Why are Innovation & Adaptive Change So Important?

The arts & culture sector is going through unprecedented changes that are profoundly disturbing ‘business-as-usual’ and increasing the need for new pathways to create public value.

 Foundational Ideas

During the first 50-year phase of developing a professional arts and culture sector, the primary focus was on growth and longevity—on building sizeable audiences and organizations that occupied a permanent place in the landscape. Organizations generally adopted a corporate model, with strong staff hierarchies, and evolved command and control cultures that helped sustain the emphasis on excellence of artistry as well as efficiency of delivery systems. As arts and culture companies grew, maintaining organizational stability became their main concern; ‘best practices’ were defined and pursued, becoming ‘business-as-usual’ in their organizations and throughout the field.

Break from the Past
Engaging the Future | Cleveland Participant GroundWorks DanceTheater Photo by Dale Dong

To keep their core businesses on track and to better enable them to realize their goals with limited resources, arts and culture organizations developed technical competencies in many specialist areas (production, marketing, development, operations, governance). Many organizations received ‘technical assistance’ to strengthen these efforts. They backed up these organizational dynamics with increasingly widespread strategic planning—a relatively reliable method of projecting futures that were intended to look like the past, only more so. Underpinning the drive for permanence in these organizations was an emerging orthodoxy of balance sheet planning that emphasized capital endowments as a means of protecting them against market variables. In this vein, ‘growing up’ as an arts and culture organization meant owning a building and taking on fixed assets.

In the past 10 years, unprecedented developments in the operating environment have placed radical new demands on arts and culture organizations. The field must develop new responses if it is to remain healthy, resilient and able to maximize the delivery of public impact and value. Changes in patterns of public participation and in technological access to the arts, generational and demographic shifts, new forms of resource development, and many more factors have revealed that there is another dimension to the critical organizational qualities needed to thrive in the future. The ‘muscles’ we exercise to promote organizational stability now need to be balanced by equally strong ‘muscles’ around adaptive capacity.

Engaging the Future | Cleveland Participant GroundWorks DanceTheater Photo by Dale Dong
Engaging the Future | Cleveland Participant GroundWorks DanceTheater Photo by Dale Dong

Yet the adaptive capacities of many cultural organizations are typically under-developed. In the past, little attention has been given to strengthening qualities such as adaptive, distributed leadership. With hierarchical staff structures, most companies have not focused on learning how to effectively use cross-functional, multi-constituent teams and have not yet evolved organizational cultures that are intrinsically flexible and responsive to fleeting opportunities and changing community dynamics. Nor have most organizations equipped themselves to continuously incubate and test new ideas and projects as an ongoing part of their business model. Notably absent to date—and urgently needed to foster innovation—is available change capital to underwrite well-designed new initiatives and enable them to reach new markets.

Antony Bugg-Levine, President of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, argues that only if nonprofits reframe their work and pursue new organizing questions will they be able to thrive in the future. In the Washington Post, he writes:

For nonprofits, it’s time to end business-as-usual.

Now is the time to provide support for innovation—the means by which organizations respond to adaptive challenges.

Instead of the ‘technical assistance’ of the past, the arts and culture sector now needs ‘adaptive assistance’ that builds adaptive muscles, increases community impacts, and helps ensure a vital, engaged field that is ready to seize the future as a leading contributor to the vibrancy of our nation’s communities.

Critical Organizational Capacities

This graph illustrates the relationship between a traditional focus on organizational stability, and the new focus on adaptive capacity. Only if each organization finds its right new balance between stability and adaptability will the cultural sector see the public impact and value of its organizations sustained and increased.

Adaptive Capacities vs. Stabilizing Capacties

Building long-term adaptive capacity in organizations is best addressed by doing real, urgent work on pressing adaptive challenges. It is through a focus on designing and implementing specific new approaches—conducting small experiments with radical intent—that organizations change their cultures and begin to institutionalize the new adaptive muscles needed to sustain transformational behaviors. As Jerry Sternin, a pioneer in developing adaptive strategies to address complex social issues (and co-author of the book The Power of Positive Deviance) wrote:

It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.


Richard Evans is the President of EmcArts, where he directs program design, research, and strategic partnerships that place a particular emphasis on innovation, adaptive organization change, and effective ways that the arts and culture field can respond to the demands of a new era.

  • RL

    I’ve been reading versions of this same article for the past 30 years. Without specifics it’s just no help to anyone… except maybe the writer. And we wonder why the arts are in trouble.

  • KP

    If the focus on building stable organizations is shifting and more organizations are focusing on building adaptive organizations, I wonder what the next wave will be. What’s next after adaptability?

  • This post addresses the sweeping epidemic within arts and cultural organizations today–a lack of know-how in responding with adaptive capacities through tight organization structure. I empathize with commenter RL’s frustration in this being a known issue in the non-profit sector, while there seem to be few sure-fire answers. I would agree with RL, that when we’re discussing modes of adaptive changes the first key is specificity, which ironically, makes it difficult to come up with general solutions that will work for all organizations. Often times, if an arts organization sprouts from a community-based grassroots effort into a corporation, they lose their initial vision. To me, the commitment to the community should be the cornerstone of all decision-making—in every department. I propose that they key to adaptive change, is taking the time to re-assess what the community deems relevant and necessary—essentially, getting back in touch.

  • Erinn Roos-Brown

    Our world is bursting with changes – from government upheavals to climate change – that have come about from questioning institutionalized structures. It is no surprise that arts organizations have started to ask those questions as well. But challenging 50-years of institutional history, as this blog notes, can be a long, demanding process and requires leadership that values group thinking, encourages flexibility and is willing to experiment. I don’t think what we need right now is specific examples, I think we need to talk about how we can retrain the way we learn, think and interact to create environments that encourage conversation, though and experimentation. It is those values that will allow us to be more adaptive thinkers. I think the arts need to challenge themselves to become an incubator for learning how to take ideas, turn them into actions, evaluate successes and failures and learn to try again. I don’t want specifics right now as RL points out, I want to hear about what people are thinking about, brainstorm how we can experiment with change and be open to trial and error.

  • Community-based organizations have practiced adaptive behavior out of necessity. It’s not new. However, it’s only when mainstream organizations (or new art TA gurus) recognize it’s worth that a discussion about non-hierarchical structures occurs. (How we’ve been pandered and lectured to because we worked as a team or collective!) Yet, those organizations that come from community and serve the community, often ethnic-specific art organizations, are never fully funded.
    If all the funding that streams to the TA cottage industry and re-granting businesses (who serve as intermediaries), were to go directly to the arts organizations/artists,instead of to technical assistant consulting businesses providers, we’d be much further. It takes money to do good work, pay responsible skilled administrators, whether collectively run or hierarchical organizations. I challenge all arts-specific philanthropic organizations (public, private, small and large) to directly fund, fund well and watch the arts bloom again across this great landscape. Try that approach next.