Business As Usual In The Innovation Industry

Business As Usual In The Innovation Industry is the fifth in a series of six essays taking a critical look at innovation culture, its assumptions, influences and impact.


In 2009 I was invited by HERE Arts Center to join their team for EmcArts’ Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts and spend five days at the luxurious Airlie Center for an intense, immersive innovation experience. We started early each morning, got caffeinated, locked ourselves in our meeting rooms and dug in for hour after hour of brainstorming, ideation exercises and heated debates about adaptive challenges.

I still remember the incredible high I got coming out of it: the buzz, the excitement at all the innovation energy we generated and all the cool new words I learned to describe our “out of the box” big ideas and BHAGs. For the week or so after I was super pumped. So I know the thrill, the energy, the passion of being a change agent, a soldier in the innovation army bringing the magic back to my musty old arts organization to maximize its under-realized potential. But over time the excitement faded, and I have come to believe that the whole process was a hugely expensive, labor-intensive participatory dog and pony show just so HERE could build a decent website.

I remained skeptical until my persistent, desperate need for funding compelled me to prepare an application for the eight round of the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts. After a lengthy phone call with Liz Dreyer and much conversation with my potential collaborators, I chose not to submit my proposal. Try as I might, I couldn’t twist myself into an appropriately dysfunctional knot to fit the criteria. I don’t have an adaptive challenge, I don’t need to question my underlying assumptions; I’m already inventing, innovating and creating change; I’m not broken, I don’t need fixing, I just need money and, maybe, a start-up incubator environment.

I swore I’d never do it again, but under the grueling strain of my unrelenting fiscal precarity, a friend convinced me to enter the ArtsFwd Business Unusual Challenge. Once again I spent over an hour on the phone, this time with Karina Mangu-Ward, trying to twist myself into an appropriate knot. Karina was extremely generous, helpful and enthusiastic, but I should have known better than to continue. If you have to try that hard to fit in, you’re probably applying to the wrong club. But my desperation for money drove me to continue.

I was chosen as a competitor and, shortly after the Challenge launched, realized that I was being asked to spam everyone I knew requesting that they vote for me daily, just to get to the next round of finalists, which would lead to another round of “crowdsourcing”, that would maybe, eight months later, result in a small grant. I withdrew from the competition both on principle and out of practicality.

When I first articulated my misgivings, some people thought I should give the whole thing the benefit of the doubt. But increasingly as I talked to the many, many individuals in my extensive social network who have been through these programs, I realized it wasn’t just me! Casual conversations led to other conversations until colleagues were actively seeking my counsel. “Is it just me?” they would ask, “or does everyone feel like this Kafkaesque exercise in self-justification to get funding is really just another incomprehensible layer of complication making our lives harder?”  And that’s when I began to see the light.


As I stated in this series’ first essay, “…the underlying assumption that the arts in America are in crisis and in need of innovation is wrong.” The Arts Innovation Program was originally developed for major legacy arts institutions like symphonies, operas and ballets, many of whom do, in fact, face significant adaptive challenges and require new thinking. But the vast majority of small and mid-sized arts organizations are not broken so much as they are in a constant state of precarity that could largely be addressed by reliable funding streams to support general operations and less onerous grant application processes that would allow them to focus more on delivering services and less on raising money.

When small and mid-sized arts organizations behave in dysfunctional ways, it is often because they are trying to survive as rational actors in a dysfunctional system. And yet how do you call out a dysfunctional system when you are dependent on that system for your survival?

Even EmcArts’ own literature suggests that the problem is systemic, not merely particular. They propose to address the following concerns through their innovation strategies:

  1. Engaging audiences, and the wider community, in new ways
  2. Rethinking program formats, venues and approaches
  3. Involving the public in co-creating arts activities
  4. Using technology and the Web to create and engage with artistic experiences
  5. Reconsidering the role of the creative artist in the organization
  6. Restructuring the organization for new demands and new ways of doing business
  7. Partnering or merging with other organizations for greater reach and impact

The “innovation activities” listed above are proposed without identifying the problems they are meant to address. So let’s do a little restructuring to reveal the inferred problems:

