Learning from Innovation: Woolly Mammoth and Denver Center Theatre Company

Our new publication presents two in-depth case studies on the productive messiness of adaptive change in practice.

We are pleased to present our new publication, Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts: Case Studies in Innovation and Adaptive Capacity. Download the full publication here.

EmcArts launched the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts in 2008 to support organizations in incubating innovation projects – conceiving, designing and testing new strategies to achieve public value. Now, after six years and 33 participating organizations, we are stepping back to reflect on the longer-term impacts of the Innovation Lab, in order to better understand how and where it has had identifiable impact, and to appreciate more fully the productive messiness of what adaptive change is actually like in practice.

Reflecting on the impact of the Innovation Lab

The first of these two case studies investigates the journey of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s Connectivity initiative from its beginnings as a submerged big idea at the heart of the organization to its current state as a fully integrated strategy across the entire enterprise. The second follows the journey of Off-Center, a disruptive project at the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC), which started on the periphery of this large organization and is now finding its way toward the core.

Each journey recorded represents an exciting and often scary ride. Neither the “inside” nor the “outside” strategy – originating the innovation at the core of the business or on its periphery – insulates the protagonists from conflict, uncertainty and ambiguity. Would Off-Center go anywhere after the early prototypes? The board’s response from on high to that question was crucial for the Denver Center Theatre Company. Would Connectivity at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company survive the pressure to become a marketing strategy? It became apparent that staff changes, and structural rethinking, were needed to navigate those tricky shoals.

Learning from Woolly Mammoth and DCTC

For all the dicey critical junctures, these are indubitably stories of success – measured, initially at least, in very different ways from our traditional metrics. Each project is maturing into a sustainable initiative that is thrillingly becoming integrated into the core business of the company. Each shows how a voyage of exploration can be authentically navigated, and the tremendous benefits that can accrue if the vision of the leaders is robust, compelling and long-term – with space deliberately and continuously made to embrace discovery and surprise.

There are many profiles already written on short-term projects by arts organizations in which they do something different. We hope these two case studies, and more that are to follow, will be recognized as richer because they focus on innovation as a process, one that achieves its effect as leaders negotiate unexpected twists and turns to reinforce their sustained commitment to “next practices.”


We are grateful to Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Denver Center Theatre Company for participating in these studies. Through their openness and candor, they illuminate the courageous journeys of exploration that take place in organizations as they undertake the serious work of learning to adapt. We also thank our independent evaluator, Jamie Gamble of Imprint Consulting, for his forensic eye for detail and careful approach to objective evaluation.

Download the Case Studies

Richard Evans is the President Emeritus of EmcArts, where he directs program design, research, and strategic partnerships that place a particular emphasis on innovation, adaptive organization change, and effective ways that the arts and culture field can respond to the demands of a new era.