Seattle's INTIMAN Theatre, 2006 Tony Award winner
for Outstanding Regional Theatre, is loosening control
to ensure the highest quality artistic productions,
better manage costs, and reduce the risks that come
with presenting innovative theater. Laura Penn has
been Managing Director at INTIMAN for 14 seasons,
and has seen the theater double in size. "The challenges
for our organization and the landscape we work in
are completely different then when I established my
leadership patterns. So I started to ask how I could
establish new patterns for myself and for the theatre."
INTIMAN has a great history of innovation and of
taking advantage of opportunities. The challenge Ms.
Penn and her team face is to find a way to keep that
innovative culture while managing the complexity of
the theatre's new size. "We're collaborative, collective.
Things get messy - or innovative, depending how you
want to see it. As a $6M organization, we need to
refine some processes now. We need to see when to
be innovative and when to do things in a 'standard'
way. We need to do a bit more drawing within the lines."
But can an arts organization be innovative and draw
within the lines?
Finding New Perspectives
The NAS Leading
Innovation seminar was the perfect opportunity
for Ms. Penn, Sue Leavitt, the Board President, and
Rebecca Sherr, the theatre's General Manager, to step
away from their day-to-day work and explore these
questions. Ms. Penn confesses that she's not a great
sit-still-and-listen student, which is not unusual
for experienced leaders. Ms. Penn found that "the
NAS seminar was presented in a way that I could hear
it. The clarity, the openness, the classroom environment
- they all helped. The size and diversity of the group,
even being away from Seattle. It was respectful, and
the professor for Leading
Innovation, is brilliant, really remarkable,"
Ms. Penn continued. "It was renewing and inspiring
for my staff and board to go through the experience
for themselves." The two-day seminar is designed specifically
for teams from arts organizations, and this approach
helped the INTIMAN team get the most from their investment.
"It was contemporary. The case studies included corporate
environments, and the way the discussion was structured
made these cases relevant and incredibly applicable.
The curriculum respected our industry."
Changing Day-to-Day Practices
Ms. Penn and her team came away from the seminar
with "a handful of gems about leadership" that they
are putting to work at the theatre now. A focus for
their work has been fostering innovation and efficiency
at the same time. "You need to own control of the
right things - set standards for performance, take
control of that with different levels of leadership
- and let control go with other things." Ms. Penn
and her team see this as a cultural shift for INTIMAN.
As Ms. Penn explains, "There isn't a single, isolated
thing I can point to and say that we are doing differently
as a result of the seminar. Rather we have sprinkled
gems into much of what we do on a day-to-day basis."
Project planning is one activity that is changing.
The INTIMAN staff are committed professionals who
like to perfect their ideas before they bring them
forward to the rest of the team. But the very start
of a project is often the most productive time to
give up some control and open up the process. Ms.
Penn has found a way, using the concept of "project
lifecycle costs" taught in Leading
Innovation, to break down barriers to changing
this process. By giving her team an objective way
to talk about project decisions and project costs,
this framework "has unlocked the tension around involving
people early in the development of a strategy."
Ms. Sherr is also implementing a new hiring process
that the team developed during the innovation exercise
Innovation. She is creating a centralized
process under the General Manager with a distributed
interviewing process. "The centralized function is
bringing rigor to the process and setting standards
for all new hires. The distributed interviews ensure
the cultural fit." This is a big change for the theatre,
and "requires letting go of some control for people
throughout the organization." But the seminar helped
Ms. Penn and her team see that this rebalancing of
control is essential to getting the "A" players that
they need to continue their innovative work.
Seeing Real Results
INTIMAN Theatre found "gems" in the Leading
Innovation seminar that have changed its
approach to new ideas, new opportunities, and successful
growth. It's changing the equation between control
and results for the theatre. Looking at their own
results six months after attending this NAS seminar,
Ms. Penn reflected, "Sometimes we're brought to events
where the presenters don't understand what is under
the skin of nonprofit arts organizations - but NAS
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