  1. Engaging audiences, and the wider community, in new ways
    1. Declining audiences for established arts organizations operating within the recognized boundaries of “the arts”
    2. Audience dissatisfaction with relationship to organizations
    3. Audience dissatisfaction with program content, formats and venues
  2. Using technology and the Web to create and engage with artistic experiences
    1. Sector wide misunderstanding of new technology
    2. Sector wide lag in adopting new technology and adapting to new cultural landscape
    3. Sector wide misunderstanding of vocabularies associated with new technology
    4. Sector wide misunderstanding about strategic and effective implementation of new technology
  3. Restructuring organization for new demands and new ways of doing business
    1. Reconsidering the role of the creative artist in the organization
    2. Reconsidering the relationship between organization, artist and audience
    3. Partnering or merging with other organizations for greater reach and impact
    4. Reconsidering the meaning of “not-for-profit” and “mission-driven”

A rigorous root cause analysis would probably be useful here, but given the circumstances, I’ll leave that for someone else. Looking at the problems in aggregate, we see a theme emerge: a profound disconnect between the expectations of audiences, artists and organizations that no longer share a common language, vision or sense of purpose. (We’ve briefly addressed this disconnect in the fourth essay of this series, “Seeing Value in the Arts”.)

That disconnect is the source of the systemic dysfunction and it is not one that any organization can solve solely for itself or on its own. Real change would require that the onus of systemic innovation be placed not solely on arts organizations, but on all stakeholders in an interdependent system, particularly those stakeholders who have the most influence over resource allocation and policy.

So why are the other stakeholders in the system so eager to “fix” organizations and so reluctant to look at themselves? What is preventing them from seeing their own participation in this cycle of dysfunction?


The EmcArts’ Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts RFP posits that, “The evolution of breakthrough strategies is often represented as having three stages” the first being “The emergence of ‘big ideas’ from a background of no ideas”.

To the first point, I’m usually skeptical of anyone who comes out of the gate with a “big idea” – my experience has been that ideas only reveal themselves as Big Ideas after the fact. The Big Idea is usually the result of one or two theories and small changes in the way we think, ideas that iterate and propagate over time, transforming our behavior until eventually we realize everything has changed. As Ernest Hemingway is purported to have said, “Change happens slowly…then all at once.”

To the second point, I’ve never been in an arts organization that had no ideas. My life in the arts has exposed me to more artists and small arts organizations with amazing ideas than I could possibly have time or resources to write about, much less implement. There is no shortage of ideas!!

As we are confirming through our work at Brooklyn Commune, and I have found through my own lived experience, artists and small arts organizations are always inventing and innovating; always coming up with unexpected, creative solutions to real challenges, not “adaptive” challenges; there is absolutely not a shortage of good ideas. What there is, is a lack of infrastructure or capacity to bring funders’ attention to their work and a proliferation of barriers to access for resources and support to do the amazing things they’re already doing.

So why does everyone keep insisting that it is only the organizations and artists that are broken and need fixing?

Implicit in the assumption that an arts organization needs a consultant’s services to experience “breakthrough” organizational innovation is the understanding that those services are, unto themselves, innovative. But let’s take a closer look.

Requiring individual arts organizations to reframe their need for resources in terms of “innovation” is not innovative; it is really just asking them to find new language for the same requests. It doesn’t seem like an effective way to encourage arts organizations to engage in rigorous introspection about their values and processes or to actually re-think their relationship to capital, the correlation between mission, structure and program implementation, audience engagement, community building and the arts.

Brooklyn Commune has also made it eminently clear that one of the most important and positively disruptive innovations we see on the ground, outside of formal organizations, is collaboration. Here on the outside, artists and small organizations have to collaborate to survive, we have to share resources and knowledge, and through those collaborations disparate voices come together in surprising ways, invention and innovation abound.

Yet all participating organizations in EmcArts programs are “selected on a competitive basis” and the ArtsFwd Business Unusual Challenge went even further by pitting 14 very different organizations against each other to become one of five finalists to compete against each other yet again in a “winner take all” scenario. This byzantine and unnecessarily competitive framework creates even more opposition between arts organizations – and artists – vying for limited resources, thus perpetuating widely accepted previous practices that are regressive and exclusionary. In what way is propagating a culture of scarcity that expressly inhibits creativity and sustainable growth innovative?

