Four Tips for a Successful Application: Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts

We’re very pleased that the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is once again supporting the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts. The RFP was announced June 4th; the deadline for proposals is August 9th. You can find the RFP here.

In preparing to talk to all of you about your projects, it seems like a good idea to lay out four key questions that you should be answering with a resounding “yes” if your project is a good fit for the Lab.

Is your idea a game changer?

We’re looking for projects that are really game-changing for your organization and for the field as whole, if possible. Our definition of organizational innovation (as opposed to a project or a product innovation) is:

Organizational Innovation: instances of change that result from a shift in underlying organizational assumptions, are discontinuous from previous practice, and provide new pathways to creating public value.

Notice the emphasis on the shift in assumptions and the move toward discontinuity. We’re really asking our applicants to articulate their assumptions. To let us know why those underlying assumptions are moving and changing and why previous practices are not working for those assumptions.

Is your challenge adaptive as opposed to technical?

In the RFP we ask “what is the adaptive challenge you are facing?” Most organizations are familiar with “technical” challenges to their operations and systems, challenges that can typically be solved by gradually changing and improving current practices. Ronald Heifetz, professor at the Kennedy School of Management at Harvard, distinguishes these from “adaptive” challenges – those that demand new approaches and strategies because there are no set procedures, no recognized experts and no evident responses available to meet the challenge. Challenges of this kind require that organizations shift their ingrained organizational assumptions, and let go of cherished beliefs, in order to develop innovative responses that are unprecedented for that organization.

“If you throw all the technical fixes you can at the problem and the problem persists, it’s a pretty clear signal than an underlying adaptive challenge still needs to be met.” – Ronald Heifetz

We want to hear about a challenge that you need to sink your teeth into. Tell us what you’ve already tried and what didn’t work. We want folks who are ready to experiment and able to learn from those “failures.”

Is your idea half-baked?

In talking about your adaptive challenge, it helps to outline the questions you will be addressing — the hard questions that have arisen around the early development of your innovation and which remained unanswered for your organization. We’re looking for “half-baked” ideas — ideas that have come from the background of no ideas and have moved into being poised between having some clarity and ownership within the organization and already being fully shaped and ready for implementation. In contrast, “Raw” ideas are things you just now dreamt up, and haven’t really worked through or tried to solve at all. “Fully-baked” ideas are projects you have already pretty fully planned, plotted and budgeted—you just need money for implementation. Half-baked ideas are things you have been talking about for awhile, think are promising, but need help to develop to the stage where they can be served up at the table.

Is your team unusual for your organization?

We’re asking you to be intentionally discontinuous in creating your Innovation Team, so involving outside voices and stakeholders in your field, in the community, and among the people it serves is extremely important. Identify them in the proposal and make sure you have talked to them about the project. Show how they or their representatives will be involved in the Lab. We know that those players might change, but casting is paramount here and looking at who you’d like to work with will tell us a lot about what you’d like to work on.

As the RFP notes, if you are thinking of applying, I strongly encourage you to make an appointment with me, Liz Dreyer, national programs manager to discuss your project  [(212) 362-8541, ext. 27,]


Liz Dreyer is the Manager of National Programs at EmcArts, managing the Innovation Labs, which help performing arts organizations and museums incubate and test innovative strategies to address major adaptive challenges.