Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

How to Change — Small Experiments with Radical Intent

“Even if you are on the right track you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” — Will Rogers

There are many clichés about resistance to change. People prefer predictability – unfortunately, for some, change is constant and required. The Rasmuson Foundation’s new capacity building initiative for arts organizations, New Pathways, is focused on how to embrace change. Rasmuson Foundation secured a nationally recognized capacity building organization, EMCArts, to lead the New Pathways initiative and The Foraker Group will support their work on the ground in Alaska.

Almost two years ago we first met EMCArts leadership and immediately felt connected. Their values and practices complement our own. They have developed a process that helps organizations overcome resistance to change. It is simple, therefore elegant, and we are excited about this partnership and what we have learned.

Through New Pathways, arts organizations will be empowered to innovate with intent and take the risks required to adapt to emerging realities. The process used by EMCArts has impact throughout the country. Symphony orchestras, museums, theaters, and dance companies have benefitted. Many saw significant change in how they approached issues, challenged long-held assumptions and re-thought their business models. The approach could be beneficial beyond arts organizations, so once we evaluate the impact on arts nonprofits in Alaska, we may expand its use.

The process is best understood when the people at EMCArts explain their methodology. Richard Evans, the CEO at EMCArts, will present at our upcoming leadership summit (April 20-21, 2015), so we encourage your participation if you want to learn more. But now, here’s a sneak preview at some of the insights from their work:

“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

Like Foraker, understanding that all change is not good change, is essential in the EMCArts world. In our model, organizations never change who they are. In the EMCArts model, organizations approach change through identifying a new path, a “right turn” from a current path, but only changing a bit at a time. We both agree that change is good and determining what can and should change is best identified with diverse input.

One of Foraker’s factors of sustainability is called “focus.” To have focus, the first question an organization must answer is “who are we?” Once there is clarity on that point, the organization can envision “where we’re going.” While an organization can and should change what it does over time to adapt to changes in the environment, it should never change its founding purpose and principles, the original intent, because that is the foundation of “who we are” and clarity on that issue helps ensure sustainability.

EMC’s model is called the “Change Framework.” One complementary factor in their framework to our sustainability model is called Stability. They refer to stability as the tried and true “best practices” that have become the norm for nonprofit resilience. These tools include practices such as hierarchical structures, old-fashioned strategic plans that use vision-mission-goals-objectives-action steps, and ongoing dependence on policies and procedures – all used in theory to ensure the organization is “stable.” They suggest that the traditional tools for stability are no longer all that is needed for an organization to thrive. Nonprofits must strengthen their adaptive “muscles” to change – to innovate. We would agree with the need for muscles to change, but suggest a new way to discuss stability.

Working with EMCArts we realized that our sustainability model is a new, more effective way to understand and discuss stability. We have always recommended an organizational network, not a hierarchy. Our strategic planning process has always been the new way. We were among the first consultants nationally to lead strategic processes that are now the industry standard – a one-page strategic framework that does not get into detail and tactics. We know that resilient organizations are rooted in their founding values and that reduces the need for excessive policies and procedures that overly prescribe activities. Through our affiliation with EMCArts, we now understand that our model will produce better outcomes if we also encouraged more attention on an organization’s adaptive muscles.

Another factor in their framework, “Internal focus,” mirrors what Foraker calls “the right people.” Their framework describes internal focus as an organization cultivating “heroic” leadership while using teams of those heroes to express their diverse perspectives. Such input helps organizations innovate.

External focus,” another one of their factors, describes the capacity of leadership to successfully adapt to change. When leaders observe and reflect on how similar organizations embrace change and adopt an entrepreneurial “competitiveness,” it often provides the needed incentive to try something new. Ultimately it could help leaders stay focused on the future and adapt as required.

Their last factor, “adaptability,” describes how to innovate and change. Change is hampered when an organization seeks perfection and predictability. Perfection is the enemy of adaptation. Once leadership accepts the need to change and has some clarity on the desired result, they should experiment – take a small step, then evaluate. If the experiment fails, learn and rethink the approach. If it succeeds, evaluate why, and then determine how to take another, bigger step. In others words, their simple solution for change is to continuously incubate new ideas with diverse input, learn by doing, and over time change becomes easier and organizations build adaptive muscles.

I am working with an initiative that has been in the planning phase for over a decade. The leader is a perfectionist. After years of hard work, we are close to success – we can finally see a path forward. We could actually implement the vision. But if the leader demands perfection, the team will not be able to take the initial step. They may go back to ground zero…or worse, into a chasm? Leader(s) must muster the energy to accept ambiguity and flaws. We must take risks and be willing to make mistakes in order to adapt.

In last month’s newsletter we suggested that when we envision game changing goals, we understand that it may take years to see results – more than the three-to-five years allowed in “old style” strategic planning. But when we can dream big and accept potential failure by setting such lofty goals, we can truly transform how we do what we do and maximize impact. And if we continue to learn and grow, we can actually change the world.

The EMCArts process promotes such bold vision. Their tactic is to try small experiments with radical intent. If we know where we want to go and have a hunch on what to do, then we should try it. But instead of going big, changing everything and therefore risking everything, we should start slow, learn, try again and continue until we have more certainty. When we have more certainty, then we take the new approach to scale.

Too often we over-think, over-plan, and work to minimize risk. Or we throw caution to the wind and stop what we think isn’t working to try something totally new – a do or die moment. EMCArts convinced us that dreaming big, and then starting slow and small and adapting is the most prudent path forward.

One last aspect of their model that is critical is that true innovation only occurs when we are open to possibilities, when we have a learning environment, when we have adaptive leaders, and when we utilize teams that include diverse constituents. That recipe helps us to break routine – to create a new path. Traditional planning was primarily done by senior staff and boards and still may have merit. But our colleagues at EMCArts have learned that when we seek input from staff at many levels as well as from volunteers, participants, clients, or even funders, we can have more success – a breakthrough that leads to radical change.