In reality, the “innovation” agenda as currently practiced benefits the consultants more than it helps organizations or artists.


EmcArts claims to be “recognized as the leading nonprofit provider of innovation services to the arts sector nationwide.” But for an organization that claims to “exist to strengthen the capacities and effectiveness of nonprofit arts and cultural organizations, serving their needs in the design and management of innovative change”, their programs are disappointingly counter-innovative.

An innovative – or at least strategic – approach towards creating meaningful, lasting change in the arts sector would be to actively seek out organizations, initiatives and projects that already demonstrating impact, support them, study them and introduce their practices and frameworks into less innovative contexts. (That’s what good curators do, btw).  But all of EmcArts’ programs have onerous application procedures that implicitly exclude not only the stakeholders most likely to be innovative, but also vast swaths of people who actually need support, like individual artists or companies operating without a 501c3, small arts organizations who can’t spend hours and hours on an application with almost no likelihood of success. Not to mention all the small-to-medium sized organizations that will require even more time and resources to develop an application with stakeholder buy-in, meaning senior management and board members, along with key members of development, finance and administrative staff will end up spending, cumulatively, a week’s worth of work to create a new program and craft an application with no real indicator of the eventual success of the proposal or the program.

Just look at the lengthy Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts application which consists of a 9 bullet-point cover sheet, a four page narrative and organizational information including audit/financial sheets, as itemized in this checklist:


[To review in its entirety, download PDF of RFP here]

And check out the Business Unusual Challenge The Adaptive Challenge worksheet here, or to see the scope of the entire convoluted program and application process, download the Business Unusual press release here.

While both the Innovation Lab and The ArtsFwd Business Unusual Challenge deploy industry standard proposal processes that implicitly reinforce systemic disenfranchisement of wide swaths of the arts sector, The Business Unusual challenge puts EmcArts’ regressive practices into stark relief.

Conceived by EmcArts as an innovative program “to crowdsource bright minds in and outside the arts sector to tackle the most significant challenges facing organizations today” close examination reveals it to be nothing of the sort. Let’s deconstruct the program design and implementation:

Phase 1, “a national call for adaptive challenges”, is flawed from the outset in its pursuit of adaptive challenges rather than existing innovative practices. But leaving that aside, we don’t know the reach of the call for proposals. If the program is meant “to crowdsource bright minds in and outside the arts sector” what constituencies or organizations outside the arts sector did they target for proposals and how was the program designed to facilitate non-arts stakeholder engagement? Was there any strategy? Was it about STEM to STEAM or some specific cross-disciplinary conversation? Did they talk to the NEA about the Federal Interagency Task Force?

There’s a lot of work being done right now to reach across sectors and introduce the arts into other conversations. So how is EmcArts leveraging that work and those connections to identify, aggregate and engage “bright minds in and outside the arts sector” in a thoughtful, strategic way?

Not only is the reach of the call for proposals unclear, what is the reach of ArtsFwd website itself? Who are its readers and what are its traffic numbers? It appears to be primarily a trade publication for mainstream arts administrators – and by extension a marketing platform for EmcArts innovation services – so it seems unlikely that they would reach the “margins” of the arts sector (where innovation happens?) much less connect with potential innovators from “outside the arts sector”.

Phase 2 disingenuously proposes that “ArtsFwd readers will vote to determine the top five Finalists”, when by “ArtsFwd readers” they really mean “the online social networks of the competing arts organizations.”

Notwithstanding that the voting platform crashed within hours of its launch, thus invalidating the entire voting process, one must question the logic of turning arts organizations into spammers. The ArtsFwd Business Unusual Challenge essentially asked the eleven competitors to relentlessly message their constituencies via email, Twitter and Facebook imploring them to visit the ArtsFwd website and vote once a day, every day, for their favorite organization, all in a desperate attempt to win $15K in cash and $20K of consulting services donated in-kind. Just contemplating that fantastic abuse of trust and goodwill, not to mention the squandering of these organizations’ already scarce resources, makes me shudder in sorrow and disbelief. Is this merely poor program design or is it an intentional mechanism for gathering constituent email addresses via voter opt-in, thus expanding ArtsFwd’s reach and promoting its agenda?

