EmcArts Innovation Lab: Guiding Principles for Applicants

What Makes a Project a Good Fit for the Lab?

The Innovation Lab is a non-traditional program with a non-traditional application, so we thought it would be useful to talk through some of the underlying ideas of the program and give a few examples to help guide your thinking.

Last week, I sat down with Richard Evans, President of EmcArts, and prompted him with a few questions. The podcast of that conversation is available in a couple other forms: a video presentation or the full transcript below. As always, as you prepare your application, don’t hesitate to ask for help. You can write me at LDreyer@emcarts.org with questions and to schedule a consultation.

LD: Hi, I’m Liz Dreyer, the Manager of National Programs here at EmcArts and I’m talking with Richard Evans this afternoon about our Innovation Labs.  It’s a non-traditional program with a non-traditional application.  We thought it would be useful to talk through some of the underlying ideas of the program and give a few examples to help guide your thinking as you move through the application process. So, Richard — can we start with the EmcArts definition and approach to innovation?

RE: When we started the Innovation Labs, there was no useful definition of organizational innovation so we created one and the program is really based on that.  We did a lot of research.  We came up with three parts to this.  We see organizational innovations as examples of organizational change that are based upon some shift in the underlying assumptions that organizations hold which have been in the past reliable predictors of success. We find that innovation really is built upon a shift in those assumptions.  Finding a assumption that you’re questioning where there’s evidence that contradicts the assumption and then finding a new hypothesis or proposition that you can test that might be more predictive of success in the future. So innovation derives from this shift in underlying assumptions.  It’s therefore discontinuous from previous practice. In other words, it’s not just an extension of what you’ve done before, it’s a new direction that you’re taking with your organization. And finally, we believe that those new pathways must be ones which show a pretty good sign that they will create public impact and value. We firmly believe that innovation is, in fact, an organizational discipline; something every organization can learn and in the Innovation Lab we aim to try to build the adaptive muscles, if you like, of organizations that are participants.

LD: We talk a lot a lot about the difference between technical and adaptive challenges.  I was hoping that you might spend a little time about why we differentiate, what we mean, and why focus on adaptive challenges.

RE:  Yes, we find this a really useful distinction.  Technical challenges are those kinds of problems or challenges we can solve by incremental change. We don’t need a breakthrough here; we just need to improve the way we do things. so, we see technical challenges as extensions of business-as usual.  And we’re all used to those.  We do them every day in our work. The changes that are going on in our environment, however, mean that the other kind of challenge — adaptive challenges — are becoming more and more important. An adaptive challenge, then, is one where there is no established solution. There’s no consultant you could bring in to direct you towards contemporary best practices and help you select one. It has to be the group of people who are the organization who come to grips with new ways of working, new ways of doing business. And it’s our experience that the muscles we use to respond to adaptive challenges are less developed in our organizations and the Lab is a way to try to strengthen those.  And they can use the Lab to develop, design and prototype an innovative response to that adaptive challenge.

LD: So when they come to us for the Lab, how far down the road should an organization be in addressing a strategic response to an adaptive challenge?

RE: Yes, we often say we’re looking for “half-baked” ideas.  We mean that in a positive sense because an organization needs to have identified a significant adaptive challenge.  But on the other hand, if they’ve really worked it through and they’ve done the difficult work of coming up with an innovative strategy and all they really need is an operational plan to implement that, then I think they’re too far down the road.  So between those two areas are what we call “half-baked” ideas.  And, if an organization has begun to mobilize around a strategic response to a major adaptive challenge, has begun to have conversations, is asking itself hard questions about what kind of strategy they should develop but is not yet clear exactly what that should be, then I think it’s very well placed to make the best possible use of the Lab. Let me give you a couple of examples: There was a contemporary music ensemble which has come into the Lab which was concerned as it grew not to just create a traditional non-profit arts organization with staffing on one side and musicians on the other. But rather to utilize its musicians as its staff and to make its staff come from the musician complement. So there would be no distinction between its administration and its artistry. This is a radical approach for that organization. It may not be new to the world but it’s certainly new to that organization. They knew they wanted to develop this new model but exactly how that would look–how the musicians would be able to deal with this, what skills they’d be looking for and so on–were all to be tested. So that was a “half-baked” idea. Another example might be with a theater company. A regional theater company that knew that it had an under-utilized theater in its complex and that it wasn’t attracting the kind of younger, more adventurous theater-goer that it wanted to in its overall portfolio of artistic offerings. So they knew they could use this new space. They also realized that they needed to put the project into the hands of their younger staff members who had tremendous creative chops and represented the demographic they were looking for. So having made those decisions they began to question how should we go about this? They didn’t know what the theater experiences would be like. They didn’t know which local companies they might partner with. So that was again a clear sense of direction – a clear sense of what the goals were – of this project, but a lot of space for prototyping different kinds of activities as part of the Lab.

LD: Are there any other areas that you would encourage applicants to focus on when they’re sending in their applications?

RE: We ask organizations to tell us something about an innovation you tried to do in the past that didn’t work. I’d encourage organizations that are applying to be brutally honest. If an organization doesn’t give us propaganda, but rather gives us an insightful analysis of why their previous innovation may not have worked as they hoped, how they learned from that and how that affected their practice going forward. The other area I’d say is particularly useful is the section of the application where we ask organizations to give us an idea of the Innovation Team that they would put together for the Lab. We say in the application that we encourage these teams to consist of multiple constituents — board members, staff members, artists, and particularly outsiders who will bring a new perspective and ask those kinds of questions which people inside the organization probably wouldn’t ask. We don’t hold organizations to the people they name, but we do find that that can be a really helpful way for us to understand the scope of the project and the kind of new thinking that they want to bring to bear.

LD: Great! Thank you. Is there anything else — any other piece of advice that you have for people looking into applying to the Lab?

RE: Well, Liz, the last thing that I would say is that I’d encourage you as an organization to bring multiple voices together in preparing the application. We’ve had a number of applications that come from just a single voice – whether that voice is the Executive Director, or someone who is working in development. And you can usually tell that. It’s usually stronger if a variety of people have come together. And maybe their voices are actually heard in the application. We encourage organizations to use direct quotes in the proposal to give us a sense of the approaches that are being brought forward and the perspectives of different people in the organization. So think of the application as a group effort. One of the reasons I say that is that we’ve heard from a lot of applicants even though they may not have been successful at getting into the Lab that the application process was really valuable for them because it brought them together to have a kind of conversation they hadn’t had before.

Note: EmcArts is now accepting applications for Round 3 of the Innovation Lab for Museums, our newest Innovation Lab program. The RFP can be downloaded here on ArtsFwd or on the EmcArts website. The deadline for applications is June 5, 2013. You can contact Liz Dreyer with questions or for consultation at ldreyer@emcarts.org. We look forward to reading your application!

Liz Dreyer is the Senior Program Manager at EmcArts, managing the Community Innovation Labs as well as the Arts Leaders as Cultural Innovators (ALACI) program. She is also a Process Facilitator in the New Pathways programs.