Making Innovation “Stick” with an Adaptive Leadership Circle

ESO musicians work with schoolchildren at Alexander First Nation, one of its programmatic prototypes aimed at developing deep partnerships with local, indigenous communities.

“How do we get this work to stick?”

This is one of the questions that EmcArts facilitators get most often from participants in adaptive leadership training programs.

This question was particularly pressing for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Winspear Centre, a large, Canadian symphony struggling with how to build more substantive relationships not only with various local audiences but, crucially, across internal, organizational divisions. With a 60-year history, an administrative staff of 31, and 56 full-time musicians, ESO functioned according to a traditional, hierarchical model that made communication and collaboration across departments challenging. As participants in the New Pathways for the Arts | Edmonton program, much of the work of ESO’s innovation team was focused on building bridges across these divides to allow for a freer flow of creative ideas across the organization, deeper collaboration between teams, and a greater tolerance for risk-taking and experimentation.

As ESO’s prototyping work through the New Pathways program developed over the course of a year (2016), their team became energized by the strides they were making: promising new programs centered around deep partnerships with First Nations communities and local health and wellbeing service providers, as well as new modes of internal communication between administrative staff and musicians. The question of how to continue this experimentation and maintain the momentum they were building became integral to their work. With help from their EmcArts facilitator they experimented with ways to institutionalize a process of sharing the language and culture of innovation with new employees. The result, ESO’s Adaptive Leadership Circle, is a self-directed group of new staff members who meet monthly to learn about and discuss adaptive leadership and innovation.

In one prototype, ESO partnered with Buchanan Centre for Parkinson’s to pair ESO musicians with Parkinson’s patients who had previously played an instrument and wanted to get back into playing.

Active since the fall of 2016, the Circle comprises 12 staff members and is designed to allow for veteran members to cycle off as new members join. The goals of the Circle are three-fold: to introduce a broad swath of the organization to prototype projects already underway; to share adaptive leadership concepts and frameworks with new employees; and to support and encourage members to approach their work at ESO with an innovative mindset.

All new members are asked to identify a complex challenge that they are facing in their work at ESO—a challenge that is proving resistant to “best practices” or technical solutions—and share it with the Circle. Much of the work of the Circle is then focused on supporting members as they generate and test adaptive responses to these complex challenges. Circle members take turns planning and facilitating each meeting.

Julia Darby, ESO’s Grant Administrator, helped get the Circle off the ground and continues to convene its members on a monthly basis. She has spent her time with the Circle focused on the complex challenge of finding new, creative ways to communicate with funders about ESO’s activities. She was particularly interested in storytelling and curious whether ESO’s weekly Team Meeting—traditionally focused on day-to-day tasks rather than innovation—could be an avenue through which to gather more resonant stories.

Building off the success of their partnership with Buchanan Centre for Parkinsons, ESO hosted a full-day Music Care Conference, bringing together care partners interested in the role music has in quality of life and care.

Encouraged by the focus on experimentation she was practicing through the Adaptive Leadership Circle, Julia tried leading one of these Team Meetings in a story circle format. Staff members shared meaningful experiences they’d had with patrons at concerts or with participants in some of ESO’s educational programs. Interestingly, once the group moved back into the more task-based sharing, Julia noticed that contributions continued to be more positive and focused on individual moments rather than to-do lists.

At future meetings, other opening questions were tested, such as asking participants to start by sharing something in their work that excited them, scared them, or made them proud. Once again, these prompts set a new, more personal tone for the remainder of the meeting, and Julia was able to harvest insightful stories and compelling moments to share with funders.

This success did not just help Julia break through her particular workplace challenge, it also disrupted a key characteristic of ESO’s traditional organizational culture. Over time, the 60-year-old orchestra’s culture had calcified into one that allowed for information transfer, but consistently failed to support deeper sharing and exploration, particularly across departments.

The goal of the Adaptive Leadership Circle is to foster more of these useful disruptions. Through sharing their experiments with each other on a monthly basis, Circle members are finding the support they need to keep pushing the organization to adapt to changing times, and to find novel solutions to their own persistent workplace challenges.


Tools and Tips for Practitioners:

More about Adaptive Leadership

Today, organizations face a continuous stream of complex challenges that can’t be solved by improving what they’re already doing. These challenges demand adaptive change. Adaptive leaders recognize that complex challenges can’t be solved by even the most brilliant individuals if they are working alone. In his book, Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz defines adaptive leadership as “mobilizing people’s hearts and minds to work together differently to address complex challenges.” 

EmcArts’ Arts Leaders as Cultural Innovators (ALACI) program focuses on developing adaptive leadership skills for individuals, while organizations can work with an EmcArts facilitator to form their own Adaptive Leadership Circle. For more information, you can write to

You can also read thoughts from contemporary arts leaders about what adaptive leadership looks like in practice, here:

Your Responses: What Leadership Looks Like in Practice
Flipping the Script: We’re Not the Experts, They Are!
From Founder-led to Artist-led: shared leadership at ICE

More about Experimentation and Prototyping

All of the inspiring Innovation Stories you’ll find on started with a just a kernel of an idea and a small experiment to test it out. EmcArts’ adaptive change programs focus on a scaled approach to innovation, with increased investment (in time, money, and resources) granted to organizations that have seen promising results from initial, small-scale experiments. As “experiments with radical intent” grow into more fully-fledged (and public) prototypes, organizations are encouraged to continue evaluating their efforts, learning, and risking failure.

Here are some thoughts on the importance of experimentation from a variety of artists and arts administrators:

Making Space for Devised Theatermaking
Tidelines: Experiments in Community Storytelling in Alaska
Interview: Young Jean Lee on Experimentation, Failure, and Getting Out of Her Comfort Zone
Photo Essay: A Lab Concludes, But the Work Goes On…

More about Complex Challenges

Recognizing and responding to complexity is the cornerstone of EmcArts’ approach to adaptive leadership training. Complex challenges are those that are proving resistant to the technical solutions and “best practices” of the past. Experimentation, probing, rapid learning, and bringing together “unusual suspects” for shared exploration and collaboration are key tools for working through the tangles of a complex challenge.

You can read more about some of the complex challenges that arts and culture organizations find themselves facing, and their novel responses, here:

New Videos: What’s your Complex Challenge?
Teatro Publico de Cleveland

Louise has managed the New Pathways program and other community initiatives at EmcArts. She continues to work with EmcArts as a writer, researcher, and program evaluator.