Building Cultures of Innovation, Embracing Change and Becoming More Foxy

By    May 12, 2013

Red_Fox_(Vulpes_vulpes)_(4)Editor’s note:  As part of our online discussion around The Summit at Sundance, we have invited participants in The Chief Executive Program to frame each of our problems to solve. Here, Marc Vogl takes on the problem: Develop employees and organizational systems that will transform our organizations and the field.

“To expect the unexpected,” said Oscar Wilde, “shows a thoroughly modern intellect.”

And yet, it is so much easier said than done. If anticipating plot twists in the third act of a play is the learned skill of the experienced theater-goer, what then is the corollary skill of the experienced arts leader?  It’s not just to anticipate the changes that will throw your best laid plans for a loop, but to lead an organization with the resilience, resourcefulness and flexibility to roll with that change.

And those changes are everywhere and have epic consequences for artists and arts organizations.

As recently as 40 years ago racial and ethnic minorities comprised 13% of the US population, 40 years from now non-Hispanic whites will be a minority.  As the Association for American Museums observed in their recent study on demographic implications for their field, “This analysis paints a troubling picture of the “probable future”—a future in which, if trends continue in the current grooves, museum audiences are radically less diverse than the American public, and museums serve an ever- shrinking fragment of society.”

The fact that there are 25 million fewer Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1976) than there are Boomers has implications for arts organizations seeking new middle-agers to fill the halls and for talent to step up and fill leadership positions in these institutions too.  Like Boomers, the Millennials (born 1977-1994) comprise about 25% of the total population and understanding how they learn, work, engage with art and create and share culture is essential to the sector’s future too.

The accelerating pace of technological change can affect everything from how stories are told and how works of art are produced and distributed to how a patron learns about an event, purchases their ticket, is primed for an artistic experience, engages with it on-site or on-line and the quality of the relationship they have with an organization once the curtain comes down.

But technological advances are also creating new and efficient ways for non profits to be more transparent and inclusive in their decision making and to maximize the precious time offered to them by Board Members and volunteers, as Beth Kanter and Allison Fine describe in The Networked Nonprofit.  Kanter as well as Stanford scholar and self-described “philanthropy wonk” Lucy Bernholz are pressing the case that technology and the converging interests of government, funders and non-profits are now resulting in masses of data becoming available to social change organizations, enabling those who embrace it to understand their audiences, peers, geographies, funders and most crucially themselves in finer detail than ever before.

Philanthropically, the game changing innovations have sprung up around crowd-funding and there are now nearly 200 individual donation platforms.  Kickstarter alone rounded up $320 million in pledges in 2012 (up from $100 million in 2011 and $27 million in 2010). If Kickstarter were a private foundation it would be in the top 15 based on total funds disbursed, ahead of the Kellogg, Mellon, and MacArthur Foundations.

Given so many thunderous changes – in demography, technology, philanthropy and shifts in social norms and consumer behavior – doubling down on what has served the arts and culture sector well in the past seems to be, as the ecologist C.S. Holling would say, a “maladaptive” strategy.

If the field as a whole, and organizations in particular have a bright future it will be because we successfully developed employees and organizational systems capable not just of tweaks and refinements, but major transformation.

It will be because we have apprehended the myriad and swirling forces of change around, and within, our organizations and communities and adjusted.

In his book The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo describes the British philosopher Isiah Berlin’s distillation of the two types of thinkers in the world: “hedgehogs, who know one big thing, and foxes, who dart from idea to idea.”

Foxes privilege curiosity over accuracy; they are more skeptical of history and more comfortable updating their plan.

So, can we in the arts sector be ever more curious? Ever more open to change and, even, a little more foxy?


More thoughts from the field


“The workforce of the future will be different and we can predict some of what will happen based on current information.

  • Organizing one’s work around multiple allegiances and alliances is energizing to individuals; future employees of cultural nonprofits may be unwilling to accept the 120% singular commitment that many organizations today expect.
  • People want to be themselves at work, to create congruence across their interests and lifestyle choices. This will require employers to create flexible systems in which work can get done in non-traditional times, places, and spaces.
  • Employees today demand transparent, inclusive management structures. It is increasingly difficult (and counter-productive) to barricade information within a management fortress. Forward-facing management shares information freely and benefits from reciprocity of sharing by employees.

Cultural nonprofits provide a platform for engaged, meaningful work. Attracting key talent to the work will require new, more flexible work arrangements. By understanding what’s needed in the new workforce environment, cultural nonprofits can successfully compete against employers whose jobs may be higher-paying but whose work has fewer psychic and community benefits.”

Sarah Lutman (Principal, Lutman & Associates)


“Employee Development needs to be a focus for any organization, no matter their industry, size or annual revenue.  We are all in a war for talent, and need to find ways to support, develop and recognize your employees, even the smallest things can make a difference.  This is extremely important with the Gen Y employees and those fresh out of school. If you are able to adapt to the changing climate, strategies and employee needs, your company will have higher employee…and customer…engagement!” 

Karen Weeks (Manager, Learning & Development, Yodle;
Writer, Speaker and Consultant, Amplify)


How would you solve this problem? Add your ideas below!