Inspired by ArtsFwd, One Org Takes Matters Into Its Own Hands

An amazing thing happened last week. For the first time since we launched ArtsFwd last December, I was contacted by an organization that was so inspired by ArtsFwd that they want to replicate EmcArts’ Innovation Lab process on their own.

They had been following ArtsFwd with great interest and had read the RFP for the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts, but, unfortunately, were too small to be eligible (organizations must have at least 5 staff members). So they decided to take matters into their own hands. They found a facilitator, put together an application to their local giving circle for a $10,000 grant, and reached out to me for advice.

I was impressed and humbled by this for a couple of reasons:

  • It’s evidence that ArtsFwd is starting to gain real traction: When we launched ArtsFwd, our long-term goal was to spread knowledge of innovation as an organizational discipline in the field by showing that it’s a replicable process, something that any arts organization can increase its capacity for through practice. I didn’t expect to see this kind of deep engagement from an organization not already familiar with EmcArts within the first year of launching the site!
  • Our ideas are making sense to arts leaders: Reading through this organization’s grant application, we were excited to see that our Five Steps (Building an Innovation Team, Learning to Work Together, Accelerating with an extended Retreat, Prototyping, Enrolling Others) are coming across clearly. This organization had digested the steps and incorporated them into a design for their own 12-month innovation process solely based on the resources available on ArtsFwd.

At the same time, the experience helped me realize that there are a few things we need to clarify on ArtsFwd:

  • For an innovation process to be successful, you have to respond to an “adaptive challenge” not a “technical challenge”: A technical challenge is one that can be solved by gradual improvement in current practices – extensions of business-as usual rather than breakthrough change. Whereas an adaptive challenge is one that has no set procedure, no recognized experts, and no evident responses available to meet the challenge. Adaptive challenges demand a response outside of an organization’s current strategic toolkit or repertoire. In an innovation process, the real “first step” is identifying an adaptive challenge. When we articulated our five steps, we made an (incorrect) assumption that this first step was evident. Of course it’s not! We’ll be working to clarify that on the site.
  • When we say facilitation, we mean something very specific: Process facilitation, especially for an innovation process, is very different from traditional consultation. There are many wonderful arts consultants who offer expert solutions to tough problems, but they tend to be best at solving technical challenges. The skillset for process facilitation is substantially different and challenging to teach – managing group dynamics so as NOT to settle on quick solutions but to probe assumptions and engage wider perspectives is substantially new to the arts, and requires careful translation from other fields of practice. In order for our innovation processes to flourish in the arts, we need to clarify the role of the facilitator and we need more skilled process facilitators out there. We’ll also be working on articulating that skill set on ArtsFwd and brainstorming about ways to connect experienced facilitators with arts organizations doing this work.

All in all, I’m so thankful this organization reached out to me. They reminded me that the work we do at ArtsFwd is having an impact and inspired us to push our thinking to the next level.

I hope to hear from more organizations like this one about the ways you’re incorporating the strategies, tips, and learning from ArtsFwd into your own practice.

Karina Mangu-Ward is the former Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts.