Finding Creativity in the “Shadow System”: An Update from the Northern Alberta International Children’s Festival

© Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

A signature cultural event for its region for over three decades, Canada’s Northern Alberta International Children’s Festival found itself facing a worrisome funding gap by 2014. Corporate and government funding was dropping, and the Festival’s attendance was stagnant. NAICF leaders saw deeper engagement with their community as the way forward, but felt hamstrung trying to move in that direction. The Festival is run through the cultural department of St. Albert’s city government, and that traditional hierarchy structure with its established practices did not lend itself to experimentation or innovation. As much as they believed they wanted more community participation, they also saw it as a risk. They wanted to remain “the professionals” and feared losing their control as curators of the Festival.

Deciding that it had become crucial to the Festival’s sustainability to shake up their approach, NAICF entered the New Pathways for the Arts | Edmonton program in the fall of 2014. They saw promising results from their participation in the initial series of workshops and coaching sessions which focused on learning about adaptive change, questioning assumptions, and carrying out “small experiments with radical intent.” In 2016, they were accepted to be part of the competitive second phase of the program, Incubating Innovation, a year-long deep dive into an innovation project supported by ongoing facilitation support, an intensive, week-long, residential retreat, and a prototyping grant of $25,000.

© Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

Their experimentation through that program has now borne fruit as they closed out their most successful Festival to-date in 2017. Attendance was up 10% from the year before and, most importantly, the level and quality of community engagement was unlike what they’ve experienced before. A key element of NAICF’s prototyping efforts was the first-time hire of a Festival Community Facilitator. Hired for a one-year contract position in early 2017, this Facilitator was given the freedom to transform Toddler Town, a traditional mainstay of the Festival for ages 0-4 that had been suffering declining attendance, into a 100% community-driven enterprise.

For the first time, NAICF’s programming team stepped back and played no role in shaping the look, feel or content of Toddler Town. Instead, the Facilitator worked in advance of the summer Festival to engage partner groups and associations to program the venue. The result was a panoply of early childhood attractions: mom’s groups and bloggers hosted activities, a maker’s group taught kids how to build imaginative creations out of new media and circuitry, a sports organization helped families create fantastic obstacle courses out of household items, a local symphony came on board, as did the St. Albert Public Library, a theatre troupe, and many musicians.

Attendance at Toddler Town spiked to 8,500 in 2017 from 3,000 the year before, and the excitement in the air was palpable. Building off of that success, NAICF is expanding this approach to an even bigger scale in 2018. They extended the Community Facilitator’s contract and broadened her scope to the Festival’s main stage and activities which serve grades K-6. They’ve also added the Facilitator to the programming team, eliminating their traditional divide between community partnerships and programming.

© Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

Throughout this process, NAICF leaders have been surprised by the degree to which their successful external shifts towards community participation were precipitated by their own internal, organizational transformation. Through New Pathways coaching sessions, the NAICF team began recognizing what the late Brenda Zimmerman, a pioneer in managing complex adaptive social systems, termed “the shadow system” at play within their organization.

As Zimmerman puts it, “every organization actually consists of two organizations, and everyone is part of both. The legitimate system consists of the formal hierarchy, rules and communications patterns in the organization. The shadow organization lies behind the scenes. It consists of hallway conversation, the grapevine, the rumor mill and the informal procedures for getting things done. The shadow system is often where much of the creativity resides.” 

NAICF staff and leaders were struck by this insight. It describes a divide that was particularly acute for them as a cultural program operating within the rigid bureaucracy of a city government. They began experimenting with ways to recognize and harness the creative potential of their own shadow system, starting with a simple invitation on their intranet encouraging individual employees to get involved with the Festival. A wealth of hidden interests and passions burst forth.

“We learned of accountants in our finance department whose children have volunteered at the Festival and they wanted to support them,” says Stephen Bourdeau, Festival Coordinator. “We learned of engineers who were aspiring photographers that wanted to build their portfolio and offered free photo services; administrative assistants who were singers by night and brought their band to play; lifeguards who were dabbling in 3D chalk art; and even Festival Producers that had always wanted to build a giant LEGO man out of milk crates.”

This deliberate loosening of the organization’s formalized structure, processes, policies, and hierarchy made way for an outburst of creative energy from both inside and outside the organization. As NAICF is experiencing, and researchers such as Zimmerman argue, it is through the tension and paradox created by these two systems—the formal and the informal—rubbing up against each other that breakthrough change can occur.

© Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017
Louise has managed the New Pathways program and other community initiatives at EmcArts. She continues to work with EmcArts as a writer, researcher, and program evaluator.