Furthermore, it seems counterintuitive to pit an organization like The WaterFire Festival with a civic mission, an audience base that includes the entire city of Providence, RI and 38,280 likes on its Facebook page (as of the challenge launch) against smaller organizations like HowlRound or GlobalFest. And more importantly, what makes having a large and engaged social network a relevant factor in the selection process or, for that matter, a likely predictor of successful innovation? Dance New Amsterdam had a large network, made it into the competition and subsequently went bankrupt.

The premise that having a large and actively engaged online social network is an indicator of likely success in innovation is not only wrong, it is clearly biased, and making it integral to the competitive process starkly reveals a mistaken underlying assumption.

In a recent blog post on the HBR blog network, Whitney Johnson, co-founder of Clayton M. Christensen’s investment firm Rose Park Advisors (and former music major!) wrote, “Innovation happens when we cultivate diversity and cross-disciplinary collaboration, when we play in the in-between.”

We know that the national arts ecosystem has deeply rooted “adaptive challenges” in supporting groups from disadvantaged communities that frequently include constituencies from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. We suffer from unequal resource allocation to those communities and vastly disparate levels of support, even by region.

At the NPN Conference in Philadelphia in December 2012 I met administrators from places like Alaska who were creating innovation and change in very small communities with extremely limited resources and seemingly insurmountable challenges. I met people whose constituencies had very limited access to the Internet or had a significant older population that is not Internet savvy. There are many communities throughout the country with significant populations of immigrants, people for whom English is a second, or even third, language. Throughout the country, at all levels, there are artists and small arts organizations serving vital roles in communities that are not represented online; that don’t live on Facebook and Twitter and email but nonetheless are doing essential, innovative work that merits support.

So I think it is valid to question the bias of the Business Unusual competition towards organizations with “highly engaged” online communities. The ArtsFwd Business Unusual Challenge is exactly the opposite of what it proclaims, it is entirely Business As Usual, in that it privileges organizations with the resources to develop competitive proposals and aggressively excludes small arts organizations and organizations serving disadvantaged communities, immigrant communities, diverse cultural organizations existing outside the mainstream of “the arts”, older populations and anyone who, for one reason or another, has little to no social media reach.  Are none of those organizations capable of innovation? Are none of those organizations worthy of $15K in cash and $20K of in-kind support?

Phase 3, proposes that “Big thinkers, specialists in the field, and ArtsFwd readers will be invited to contribute inspirations and ideas in response to the challenges articulated by the five finalists.” Once again, what are the criteria for “big thinkers” or “specialists” and how do those voices serve the goals as proposed in Phase 2 of reaching outside the arts sector? With no discernable strategy in place, this seems suspect at best. But more glaringly problematic is the use of “crowdsourcing” as a technique, which, as I suggested above, reveals EmcArts’ mistaken underlying assumptions or at least misunderstanding of social ideation processes facilitated by new technology.

Crowdsourcing, much like “the commons”, (see Essay 2), is a term that is mostly misunderstood and widely abused, both in discourse and in practice.

For crowdsourcing to work as a tool for innovation – or anything – you first and foremost need a crowd – a really big crowd. If we accept that innovation happens in the margins and “when we cultivate diversity and cross-disciplinary collaboration, when we play in the in-between”, then a process of crowdsourcing requires a crowd big enough, diverse enough and cross-discipline enough to create the possibility of the unexpected, of incongruity, of actual disruption. You also have to be prepared to actually see things in a new way when presented with ideas or evidence that contradict widely held beliefs. So whether it is the ArtsFwd challenge or a Dinnervention you need to actually stop playing insider baseball and build a massively available, open and participatory platform with significant reach. But the ArtsFwd challenge did no such thing.  To illustrate, let me use a real life imaginary example from recent political events.

