What does your post-pandemic future look like?

New digital offering designed for single organizations ready to dig deep into new pathways forward

Many organizations in the arts and culture sector, hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic because of their dependence on in-person gatherings, find themselves struggling to recover from the confusion and uncertainty of the past 15 months.

Now, for the first time, EmcArts is opening its Rehearsing Adaptive Change (RAC) program to single organizations eager to take on a major adaptive initiative designed to help them build a prosperous future. Immensely practical and affordable, this new digital program is among the offerings our team is most excited about.

“The sector is in a perilous state,” said Richard Evans, President Emeritus of EmcArts. “This work revolves around the discipline of adaptive changemaking for organizations that know they can’t revert to the past — those that understand it’s got to be different and they need a framework to do it.”

Originally one of three phases in our multi-year, cohort-based program New Pathways for the Arts, RAC provides individual nonprofits with the tools necessary to adapt and innovate in response to a rapidly changing world. Led by an EmcArts Adaptive Process Facilitator, the program includes up to six two-hour interactive online sessions with an “Experimentation Team” of internal and external stakeholders.

“It’s an opportunity for an organization to engage repeatedly with its community about how to most effectively respond to the complex challenges it faces. The program invites widening circles of community members to take part alongside insiders — first on the Experimentation Team, then by providing structured Network Feedback, and finally by taking part in real-world experimentation,” Richard explained. “You reach out to people you might never have thought about engaging with. It brings new voices into the conversations.”

Reaching out broadly across a community enables the team to benefit from previously unexplored perspectives and feedback.

“Community input typically means a few focus groups or some interviews.  EmcArts takes this to a whole other level,” Richard noted. “Our approach to complex challenges demands that groups hear from people far beyond their ‘usual suspects’ and in a way that directly impacts their thinking. The ‘Network Perspectives’ aspect of the program brings groups into contact with many, many new voices in a disciplined and quick way.”

The team engages rapidly in action research and learning by testing multiple potential responses to a major challenge through SERIs (Small Experiments with Radical Intent). This work enables the organization to develop the adaptive skills needed to chart a new path forward, while allowing for failure along the way.

Yes, failure is a key component of our program.

“If you are not failing — if certain experiments or pathways don’t pan out — you are not trying hard enough. Failure is absolutely necessary, which is why it’s important to be able to design these small experiments and learn rapidly from them, then do more experimenting,” Richard said.

“In complex situations, the future is unpredictable; only by probing and recombining multiple strategies will you find the right way forward.  Trying to plan that discovery in advance won’t get you there.”

This program can be particularly useful as nonprofits prepare to onboard new and returning staff by creating a foundational practice in adaptive change. We call it “the discipline of adaptive changemaking.”

“We decided to offer RAC as a standalone program because it makes a statement about how central to the future of our sector getting deeply involved in adaptive work really is now,” Richard said. “It’s not a template — it is customized to each organization — but it is a discipline.”

Michael Trent is Director of Performing Arts at The Metcalf Foundation, which is funding Staging Change | Toronto for a cohort of organizations that have progressed to individual adaptive projects. He sees first-hand the value of repeatedly putting the principles of the program into practice.

“We think this is a beautiful way for an organization to move from a theoretical understanding of adaptive change to a very practical understanding of it. EmcArts creates a space for you to dive in very specifically to what is going on in your shop,” Michael said.

“RAC provides organizations the first opportunity to test hunches about their complex problems. They are beginning to develop their adaptive muscles and that takes practice.”

Richard believes adaptive changemaking will largely eclipse conventional forms of strategic planning. He urges nonprofits not to ignore their most complex challenges in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, however tempting that might be. “Otherwise they just lurk in the background and come back tougher still in the future.”

“My advice to organizations is do not waste time now on a strategic plan. This new discipline — this work of testing and discovering the way forward — will substantially replace strategic planning in the turbulent world that we are now living in. This is an organizational discipline you can learn just like you can learn fundraising or marketing or governance.”

Although EmcArts primarily partners with arts and culture organizations — our approach is highly creative and artists play a significant role in the work — adaptive changemaking can create value across the entire social sector.

“Whether you are in youth services or health or the environment or education, this kind of muscle-building to enable you to adapt right now is absolutely essential,” Richard said.

“The programs of EmcArts are for all organizations that are departing from old models and letting go of ingrained assumptions, not complying with any dominant orthodoxy. And that’s why they are so widely applicable at this time of challenge and change.”

ArtsFwd is an online community of arts and culture leaders committed to doing things differently in their organizations in order to stay relevant and vital in a changing world.