Innovation to what end?

map guy 2Happy New Year! This is a condensed and slightly adapted version of a short talk I gave in October at an event called Blowup: Innovation in Extreme Scenarios, hosted by a hub organization called V2, located in Rotterdam.


I predicted in an article I wrote in 2005 that “innovation” would become the next buzz word to emerge in US funding applications and I was right. Predicting the rise of innovation hardly required super human insight.  The whole world was striving to innovate—even before the great recession. And over the past few years the hunt for the next great product for the as yet untapped market has become ever-more-desperate.

Speaking of the recession, in 2008, Paul Light, a professor of public service at NYU wrote an article in which he speculated four possible futures for the subsidized sector in the US arising out of the recession:

four scenarios

  1. Rescue Fantasy: nonprofits are saved by significant increases in contributions;
  2. Withering Winterland: organizations starve themselves into a weakened organizational state;
  3. Arbritrary Winnowing: survival of the largest, oldest, and best connected organizations; and
  4. Transformation: a redesign of the sector that leaves it stronger, more vibrant, more sustainable, and more impactful.

At the end of the article, Light predicted that if we let the future take its course it would result in a Withering Winterland or Arbritrary Winnowing and noted that the benefits of transformation could only by reaped deliberate choice. The same prediction could have been made about the future state of the Dutch cultural sector following the government cuts in 2010.

And what picture is emerging in the arts and culture sectors (in both countries)?

bad scenarios

From what I can tell it appears Light’s predictions are panning out.

I have been a critic of the broken-record calls for innovation in the arts sector from governments and private funders; however, I propose to forget about the motivations, expectations, and rhetoric of those holding the money bags for a moment. Instead let’s ask ourselves whether Withering Winterland and Arbitrary Winnowing are the future scenarios that we want for the arts and culture sector. If not, then transformation may be our only choice. And yes, transformation, requires new ideas, new ways of thinking, creating, and distributing, new conceptions of our very purposes, and new value propositions.

Dare I say it? Sector-wide transformation may require innovation.

But we know this, right?

We know that the world has changed and that we need to adapt or otherwise respond to it.

We know this.

So why haven’t we seen massive transformation in the arts and culture sector in response to this changing world?

A couple decades ago two researchers, Pralahad and Bettis, asked just this question. They wondered why it is so difficult for organizations to change and why, even when organizations see change in their environment, they are unable to act.

Pralahad and Bettis conceptualize organizations as having, in essence, a dominant logic – an information filter that focuses the attention of managers on some issues but not others.  The dominant logic also underpins the beliefs about causality that are inherent to an organization’s business model. For instance, we do X, which is of value to society and, in return, Y revenues are paid to us by the government, citizens, sponsors.

We are living in an era in which the logic underpinning our institutions appears to be unsound. It is no longer clear that what we’re doing is of great value to sufficient numbers of people. It is no longer clear that enough people are going to step up and pay for us to continue pursue our missions. How many people stormed the ministry to demand subsidies for the arts in the Netherlands a few years back?

Not enough.

We need a new logic … a new relationship to society … a new way of seeing our place in the world.

Pralahad and Bettis would argue that we cannot find this new logic without first unlearning the old one.

That’s what this model is showing.

pralahad and bennis 2

This graph suggests that instability assists in unlearning an old logic: If your organization becomes sufficiently destabilized, you may abandon your old filter, thus enabling you to see the world in a different way. To see partners where previously you saw competitors. To see venues where previously you saw useless space. To see co-creators where previously you saw ticket buyers. To see clients where previously you saw “non-arts people”. To see 50 ways to deploy existing assets where previously you saw one. To see multiple businesses within your organization where previously you saw one. To see numerous markets for your services where previously you saw a single, rather niche market, of upper middle class, educated people.

Of course, unlearning is not inevitable. Finding a new dominant logic is not an automatic outcome of instability. Some organizations will simply fail. Others will hunker down, wait out the storm, and return to the status quo (the old equilibrium and dominant logic). I wrote about the latter possibility in a post last year when I picked up on a provocation by a field colleague who wondered whether the arts sector in the US had squandered the recession–whether it had, in essence, wasted its opportunity for transformation.

So if we have failed to see transformation (at the organizational or field level) perhaps one reason is that we have not yet been (or allowed ourselves to be) sufficiently destabilized, in a sense, to abandon old models and the long-held beliefs underpinning them.

But I suspect that’s not the only, or even primary, reason.

