LearnFwd: Change Your Environment!

At EmcArts, we believe that the ability to thrive in a rapidly changing world comes from fostering adaptive cultures in our organizations and communities. That means working intentionally to develop our adaptive “muscles” and building new capacities that we can rely on to address the complex challenges we face.

If our goal is to depart from business as usual, we need to create signals that demonstrate that we’re in a different realm of working. So, what are some simple but strongly signaled ways to do this? Let’s focus on the physical environment that you are doing this adaptive work in.


Change the Space

The first thing I suggest when planning a meeting focused on adaptive work is a change of venue, to an unexpected place where people aren’t used to having meetings take place. How about meeting in the lobby? On stage? In a rehearsal or production space? Obviously, you have to consider if you will be intruding into space that is needed for regular work, or if the sound levels will be acceptable for the work you plan on doing. But if the stage is empty on a Monday morning, circle up some chairs and start your assumption questioning in an unusual spot.

To give an example, I’ve been working with a group of managers at The Public Theater in New York City to shift their mindsets and develop their skills to lead in a more distributed, equitable and adaptive manner, especially when they are under pressure. A key to our “getting into the groove” of this professional development work has been meeting in a place that is outside their normal meeting spaces. In this case, we meet in their on-site restaurant. Using this space requires that we meet earlier in the day, as the restaurant takes over mid-afternoon. It’s quieter, protected, and a little fancy, but still part of the institution. And it’s become our space to be vulnerable, to question and to dare, to practice and to learn.

Also, when it’s time to move into small groups, don’t stay in the same room—have groups go for a walk, outside if possible, with a particular discussion question/task to focus on, and a time by which to be back together. This approach works outside the framework of a scheduled meeting as well. I’m lucky enough to not only work with a great partner, but also to be married to him. Since we take the subway to work, and have about an 8 minute walk from the station to office door, we often use this time to enter into our work zone—to wonder and explore an idea, a worry, or an emerging problem. I’ve found it easier to maintain a state of productive uncertainty, openness and questioning when we are walking as well as talking. I believe that being in motion also assists us to move through multiple ideas very quickly. Not that we always reach agreement as the key goes into the office door—but we’ve always made progress, and I feel energized and ready to dive into the rest of my day!


Change the Layout

Regardless of what space you’re in, please don’t default to your usual meeting layout (all too often, in my experience, the default is chairs around a table that’s too big for the number of people). Maybe you can push those tables to the side, set up the chairs in a circle, and invite participants in. Think about what your objectives are for your time together, and what layout will most effectively facilitate that work. Look around the room—what else can you shift in the room to signal to participants that they should leave their usual meeting norms and expectations at the door? Consider how you can create a different physical environment that will foster the group’s attention and patterns of thinking differently.

At The Public, because it’s not the normal use of the restaurant, we move tables to the side and sit in comfy chairs in a circle. By transforming the space (the use of which is already a departure from the staff’s normal routines), we create a vessel for our work that exists apart from the everyday tasks and mindsets of the people gathered there.


Change the Props

Lastly, in addition to changing the room and how it’s set up, you can also play with changing around the supports and the props in the room. If you have a culture of everyone bringing their own coffee, splash out a little bit and bring in drinks and (healthy!) snacks for the group. Maybe a new pen and bright pad of sticky notes is on every chair as participants walk in. You can provide something that demonstrates you care about each person, and that you believe in their creativity and the contributions they can make.

New props can also support new activities. My colleague Liz Dreyer was recently in Dallas, working together with the artist Darryl Ratcliffe to facilitate a community conversation about bringing intergenerational perspectives together around the issue of food and food security. Darryl led a playful exercise where he introduced a large ball with food and community related words written on it. Participants played catch with the ball, using the words their thumbs landed on to create poems. The randomness of the words nudged the group in the direction of metaphor and creative connection, and the resulting poems informed new strategies that would never have been considered in a more “normal” meeting.

Photo by Brian Maschino.

By paying attention to environment (and yes, this may take a real investment of time and/or money), you can make small shifts to demonstrate that this gathering is not just another meeting. This is a playful, questioning-our-norms-and-assumptions kind of time together, where care has been taken to create a space where we can explore, experiment and take risks together. A little change can go a long way!


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.