Innovation as a Way of Working: A case study of 3 organizations (Part Two)

Part 2: Implications & Connections
What are the adaptive muscles needed to respond nimbly and efficiently to complex challenges? Instilling an innovative mindset and culture of adaptive change looks different for each organization; however, through these case studies, some common threads begin to emerge:

Below, I highlight three of the connections that I have identified with regards to instilling innovation into a nonprofit arts organizational culture. (For discussion of the complete list, download the full paper.)

Common language is especially important when dealing with issues that are already complex in nature. Heifetz, et al., expand on the value of common language with regards to adaptive change: “When people begin to use the same words with the same meanings, they communicate more effectively, minimize misunderstandings, and gain the sense of being on the same page, even while grappling with significant differences on the issues.[1]”

When Mississippi Museum of Art Director Betsy Bradley hired a social activist artist to the museum’s Education Department, one of the main challenges they experienced was that of language: “Social activist artists use a whole different language than the traditional arts educator uses, but living with that kind of tension has been really healthy for us. It has helped us build bridges in the community that didn’t exist before.”

In addition, the Lab also provided a common language of innovation and adaptive change. For example, Springboard has found that EmcArts’ framing of innovation and adaptive change, as well as the language used to describe this work, has not only helped them better understand their work internally, but has also helped them explain their work—and why they do it the way they do—to people outside of their organization. This has facilitated more effective communication (and coherent and successful implementation) of their work and intentions.

Taking this one step further, Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Winspear Centre have institutionalized a process of sharing the language and culture of innovation with new employees. Created with support from their Lab facilitator, the 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 a conversation on design thinking for social innovation, Jeff Wishnie (Digital Impact Alliance) notes that, especially for nonprofits and NGOs, “The best way past the fear [of design] is to do the work. Not only do people learn that there is structure and process, but critically, the[y] experience firsthand how the process consistently and reliably hones those raw ideas (opinions) into effective programs.[2]”

Similarly, the Lab served as a protected container in which participants could move beyond their fear of failure and begin to gain confidence in their adaptive capacities. This safe and isolated space was also important in allowing fragile ideas to incubate and develop before being exposed to a wider audience as a prototype.

Following the Lab experience, each of the three profiled organizations found various ways to continue innovating by institutionalizing elements of time, space, and structure into their cultures.

At the Mississippi Museum of Art, Bradley restructured the staff into cross-disciplinary teams to encourage productive dialogue from perspectives across the organization. Though this process of collaboration takes more time, Bradley argues that the end results are much richer.

Interestingly, Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the Winspear Centre have found a solution to one of the Mississippi Museum of Art’s major challenges—passing on institutional knowledge gleaned from the Lab in light of staff turnover. Through the Adaptive Leadership Circle, not only do new employees learn the language and culture of innovation, but they also devise their own small experiments within the context of their individual work and share their learnings back with the group.

And, at Springboard, their “Go Fund” has allowed them to build up some financial reserves for research and development. This nimble financial structure is hugely important in enabling the organization to innovate and experiment.

By interpreting the organization’s mission and guiding its strategy according to its values, nonprofit leaders can have a huge influence on an organization’s ability to be innovative and responsive. Thus, creating a culture of innovation starts at the top with leaders, at both the board and staff level, who recognize the need and advocate for adaptive change.

As champions of change, these leaders consistently invite and expect the rest of the board and staff to think creatively and question the status quo, not for the sake of change, alone, but for the sake of better meeting the organization’s mission. Without a champion to continuously bring up these conversations, the organizations risk returning to their old habits and ways of working.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the Winspear Centre’s leadership have made consistent efforts to keep innovation and adaptive change in the forefront of their board members and employees’ minds by bringing it up regularly in meetings and writing it into their strategic plan. In addition to support from the Executive Director, Associate Executive Director Meghan Unterschultz has also become somewhat of an innovation cheerleader to ensure that resources for experimentation remain a priority.

Likewise, former Springboard Board Member Erik Takeshita described “the invitation and the charge as a Board Member to be an energetic questioner of the status quo and not holding [anything] precious.”

In addition, leaders can encourage an environment of experimentation and strategic risk-taking wherein failure is a learning opportunity. One of the Mississippi Museum of Art’s biggest challenges when it comes to innovation is unlearning old habits and being open to experimental ways of working, particularly for staff who, by profession, are trained to be perfectionists. Bradley’s leadership in creating a culture where staff are more comfortable with taking risks and accepting failure as a learning opportunity has been crucial.

Innovation Mindset = Way of Working?
In looking at these three case studies, although innovation is not always a way of working (nor does it have to be), I would argue that it should be a mindset we embrace more. When we engage in an ongoing act of questioning, exploring and doing, we get closer to fulfilling the potential of our organization’s mission.

All illustrations by the author.

[1] Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Mary Linsky, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (Boston, MA: Harvard Budiness Press, 2009), 9.
[2] Jocelyn Wyatt and Jeff Wishnie, “Diving In: Nonprofits, NGOs, and Design,” excerpted from LEAP Dialogues: Career Pathways in Design for Social Innovation, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Jul. 27, 2016.

Kelsye A. Gould is a strategic designer working at the intersection of community, creativity, and change. Fueled by a desire to use design as a catalyst for positive change, she recently completed her M.S. in Nonprofit Management at The New School with focuses in design thinking and change management. Her academic and professional interests revolve around applying a creative, cross-disciplinary design lens to organizational and community challenges.