I suspect the primary reason is that we do not yet have a vision (or buy-in) for what sector-wide transformation would look like or what purpose/whose interests it would serve. And I would say the same is often true of our pursuit of innovation at the individual organization level.

My friend Todd London gave a talk at an innovation summit recently. In it he said, “I come to bury innovation, not to praise it.” I thought very much of doing the same thing today because I, too, am so weary of this discourse. I once ran an organization that had a solid reputation for being innovative; however we never attended an innovation lab or even thought about needing to innovate, per se.

Instead, I would say we had three goals: to do work that no one else in our city would dare to do; to increase the fan base for the art and artists on our stages; and to do everything possible to make sure that the experience was always social, intimate, and meaningful for both the artists and the audiences. Very simple goals and we were willing to question just about everything about the development, production and distribution of our work in order to reach them. And we were willing and able to experiment continually (1) because it was inherent to the mission of the organization and (2) because we were in a state of crisis at the time and it was clear that some things had to be blown up in order for us to move forward.

From my experience innovation is a side product of:

  • actively throwing away existing maps and having one’s organizational eyes wide open to a changing environment (i.e., having vision);
  • having strong values but flexible forms and practices;
  • encouraging creativity throughout the organization;
  • having the courage to see the truth about organizational performance and act upon it;
  • rejecting the status quo as a goal; and instead
  • continually seeking to create greater value in the world.

But how to innovate seems to me the less interesting and powerful question. Beyond “staying alive”or “replacing lost government funds” how will innovating allow you to advance your mission: increase your capacity to bring people together on equal terms, create and share knowledge, provide greater support for artists, develop and produce higher quality work, take risks, or make relevant and meaningful that which has become tired, is unfamiliar or misunderstood, or has been forgotten?

Or to do something else?

More importantly, could innovation serve the goal of sector-wide transformation? If so, how?

What would sector-wide transformation look like?

Until we can answer this question I don’t think we will successfully undertake the overhaul that is needed.

Innovation is a process, not a destination.

It’s a means to an end … The bigger question is, to what end does your organization, or the arts and culture sector as a whole, need or desire to innovate?

What is the changed state you/we want to see in the world? And why?


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  1. says


    Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi seems relevant here on both creativity and innovation: “what we call creativity is not the product of single individuals, but of social systems making judgements about individual’s products. Any definition of creativity that aspires to objectivity, and therefore requires an intersubjective dimension, will have to recognise the fact that the audience is as important to its constitution as the individual to whom it is credited.” Later in the article he writes, “how much creativity there is at any given time is not determined just by how many original individuals are trying to change domains, but also by how receptive the fields are to innovation.” Howard Gardner credits Csiikszentmihalyi with definining innovation as creativity that has impact (i.e. causes change) in a specific domain (I’m paraphrasing). Innovation causes change and change is hard – and exponentially harder as we move from the individual to the organization to the system. And if innovation is an extension of creativity, it is causing change that will involve bidirectional interaction between the creator and the audience/receptor, as the three organizational goals you list in your example recognize.

    Source of quote: M. Csikszentmihalyi (1999) A Systems Perspective on Creativity. In R. Sternberg (Ed) (1999) Handbook of Creativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 313–35

    • says

      But let’s not forget that even Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi differentiated generalized creative experience from the aesthetic (The Art of Seeing). There are all kinds of creativity and many different kinds of innovation. But Art is a different kind of innovation. It’s a different type of approach to creativity with different result than what we should expect from innovative product design or creative thinking in medicine.

  2. says

    A really interesting article, and many thanks for sharing it. As CEO of an organisation in the culture sector, I have often found myself wondering whether our best response to the current situation is to change or to focus on existing core activity and do it better. The phrase ‘adapt to survive’ has become an axiom of recessionary policy, but I am interested in identifying exactly what the external change is towards which we need to adapt.

    It is not audiences that have changed. People are still people, they still look for entertainment, challenge, inspiration and distraction in the same way they always have. They still respond to quality and behave according to their whims and desires the same way they always have. Certainly, technology and entertainment media compete constantly for their attention, but they have also given us a level playing field on which to reach far more people.

    Transformation does not happen for its own sake, but to adapt to a change in the external environment. What has changed in this environment is not the attitude, values or behaviours of audiences, but that after an anomalously-stable 13 years of public subsidy, we have a Government that is pursuing a policy of reduction of state investment. This was entirely predictable, replacing a nanny state with a nightwatchman is the mainstay of Conservation politics, and it was perhaps naive of people to expect a Liberal enlargement of state funding to continue indefinitely.

