Gaining Momentum for Adaptive Work by Lowering Internal Barriers

Developing your organization’s adaptive capacities is essential for the journey of change that we’re all engaged in (see our article HERE). It’s equally crucial that you bring others with you on the journey, enrolling them to a new vision and doing everything you can to reduce the obstacles and barriers that can get in the way of doing things differently.

Whatever the external obstacles right now, the most significant are the internal barriers to adapting – ingrained assumptions people want to hold onto, fixed habits of mind that drive us back to old ways, and organizational constraints that limit our ability to imagine a new future. These barriers are important because they’re largely invisible and operate behind the scenes, often in the Board room.

So, to sustain your efforts to respond to complex challenges, rather than just talk about them, you need early on to identify the limits and restrictions that may get in the way of committing to take action. This work will help you come up with alternative ways of thinking and divergent hypotheses or “hunches” about future potential, so that you open up new pathways and actually pursue them, rather than defaulting to your established way of doing things.

Momentum for adaptive change doesn’t have to cost much, but moving forward does mean tackling these issues up front. Remember, many obstacles fall away when they are brought to light and made discussable.

Using the EmcArts Worksheet

You can use the Worksheet below as a frame for a series of questions that you might use to engage different groups of stakeholders (or to interview them individually). The aim is to begin to release your thinking about your challenge from all these constraints, and consider steps you can take to create the space for adaptive work. Begin by writing up your latest version of one of the Complex Challenges you’ve identified (see our guidance on Making Disorder Generative as background, and on the Cynefin Framework). Then add a statement of your Radical New Vision – the new direction you want to head in, which is unprecedented for your organization. You can then capture responses to each question on the Worksheet, for later reflection and comparison. It’s usually easier to ask all three questions along the top row first, and then move to the lower set of questions, asking for responses in light of the earlier ones. This way you deal first with the situation now, and then turn to possibilities for change. Some people’s responses may not fit precisely into one of the three categories, but capture them where it seems most appropriate. Fit is less important than gently repeated probing to go deeper. Debrief around the most powerful insights each person or team uncovered. Ask yourselves: How do we move forward in these new ways right away? Is there anything else that stops us from taking the necessary steps?

The example below (a real-life one from a contemporary dance company) may help clarify the approach.

Click here to download a pdf of the worksheets. 


ArtsFwd is an online community of arts and culture leaders committed to doing things differently in their organizations in order to stay relevant and vital in a changing world.