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

In 2014, I was working at Pillsbury House + Theatre in Minneapolis, MN, when we were selected to participate in EmcArts’ Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts. My work at Pillsbury House had opened my eyes to the immense possibility of collaborative design across disciplines and I was intrigued by EmcArts’ work, especially their innovation framework. Unfortunately, however, my Lab experience was cut short when I decided to leave Pillsbury House to pursue my graduate studies at The New School in New York.

With a growing interest in the intersection of strategic design and change management, and alongside my classes in design thinking, organizational development, and nonprofit management, I began pondering questions like:

  • What are the advantages of applying a creative, cross-disciplinary design lens to organizational and community challenges?
  • How does an organization embed creativity or innovation so that it becomes a consistent, daily way of thinking and working?
  • And, furthermore, at what point do innovation tools and methods move beyond a specific project to become an organizational mindset or way of working?

Inspired by these questions, as well as the dynamic tension between creativity in art-making and the seeming lack of creativity in arts management, I reconnected with EmcArts, eager to learn more about the implications of their innovation framework through my graduate thesis.

In consultation with EmcArts, I selected three organizations that had completed one of the Innovation Labs to examine in greater detail: The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Winspear Centre, The Mississippi Museum of Art, and Springboard for the Arts. Using a case study methodology consisting of interviews with Lab participants and a review of archival records and reports, I explored some of the motivations, applications, advantages, and challenges of implementing an innovation process within a nonprofit. I also looked at how nonprofits can embed an innovative mindset and culture of adaptive change within their organizations.

My initial hypothesis was that each of the three profiled organizations would have embedded an innovation mindset into their organizational cultures, though in varying ways and to varying extents. This innovation mindset, I suspected, would affect not only the work they do, but how they do it.

Though these organizations were by no means “un-innovative” prior to participating in EmcArts’ Innovation Labs, I suspected that the Lab would represent a significant turning point to consider innovation as part of their organizational processes, much in part to the substantial investment of time and financial resources that the Lab provided.

Research Significance
Over the past several decades, there has been a growing interest in developing organizational capacity to address complex challenges. In “Innovation is Not the Holy Grail,” Seelos and Mair write that “although much social innovation research has explored the entrepreneurial establishment of new social organizations, much less is known about the ability of already established organizations to innovate continuously.[1]” Similarly, Letts, Ryan, and Grossman argue, “The social sector focuses too much on innovation and not enough on innovativeness—the capacity to innovate repeatedly. [2]” By examining these case vignettes, I hoped to begin exploring how nonprofit organizations can embed a creative mindset into their work so that they are continuously innovating.

Case Study Summaries

All illustrations by the author.

[1] Christian Seelos and Johanna Mair, “Innovation is Not the Holy Grail,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2012.
[2] Christine W. Letts, William P. Ryan, and Allen Grossman, High Performance Nonprofit Organizations: Managing Upstream for Greater Impact, (New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1999), 19.

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.