Northrop: Creating a Sustainable Model for Team Collaboration

ArtsFwd asks the Innovation Lab grantees: What is one major “a-ha!” moment your team experienced during the retreat?

The Northrop innovation team truly unified as a team around shared goals during the retreat, which will help them move forward collaboratively in their prototyping process. Image: Sarah Thompson
This is the second post from Melissa Wray and Sarah Thompson about Northrop’s experience in the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts. We asked them to share some of the deep thinking that took place during their team’s five-day focused retreat. Read more from the other Lab participants here.

What is one major “a-ha!” moment your team experienced during the retreat — and how will it influence how you move forward?

The office has been abuzz since our Innovation Lab team returned from a productive and inspiring week at the Airlie Center. An intensive week of focused planning and  ideation without distraction was just what the team needed. The major “a-ha!” moment for us? By all accounts, it was realizing that this is exactly what we are: a team.

Before Airlie, we were just four units on campus being pulled under one roof. The acts of engaging in deep discussion, sharing meals, taking a field trip to the Hirshhorn Museum to explore experience design, and socializing together (team-curated nature walks and playing pool while singing show tunes at the Whistling Swan Pub!) bonded us in a transformational way.

It was at this point that the Innovation Lab became more than just a grant with one specific project outcome. The focus shifted to how this grant’s process will play into the big picture of the new Northrop, and how we will work collaboratively in our new facility. As innovation team member Susannah Smith phrased it, the team began building “a community of practice.”

Moving forward, this cohesive team sensibility will be our greatest asset, carrying us through decisions for both the Innovation Lab process and Northrop’s new overarching vision. We will leverage this model to pull from the strengths and perspectives of each entity in our unique cohort. As another team member, Rebecca Krinke, notes, “our process of doing this work collaboratively is in itself creating knowledge of collaboration and a potential model for a sustainable process at Northrop.”

With true inter-disciplinary collaboration at the heart of our Innovation Lab goals, as well Northrop’s grand reopening, we are thrilled to move forward as (yep, you guessed it) a team.

About Northrop’s Innovation Lab project

Northrop’s project asks: How can we transform our revitalized facility into a hub of interdisciplinary creativity and innovation at the University of Minnesota that dynamically engages students, faculty, researchers, artists, and the greater community?


Melissa Wray is a communications professional working in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. As Marketing & Communications Associate at Northrop at the University of Minnesota, she writes and edits both print and online content, manages the Northrop blog and social media, works on student outreach, and much more. She is also a cofounder and Executive Director of Hazel & Wren, an online literary community that also hosts events in the Twin Cities area. Melissa will be starting graduate school in the fall for Arts & Cultural Leadership at the University of Minnesota.

  • Francesca McKenzie

    Melissa, great update on what seems to be an exciting time for your innovation group. Funny how sometimes the true innovation is getting to know someone better as an individual, allowing the whole group to work together as “a community of practice.” I’m curious what ideas have you or your group come up with to answer your question “How can we transform our revitalized facility into a hub of interdisciplinary creativity and innovation”?

  • Kelvin D.

    It sounds like the Innovation Lab is a most ideal setting in “turning an old ship around” and providing an environment atypical from organizational culture in order to best communicate about strengths, weaknesses and innovative approaches to improve your company’s health. The benefits of such a retreat/grant process is that focus is applied to the development idea in a more relaxed (I’m guessing) environment where everyone’s opinion is up for discussion: how are you implementing some of that same atmosphere , in your organizational culture today? Do you find “innovation breaks” throughout your season or have you made it a priority to hold a similar process in your organization’s strategic planning? I know replicating the experience could be taxing on your staff schedule and budget, but how often do you think summits like the innovation should be held for an organization like yours?