Let’s say Congressman Bill Cassidy from Louisiana’s 6th District decided to crowdsource his position on Obamacare. He might build a website, use his email list and online social networks, he may do a direct mail campaign or even deploy volunteers on the ground to traverse the district and gather opinions. Sure looks like crowdsourcing to me! Except for the fact that his district was redrawn in 2010 due to Republican gerrymandering efforts and its white majority increased from 60 to 74%, which led to Cassidy being elected in 2012 with a nearly 70% margin of victory. 70%!!! So the odds of him getting some kind of innovative, out of the box, new idea on Obamacare (or integration or civil rights or the role of government generally) from the process of crowdsourcing is unlikely at best.

The ArtsFwd Business Unusual Challenge crowdsourcing strategy is not any different or more effective than the theoretical example cited above. If you crowdsource in an echo chamber, you’re not going to find new ideas.

Which brings us to Phase Four, where “a panel of outsiders and EmcArts staff will determine one Winner.”  Who are these outsiders, where have they been for the entire process up to this point and what qualifies them to make these decisions? Are they disinterested outsiders from other sectors or are they sector stakeholders who were “outside” the process? And, as noted before when talking about “the commons” and “crowdsourcing”, how does reinforcing the inside/outside paradigm in the arts sector actually move us towards any kind of new insight or knowledge or behavior? If this whole arduous drawn-out process ultimately ends with EmcArts making the decision, why didn’t they just make the decision in the first place months ago? Why perpetuate this charade? Why coerce these organizations and their participating stakeholders into this nightmarish competitive process? To what end – and cui bono?

I’m serious when I ask this, because the finalists all have very different proposals with very different desired outcomes and it is unclear what the ArtsFwd challenge was meant to accomplish in the bigger picture. Some competitors are, at the most fundamental level, trying to get funds for artist fees, to do what they are already doing, while other competitors devised entirely new programs that haven’t even been prototyped. So what was ArtsFwd thinking by including a pre-beta early-concept program next to an established music festival, an imperiled dance presenter and a youth choir? How is the program, overall, designed to engage meaningfully with innovative thinking from outside the sector and introduce new ideas?


Between its inception in 2006 up to today, the Innovation Agenda in the arts has been productized and marketed as a solution to the sector’s problems without being subjected to rigorous inquiry. And now in 2013 we are presented with the National Innovation Summit for Arts + Culture where we are invited to “join the virtual summit” and “experience all 27 powerful talks … via livestream from anywhere in the world.” These “powerful” talks by “bold” leaders will highlight the “remarkable and mostly untold stories” of innovation in the arts across the country. Mmmkay. Even if the transparently sales-driven overuse of Hollywood/Madison Ave-style maximum strength adjectives describing the content doesn’t give it away, it’s pretty clear where this whole thing’s going, or what it aspires to.

Sources say that speakers at EmcArts’ Arts Innovation Summit are being compelled to take mandatory speech coaching so the presentations look more like TED talks – professional, corporate, dynamic, exciting. Fortunately I don’t have to deconstruct the whole TED thing, Thomas Frank did it just a few days ago on, but the last thing the arts needs is a slick wannabe TED-style ideas marketplace creating the illusion of innovation and change, trumpeting “creativity” when it benefits consultants, senior administrators and large institutions but never artists, inventors, start-ups and outliers.

For that matter, sources tell me that these speakers, culled from the ranks of “innovation success stories” are not only unpaid, but are required to sign five page contracts favorable to EmcArts. So is this conference about creating real change in and for the arts and arts organizations – or is it about, yet again, getting free labor from arts workers to perform their gratitude to consultants while marketing EmcArts’ innovation services to the funders from all over the country who will be in attendance?

But the virtual summit is available for free online and you can even participate! Surely that is open, transparent and good for the sector at large? Not really.

The virtual summit invites you to “join the conversation online” while you watch from home, “using the Twitter hashtag #ArtsFwd.” You are assured that “your comments and questions will be actively integrated into the discussion following each group of Talks and shared with the on-site speakers.”

