LearnFwd: Reducing Constraints on Adaptive Work

Here at EmcArts, when we work with organizations and communities on helping them address their complex challenges, we spend a lot of time talking about the need to develop bold new directions that depart significantly from “business as usual.” Indeed, our basic definition of innovation says that innovations are processes of change that:

  1. Result from a shift in underlying assumptions.
  2. Are discontinuous from current practice.
  3. Provide new pathways to creating public value and impact.

Whether we are working with a leadership team at a theater, a cross-constituent team at an orchestra, a statewide cohort of arts & culture organizations, or a network of community leaders, we constantly push them to question more, dream bigger, and be more daring.

A major element of the kind of creativity and discontinuity we advocate for is the questioning of deeply held assumptions. Assumptions, in and of themselves, are not a bad thing. They begin as repeated successful solutions to problems, and evolve to the point where they are taken for granted, usually because they continue to work! Assumptions save time and keep us moving, but they tend to become so automatic that we often don’t realize when they begin to no longer hold true. In the words of Edgar Schein, whose work we draw on frequently, “In order to innovate, organizations have to resurrect, examine, and then break the frame created by old assumptions.”

Effective adaptive work requires that we identify and question our ingrained assumptions, as well as the habits of mind and constraints on action around our bold new direction, so that we can begin to identify alternative mental models and divergent hypotheses to open up new pathways.

The central questions we have found helpful in uncovering the constraints that stand in the way of adaptive change, and identifying paths toward addressing them, are:

  • What habits of mind inform our typical behaviors around this challenge, that we tend to fall back into?
    • What can we do differently so we don’t default to those behaviors?
  • What real or imagined constraints on action do we bring with us to considering this challenge?
    • How can we create a space in which these constraints are relaxed or shifted?
  • What assumptions have we deeply held about our approach to this challenge, which recent evidence contradicts?
    • What alternative hypotheses might we build our response on?

You can find a worksheet to help in answering these questions here.

To help understand what we mean by all this, it might be helpful to consider an example. When I worked with a dance organization in Cleveland, they were trying to find ways to create shared experiences, other than performance, so that the company and the community could grow together.  In looking for ways to engage community members as dancers themselves, they identified a number of assumptions and constraints that were getting in the way, and were then able to come up with new ideas about how to move past them:

  • Habits of mind: We think of community members only as passive audiences, and about performance as only taking place spaces with stages.
    • What we can do differently: Engage reciprocally with others, appreciating rather than teaching, and take our dance activities outside.
  • Constraints on action: Professional training teaches us to feel separate from our audiences; we also need to ensure the safety of community members.
    • How to relax constraints: Work repeatedly and up-close with community members, and identify spaces that are safe and comfortable for them to move and dance.
  • Assumptions: We’ve assumed that people want to watch dance rather than taking part in it, and that there’s no profit in dance by non-professionals.
    • Alternative hypotheses: Shared dance experiences may build loyalty and commitment among the community, and funders may be excited to support our new approach to engagement.

By taking the time to identify these constraints, and ways to reduce them, this dance organization was able to move forward in their bold new direction with much greater effectiveness.

Things like assumptions and habits of mind can be hard to pin down and articulate clearly, but even the attempt to do so can be immensely helpful. The act of trying to articulate constraints and make them visible to each other, especially across constituent groups, will always help you make progress! While an innovative, discontinuous idea is crucial, so is identifying the barriers and constraints to that idea, in order to give it a chance of taking root and maturing into an effective new strategy with real public value.

Melissa Dibble is the Managing Director and Lead Facilitator at EmcArts, bringing over two decades of experience in cultural administration and development of new strategies in organizational innovation within the arts sector.