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All About Innovating

Many of our grantees’ plans evolve and take on different shapes, and rightly so. In fact, a spectacular “failure” might be more informative and useful than a more modest “success” in terms of helping both the organization and the larger field move forward in addressing the challenges of the new century and the future.

A question I find myself asking is: How does an organization go from being one tackling an innovative project to one with an organizational culture dedicated to innovation?

Good question. Last week, the Chronicle posted a four-installment interview with Ben Cameron, program director for the arts at Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. From 2007 to 2013, DDCF is funding an “an experimental pilot initiative designed to enable a group of artistically outstanding organizations to strengthen their business in a shifting environment.” In other words, these grants don’t support particular programs, but catalyze organizational growth. They don’t sponsor a single change, but rather position companies to change and develop constantly. Ever wanted to re-think (somewhat or very radically) how you do business? These are grants specifically for that.

I dig this idea. I find it rather awesome that a major foundation is interested in getting behind the spirit of an organization, so to speak. They are not only interested in, but jazzed about funding initiatives that may not work individually — but together, might truly transform the organization. Certainly in the world of artistic programming and production, “spectacular failures” can teach you a whole lot more than “modest successes.” I sure have far better and more stimulating post-show conversations about plays that I either adored or despised than about plays to which I had a lukewarm reaction. Of course, I also would rather skip the spectacular failure and head straight to the spectacular success! But an organizational culture that encourages spectacular risk of any kind is, well, cool. And magnetic.

However, I think that Cameron asks a tough question at the end: how does an innovative spirit go from inspiring a single project to filling an entire organization? On a pragmatic level, how do you walk that fine line between asking a donor (or a foundation) to fund an exciting risk and asking them to back an idea that might not work? Or that is just out there? Moreover, all organizations are different. Large, established organizations may have the time and resources to re-develop their business model — but perhaps the risks of radical change are too great. On the flip side, smaller organization may not have that time or resources — but perhaps are less fearful of the risk involved in “transformative rather than incremental steps.”

In other words, I think that the spirit of innovation, the excitement of questions and even radical upheavals, that DDCF has chosen to promote are awesome. As is the fact that they are providing organizations with the means to ask those questions, take those steps — rather than providing the means after they know what all the steps are going to be. However, that “organizational culture dedicated to innovation” is an amorphous idea. How is that culture created and fostered? And as suggested above, are the primary obstacles to its creation not always monetary? Are companies more poised to take risks and consistently innovate when they are, as most Catalogue charities are, small and locally-minded? Most of DDCF’s Leading for the Future partners are mid-size to large arts organizations. Does size and scope have an inexorable effect on organization culture?

If you could fundamentally change, not what your company does, but how it goes about it — would that be of interest? What would you need to make that happen? Or if that culture already is (and always will be) at the core of who you are, how did that happen? To re-phrase Cameron’s question from the beginning of this post, what exactly is an “organizational culture dedicated to innovation” and how do you keep it active and alive — and spectacular?

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