Tweeting while watching other people talk is not joining a conversation, and it is not terribly difficult to see how this is merely a performance of participation, as removed from actual participation as voting via text message for your favorite American Idol singer, perhaps even less so. As I wrote in a previous essay:

Twitter ‘conversations’, however well-intentioned, are doomed to failure simply because the medium is not conducive to actual conversation. It is like using a teaspoon to carve a turkey. Or fortune cookie fortunes to write a novel.

At 140 characters per message, Twitter is an insufficient platform for proposing thoughtful questions, much less sustaining meaningful discourse. In fact, its name was chosen specifically because the founders liked the dictionary definition of Twitter as, “a short burst of inconsequential information.”

“Your comments and questions will be actively integrated into the discussion” implicitly discloses that some comments and questions will be chosen, others left out. This means the discussion will be constructed by the moderator’s editorial decisions in real time, giving him or her ultimate control over the narrative, both as it happens and in the “official” archived version made available online after the fact. This is no different than TED or, for that matter, an interview with Oprah on television. Media, by definition, mediates, and whoever controls the editing process controls the narrative. This structure is fundamentally old media, business as usual, top down decision making and narrative control gussied up to look like something new, shiny and innovative.

There is an aphorism that has stuck with me for years and though it is kind of cheesy, it has stood the test of time: “How you do anything is how you do everything”.  If the way you develop and implement your innovation programs is not innovative, it seems unlikely that true innovation will be your result. To quote that great American artist-innovator George Burns, “Acting is all about honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Creating the illusion of transparency is not the same as actually being transparent, performing participation is not the same as actually inviting and facilitating real participation where stakeholders have agency to dissent, to criticize and to offer real alternatives. When we look at the Innovation Agenda and the upcoming summit brimming with “success stories”, all the buzzwords are there – “crowdsourcing”, “big ideas”, “adaptive challenges”, “breakthrough thinking” – but none of the behavior. You can use all the buzzwords you want to create the appearance of change, but it is not enough; one must actually change. And real change is hard.

This reminds me of an article called “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person”, (on of all places!) by humorist David Wong:

…that’s the step that gets skipped — it’s always “How can I get a job?” and not “How can I become the type of person employers want?” It’s “How can I get pretty girls to like me?” instead of “How can I become the type of person that pretty girls like?” See, because that second one could very well require giving up many of your favorite hobbies and paying more attention to your appearance, and God knows what else. You might even have to change your personality. 

I think back to 2009 and the awesome contact high I got from attending the Innovation Retreat at Airlie. I described it earlier as “the thrill, the energy, the passion of being a change agent, a soldier in the innovation army….” And then I think about friends who return from a weekend at a Landmark Forum Retreat or worked at Lululemon and then quit because it is cult-y and weird. I think about that amazing scene from the movie Safe, where Julianne Moore tries to use all the self-help language she’s acquired during her retreat to recover from a chemical sensitivity syndrome that may or may not be real. I think of Laura Dern’s character on the now-cancelled Enlightened and how human beings can convince ourselves of almost anything. That feeling of being transformed is intense and gratifying, it is a quick hit of power and confidence, it is the feeling that we are, once again, in control of our lives and our destiny and we are, inevitably, working towards the good. But then you have to do the work of actually changing yourself and more often than not you just find new language to mask the same behaviors.

The Innovation Industry has become strikingly adept at creating the illusion of innovation, of collaboration, transparency, openness and inclusion while engaging in and perpetuating the same counterproductive behavior at the root of the ongoing systemic dysfunction. When we look closely at the Innovation Industry  we see it for what it is – an elaborate sleight of hand in which very intelligent, well-intentioned people have come to accept as true many fundamentally flawed underlying assumptions. A number of very intelligent, experienced, well-intentioned, passionate, committed people are working incredibly hard to create change that they desperately – and understandably – want to see, but aren’t clearly seeing the very real changes that are happening all around them in the moment.

Real change isn’t going to happen by doing business as usual and calling it innovation, by fostering competition and a cultural of scarcity, by creating ever increasing complications and barriers and propping up unsustainable structures. Real change isn’t going to happen by doing things the same old way but using new words. It will require truly discontinuous behavior. It will require action. So how might we create real change?

We’ll explore that in the next, and final, essay in this series.

4 thoughts on “Business As Usual In The Innovation Industry”

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