Lessons in Innovation: Shifting Organizational Culture

At Woolly Mammoth and Denver Center Theatre Company, leaders shifted the existing organizational culture to embrace change.

This post revisits our recent publication, Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts: Case Studies in Innovation and Adaptive Capacity, which profiles two organizations who participated in EmcArts‘ Innovation Labs: Denver Center Theatre Company and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. This publication, which was authored by independent evaluator Jamie Gamble, found that at each organization, leadership changed its behavior and practices to shift the existing culture towards doing things differently.

To learn more about organizational culture, read the full post on this month’s topic: Building a Culture That Embraces Change.

5 lessons for organizations seeking to effectively navigate the dynamics of change

The experiences of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (Woolly Mammoth) and Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) reveal insights into the dynamics of change, and how the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts is constructive toward a longer-term ability to adapt. At the heart of these two cases are lessons that come from what is common between them, and what is different.

The premise of the Innovation Lab is that adaptive change requires a different mindset, and a different set of skills than the business-as-usual operations of well-established programs and organizational routines. The paths pursued, and the tensions inherent in them in each case, make Woolly Mammoth and DCTC great examples of the process of exploration – What is it that will effectively respond to a new situation? How can organizations effectively navigate the dynamics of change? What do they pay attention to so they don’t get stuck, and what do they do when they are?

1. Innovative ideas can grow at the core, or the periphery of an organization.

At Woolly Mammoth, Connectivity was an innovation that was fully integrated into the activity and operations of the organization. In contrast, Off-Center developed on the margins of DCTC’s work, away from the process of mainstream shows.

2. Adaptive change requires leaders to balance the push for clarity with tolerance for ambiguity.

Even with steps towards increased clarity in language about an organization’s idea, the messiness of adaptive work means that some ambiguities will persist. Organizations need to live with some uncertainty in early-stage innovations and, at the same time, work through underlying assumptions and competing expectations.

3. Disruptive change is vulnerable work.

The work of exploration usually begins with the courageous decision to change some existing practices. When organizations are able to let go of established practices and routines that are no longer serving them with new ideas, resources and relationships become available.

4. Leadership in support of adaptive change takes multiple forms.

Boards and senior managers are vital champions who confirm the importance of adaptive work in the organization and hold a space open for the ambiguity and uncertainty of early-stage innovations. They create the conditions for success by committing resources and influencing the organizational culture.

5. The process of launching an innovative idea strengthens an organization’s adaptive capacity.

The facilitated process support that’s provided in the Innovation Lab helps to surface the critical competencies needed to move an innovation project forward, and helps the organization begin to develop strategies to address them.

Learn more

To learn more about Woolly Mammoth’s Connectivity project, click here. To learn more about DCTC’s Off-Center project, click here.

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.