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The Transformative Power of Innovation

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
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This guest post is by Richard Evans, president, EmcArts Inc. AAM is partnering with EmcArts, with the generous support of MetLife Foundation, to offer Innovation Lab for Museums. The Request for Proposals for the Lab has just been released, proposals are due Oct. 31.
At EmcArts, we work with some of the most courageous and forward-looking cultural organizations in the country. They are all responding positively to the demand for new practices, and making space to challenge and depart from “business-as-usual.”  Through the remarkable participants in our programs that incubate organizational innovation, we have learned a good deal about how organizations do this crucial work well. On the occasion of the public launch of the new national Innovation Lab for Museums, in collaboration with CFM, here are some of the things we’ve learned that may be of use as you consider this new program opportunity.
Innovation is different from creativity
Don’t confuse innovation with “creativity” (or “ideas”) and think that innovation is like lightning striking—rarely, and never in the same place twice—so it cannot be relied upon or regularly repeated. These are two quite different qualities. Creativityis a characteristic of individuals, where innovationis a group, or corporate, activity. It requires people to work together to turn ideas into practical projects that can feasibly be implemented. Innovation changes things by applying ideas to practice.
Innovation is a means to an end
In our programs, the purpose of innovating is to achieve new public value and advance the organization’s mission. To put it bluntly, we need to do things differently than in the past because established strategies are not producing the returns they used to, our perceived value to our communities is not on an upward trajectory, and other organizations, or sectors, are seen to be delivering more vital services. If we do not shift our organizational assumptions, and develop new approaches that leverage current social dynamics rather than rely on cherished principles from the past, then we will drift toward inconsequence—or grind painfully toward dissolution.
Innovating needs a process framework to sustain it
Without a well-researched incubation structure, green shoots of innovation tend either to wither under the glare of established practices, or become excessively wacky so as to justify their existence, regardless of mission. The Innovation Lab for Museums provides a formal structure to support your work, because innovation won’t be something you’re used to, or practiced at, so you won’t be able to rely on the processes you already know. The Lab framework protects the work of your innovation team from the fatal attraction of business as usual, so the team has the freedom to open up new pathways.
Innovation is a learned organizational behavior
It would be nice if museums could innovate easily by just trying new things. But it’s not just a matter of debating the possibilities, selecting one and saying “Go forth and innovate…..” To be consistently innovative as an organization is a difficult learned behavior, the result of making conscious choices (in personnel, in structures and systems, in definitions of success) and taking imaginative risks. The Lab will help museums learn how to achieve and sustain those conditions—what Kathleen Cerveny calls “an internal culture of self-awareness, attention to the environment and willingness to change.”

Treat innovation as a vital new management discipline
“Can you really pursue innovation?” I am glad to say the answer from the field to this question is a resounding “Yes.” The more difficult question is: “Can we systematize innovating?” Our work at EmcArts suggests we can, using incubation frameworks and carefully designed facilitation to build innovation “muscles” for the longer term. A 2008 report from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Intentional Innovation, encourages not-for-profit organizations to embrace innovation as a permanent part of their core competencies, calling it “a rational management discipline with its own distinct set of processes, practices, and tools.”
I hope these thoughts help clear the undergrowth around that slippery word, “innovation,” and encourage you to think about doing things differently in response to the radical changes happening around us. We know there are lots of museum leaders who could take advantage of this opportunity, so I encourage you to learn about the Innovation Lab for Museums, and seize the opportunity to apply!
The Innovation Lab for Museums is an 18–24 month program in which EmcArts facilitators work with “Innovation Teamscomprised of senior managers and board representatives in combination with museum staff, artists and scientists, educationalists and/or external voices from inside and outside the cultural sector. The Lab provides individual coaching, group facilitation, an Intensive Retreat and a variety of extended support systems tailored to the needs of each organization, including support grants of $40,000 toward project prototyping. 

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  1. Given EmcArts' emphasis on innovation as "discontinuous change," I'm surprised that the eligibility requirements include stable leadership for the past 18 months. Discontinuous change–and innovation–is often prompted by change in leadership or serious threats to an institution's survival. Could someone from Emc provide some more context for this requirement?

  2. Thanks for the comment, Nina. CFM and EmcArts included this stipulation because of previous experience with organizations in the throes of leadership transition. Some have not proven able to sustain the necessary focus on discontinuous change for the Lab to be useful, because the leader's imminent departure has distracted the organization, or the newly arrived leader has gradually realized he or she needs to establish relationships around existing practices as a prelude to engaging in adaptive change.

    My advice to museums would be that, if you have emerged from a leadership transition and find yourselves in a stable place where there is real institutional commitment to addressing discontinuous change, then please apply and make the case for this being an appropriate time to mobilize resources for this kind of 18 – 24 month journey, even if new leadership arrived within the last 18 months. We don't want this stipulation to exclude museums that have absorbed a transition and have new energy for effective change! It will ultimately be up to the selection panel to see if such applications are competitive.

    Richard Evans
    EmcArts Inc.
    EmcArts | Transformative Programs for Organizational Change

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