Leaving The Shore: Balancing Stability and Adaptability

Returning from the seaport of Camden, Maine, where I attended the annual PopTech conference, a swirl of extraordinary thinking by remarkable people has been in my head. Andrew Zolli, the ebullient Curator of PopTech, said:

“We’re living in an in-between time, a phase transition, experiencing the normalization of volatility.”

In the US, he suggested:

“The engines of resilience are themselves the very causes of the problem….. Lack of adaptive capacity is itself a form of poverty.”

A young woman active in the Egyptian revolution, Shima’a Helmy, gave this a poignant gravity in her PopTech presentation:

“The balance of stability and adaptability agonizes the country.”

And finding this balance agonizes all of us working in the arts in this critical time of uncertainty, change and opportunity. For decades we’ve placed our emphasis on growing our organizations in a specific direction – the direction of stability. Leaders and funders developed campaigns and strategies to remain organizationally stable over time, reinforcing current practices and improving our technical capacities in programming, marketing, development, production, operations and finance. This was a rational strategy when the future was likely to look like the past, only more so. The discipline with which we keep on the rails of business-as-usual has become highly developed.

But the rapid changes of the last 10 years in the world around us, and in how people are choosing to engage in artistic experiences, have helped me realize there is another dimension to success in the future – building adaptive capacity. In a world of volatility and rapid unpredictable change, navigating the balance between stability and adaptability for our organizations is turning out to be the most vital nonprofit management discipline of our time. Organizations able to become highly adaptive while remaining relatively stable are emerging as the new leaders.

A fixed focus on stability alone caused adaptive muscles to atrophy, and it is a major effort to bring them to life throughout our sector. We must unlearn so much that we have taken for granted, and let go of cherished assumptions that are no longer justified, if we are to achieve a new balance that enables sustained public engagement in our work – if our work is going to really matter in the future. As André Gide said, “One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore.”

Many people say that the arts sector is incredibly creative. I’d agree, but it has not proven to be highly innovative or adaptive organizationally. Creative thinkers are crucial for innovation to be possible, but they are not enough. Innovation requires groups of people to work together, often across well-established boundaries, beyond hierarchies, outside the organization in some cases, in order to turn ideas into feasible new pathways and higher levels of impact.

Fortunately, adaptive leaders across the country are responding boldly to this challenge. I’m inspired by the cross-organizational teams, led by younger rising staff members, that took responsibility for major change efforts at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and the Denver Center Theatre Company; and the artists who rethought their roles as program designers to develop breakthrough initiatives in leadership development at the Memphis Symphony and the Center of Contemporary Arts in Saint Louis.

In my ArtsFwd blog, Leaving the Shore, I’ll be writing about a wide range of individuals and organizations that are showing the muscle to lead in new directions – and are finding new lands. I hope you’ll let me know what you think and pass the word on to your friends and colleagues. Welcome!

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.