    Nor is it an aggressive anti-arts policy, as many people seem determined to believe. We’re just not that important in political terms – what is happening now to arts subsidy is simply a by-product of a much broader economic and social policy agenda.

    To me, the real change is that in the continuum of revenue-generation from tax-and-spend to pay-on-the-door, the former is no longer a viable option at sufficient scale to maintain arts output. Unsexy though it seems, then, the primary transformation we need to go through is to get people to pay directly on the door for something they have become used to paying for out of their pay packet.

    One of the main principles of a free market is that it depends on individualism, not collectivisation. In your article, you speak of a ‘sector’, but the first thing that happens when any market has to go from public to commercial is that the common nature of our organisations (and missions) becomes secondary to the individual need to deliver a specific service to a specific set of customers (you actually say this in your example of how your successful organisation behaved – not as part of a collective but with a strongly individual and competitive mission). If the transformation to be undergone is from public to private, then it is one that every arts organisation needs to go through alone.

    • says

      Nick, I hesitate to jump in the thread again but I disagree so heartedly with your assessment. History shows us that this society has been under an aggressive anti-arts policy instigated by a ultra conservative agenda. It’s been called a culture war for good reason. The plight of the arts today isn’t just happenstance. It is the result of political action.
      Why shouldn’t and couldn’t we expect a ‘liberal enlargement of state funding” to support the arts. It’s not as if we really don’t have the money.
      President John Kennedy formed the language that established the NEA in which it says that the arts hold a unique position in society in that they function differently. Art is not just another consumer product. It can’t be marketed the same way as toothpaste. Our art agencies and advocates have failed us in standing up to the political agenda that doesn’t see the real value in art. That agenda insists that the arts live of die like any other private business because they don’t care if it lives or dies. In this new business view of the arts, innovation is as good as dead.

      • says

        Dear Richard, thanks so much for this very interesting comment and for sharing your thoughts. I should state, for the record, that I would die in a ditch for the importance of the arts in enabling people to lead meaningful lives, so I think we would agree there! Where I would disagree is about the historical perspective of the commodification of the arts.

        The arts have been a commodity since there have been people. Whether it is Homeric poets exchanging flattering odes for favours or teams of Renaissance painters’ assistants churning out multiple copies of popular hits, this has always been an economic transaction. Neither the arts, nor the arts sector can afford to think of ourselves as living on some rarified plane that operates according to different rules. True the intrinsic value of the arts may not lend itself to direct accounting, but that does not mean that the arts should not be either accountable or countable.

        Over the years. I have grown suspicious of any rhetoric which supposes that there is some unseen ‘other’ political force which is pursuing a particular agenda (whether conservative or liberal). When you look behind the political curtain, all you see is people. And for that matter, people with very, very little actual power and certainly lacking the organisational capacity to pursue an anti-anything agenda in a concerted way.

        The arts lobby needs an eminece grise to fight against, because that makes us feel we can do something constructive, and our collective boogeyman is Conservative politics because that is the easiest position to caricature. It is much harder to fight market forces, and harder still to accept that sometimes the public may just not be that into what we’re doing.

        This is not to say that we shouldn’t fight for our political interests, but I do think that we need to be careful of arguments which hold that the arts (all arts) are valuable per se and must therefore be defended unilaterally.

        • says

          Nick, I’m not saying the arts are not a commodity. I’m all for artists getting paid for their services. I’m saying it’s a commodity unlike other commodities in our lives. The struggle of how the arts fit into our lives is nothing new. What is new is how the focus of that struggle has shifted from our lives, to a criticism of the value and purpose of the arts.

          I’m no expert on politics in the arts in your UK but here in the US it’s not hard to follow the paper trail of how the NEA has been gutted. It began with a christian right activist, Don Wildmon, who enlisted Senator Jessi Helms, which began a culture war that used the arts as the poster child of depravity and wasteful governmental spending. Now that war has become so successful that even our art advocates are questioning the role of our arts institutions.

          The arts certainly don’t NEED an eminence grise (who does?) and it’s obvious we aren’t doing anything constructive to really promote and support the arts. What we are doing is continuing to adopt the neo-liberal language of market forces and engagement, which interestingly can be traced all the way back to Tony Blair’s New Labor Party. This new language insists we don’t see the arts as anything more special, more “valuable per se” than anything else and therefore it shouldn’t be “defended unilaterally.” I totally disagree with that position.


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