and Scaling). Perhaps too caught up in the energy of our ‘re-launch’ in our new facility and ambitious season, we decided to Go Big. And there have been many days when, as we grapple with surprising or unintended outcomes, I’ve wanted to Go Home.

Starting a new initiative from Phase One – not Phase Three

We’re now in the process of working with a tremendous group of collaborators at the Cleveland Public Library system on an exciting and original new access program, and my colleagues and I are very conscious of what we learned about phases in workshop #5. We’re starting in Phase One (Design, Research and Experimentation) and working together with our partners to design a program that makes sense for us both. We’re also limiting the experiment to just three branches, not the whole 20-branch library system. As part of our research, we’re only publicizing within these three branches, hoping to get a pulse on the intrinsic interest of those who already use the libraries’ services. (In the interest of our Phase One goals I’m being purposefully vague; I’ll share more details in future posts.)

Being strategic through phases pays off

In Phase One, the program may be an awkward teenager: imagine Mark Zuckerberg jilted by a girl and plotting all alone in his room. But, by strategically employing phases to measure and plan the growth of future programming, I know we can grow from the sometimes uncomfortable, but calculated, risk of that initial phase.  As a result, we can continue on to the success that we envision for ourselves, and our community. Take that, Winkelvoss twins.

Corey Atkins joined Cleveland Play House in 2011 as the company’s first Artistic Associate-Engagement. He works to connect staff and audiences—both current and new—to CPH’s mission, vision and work through initiatives and events that spring from the company’s artistic core. In his first season he has created exciting new programming and community connections, both in and outside the theatre walls, enriching patron experience and engaging new, younger and more diverse audiences. He holds an M.F.A. in Directing from the University of Texas at Austin.

  • L. Corwin Christie

    While great, this take-away sounds like a luxury for smaller organizations with limited resources. I agree that we can reframe our measurements of success, but I would argue that “Going Big” to a small organization WOULD be taking the time and resources necessary to follow in-depth Phases 1 and 2. Wouldn’t limited resources prolong Phase 1 and Phase 2 (so that the project wouldn’t detract from the day-to-day operations)? Technological changes add to the pressure to act quickly, and a prolonged process may make the result obsolete/outdated by the time it is “ready” to be successfully implemented. For a small organization, might the design phase be rough and research/assessment/experimentation concurrent with implementation because it is actually a more manageable investment than drawing out the first two phases? Can your lesson be scaled or modified for smaller organizations with lean budgets and small staff?

    • Hi, Corwin,

      Thanks for this thought-provoking response!

      First, I want to be clear that the types of projects I’m thinking of are those which are rooted in deep organizational innovation and change. I’ve spoken with others who give examples of projects that, to my mind, are ultimately marketing and not engagement (i.e. “we want to create an app to get younger audiences to connect with X show”), and therefore really time sensitive. I obviously don’t know what types of projects you have in mind with your response, but I want to be clear that what I’M addressing are projects that address the bigger, hairier adaptive changes. Though technology does make our world a more fast-paced place, true change takes time, no matter what.

      I also think you hit the nail on the head with your last sentence. Scaling is all-important, whether you’re Lincoln Center or an arts army of one. Although CPH is larger than some organizations (and certainly smaller than many), the actual staff whose time is dedicated solely to these Engagement initiatives IS, in fact, very small: ma and an apprentice. I probably know very well how you feel–“my resources are few so let’s just get this think UP AND RUNNING and taken care of already, for the love of all that’s holy!”–which is probably what led to going big out of the gate so often in the past. And that’s what has led us to now need to go back and revise an already -moving machine. It’s BECAUSE resource are always limited that I think the phases mater. First, phases allow you to scale resources to the project–be that limited staff, money, groundwork or infrastructure, etc. Phases should, I think, force you to think realistically, which ultimately leads to clearer planning and goal-setting: why do we want to innovate in this way, and how will we know that we’ve hit on a real path to that change? I hear your concern that if any one phase is drawn out ad nauseum there could a risk of losing not only impact, but passion. But also, if any phase is slighted or skipped you can run the risk of letting the project grow formlessly, and eventually out of control. Instead of a hedge that took longer to grow but is now well-manicured and effective, you have the plant form “Little Shop of Horrors.”

      Also, as I’ve begun to be more consistent and concerted with using the idea of phases, I’ve found that you know when it’s time to move on to the next phase–or, likewise, when you need to adapt current phase efforts based on what you’re learning. Because of the clear structures that implementing in phases allows–demands–,limited resources go further and the eventual Phase 3 impact is more targeted, effective, and realistically sustainable. And for a small staff already stretched thin I think that last one is KEY. If it’s true (and I think it is) that people choose a career in the non-profit world out of passion, then it’s true that adding more people only adds more passion, which means we’ll always want to do more than our capacity, however big or small that capacity. Revising my approach to innovation has driven home the value of the old adage, “If you can’t help yourself, how can you help anyone else?” And the answer, I think, is to help yourself by being practically passionate and innovating in phases.

  • Corwin

    Corey: Thank you so much for your reply! I have found your pieces covering your experience at CPH incredibly insightful, and I thank you for writing such a great response (that gives more food for thought). I am so intrigued (and, ultimately, heartened) to know that it is the work of a few that is guiding (or empowering, perhaps?) the larger-scale change that you are experiencing in your organization. I am very much looking forward to your future posts with details of your phase-by-phase experiences.