Monday, April 18, 2011

Let’s Play a Game (Innovation Is The New Black)

YBCA started an organizational shift towards innovation and resilience in 2007 with a grant from The Wallace Foundation to work on broadening our reach with audiences. The evaluations that followed told us that people wanted a more active role in their cultural exposure, curating their own experiences and determining what art they wanted to see and how they wanted to see it. In 2009, YBCA received a grant from EmcArts, supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, to participate in the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts. Ten staff/board/community members, including myself, were sent to the rolling hills of Virginia to spend a week thinking about major opportunities and challenges to the organization, and how to design and prototype innovative strategies to address them. We came back with a focus on the immersive visitor experience and a plan to prototype new strategies via interdepartmental teams. In January of 2010, YBCA’s Executive Director Ken Foster presented a paper at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters discussing the implications of the economic downturn and suggesting that a transformation in arts management was needed to continue the vitality of the arts field beyond this moment of crisis. He suggested that it was imperative that the sector recognize that the world is shifting under our feet (and in the Bay Area, that even happens literally).

We now live with a new set of rules. There are no more knowns- organizations have to be flexible to respond to change, be it change with the way people engage with you, or change in the revenue streams you once relied on (endowment problems, anyone?) Nothing is permanent, and instead of stasis, organizations need to consistently experiment and refine their practices. We are dealing with a new world and new audience, largely due to technology and the accessibility that comes with it. We must find ways to communicate and build relationships through new channels and, for those people that come to us live and in-person, we need to optimize their experience. Every organization will come up with different tactics, but Ken, and I believe our organization as a whole, have recognized that we need to look for sustainability through diversity, efficiency (though not rigidity under the guise of effectiveness), and developing measures of success.*

To quote Oliver Wyman’s article Strategic Organization Design: An Integrated Approach, “the last remaining source of truly sustainable competitive advantage lies in…the unique ways in which each organization structures its work and motivates its people to achieve clearly articulated objectives.”  I continue to wonder whether we could improve upon our organization’s sustainability by further transforming the ways in which we perform our work.

I’m going to give you two scenarios and I want you to tell me which describes an contemporary arts center and which describes a design firm. 

Place 1: Staff works on interdisciplinary project teams, with a flat organizational hierarchy. Communication occurs between project teams, in group lunches and larger meetings and through email, video conferences, and internal shared blogs. They work in a large open room, with "phone booths" available for private calls, and project spaces dedicated to each team to work closely and hang up ideas, posters and timelines. Casual socializing occurs in the open work area, and other opportunities for socializing occur over weekly teatimes, or impromptu staff-organized events.

Place 2: Staff is organized into departments by skills/type of work, including Marketing, Finance, Operations, etc.  Communication occurs mostly via email, shared documents, and one-on-one, department, and staff meetings. They work in cubicles, with the majority of senior staff located in offices around the main work area. Socializing happens informally at desks, in the kitchen/break room, and at endorsed events.

Did you make your guess? Well, Place 1 is IDEO, a firm that uses human-centered design to help create or improve upon products, services, spaces, and experiences that sustain innovation and launch new ventures.  Place 2 is Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, my second home, a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary contemporary arts center committed to artistic innovation, the exploration of ideas, and engaging our community. Although one exists in a for-profit sphere and the other in nonprofit, the organizations have similar driving mechanisms; they attempt to use creativity and the diversity of human experience to champion tools for our society to express themselves and function as a community. 

From Wyman’s perspective, IDEO has succeeded in harnessing its competitive advantage.  It has used design strategies to create a workplace that create an environment that caters to the employees, the clients, and the work that they do. The company further motivates the public to innovate with OpenIDEO, an online community where people can create solutions to some of the world’s challenges.

Under the ideas of innovation and resilience is a question that comes up occasionally for YBCA. Should our internal structure mirror the kind of creativity and experimentation we’re committed to in our programming? We’re certainly not like any Fortune 500 company- workwear includes jeans, home-baked goods are often brought in and shared, sometimes the occasional arm-wrestling match breaks out (think Over the Top meets The Office). But could our workspace and ways of working be improved upon? Looking at IDEO’s Human-Centered Design toolkit, I see some practices we’ve already adopted. Multidisciplinary teams have worked well for us for events to improve communication and tap into the organizational resources. Rough and fast prototypes have been attempted and have led to larger program shifts. With the YBCA:YOU pilot program, we are looking to hear directly from our constituents around their realities when engaging with our Center and it is my hope this will impact membership, community engagement, and even curatorial. 

But what if, say, our goal is to improve and streamline audience engagement. Can we replace departments with interdepartmental teams? Can those teams have dedicated spaces to work in-perhaps even a flat hierarchy and a single budget? Can those teams work independently to plan pilots and measure impact within finite timeframes? Are the needs, barriers and constraints within the organization understood by all involved so that they can be adequately represented on each team? And above all, can we look at these big picture goals while managing all the details it takes to support an 11M budget and produce approximately 10 exhibitions, 17 performance productions, 52 public programs, 170 screenings, and 125 commercial and community rental clients that have 600 events all in the course of one year?

It’s a bit of a radical idea, particularly because I’ve made it sound less complex than it would be in actuality. But after speaking with Alan Ratliff, Experience Manager for IDEO’s San Francisco office over lunch I became even more committed to the idea that YBCA needs to capitalize on its own advantages. As he explained his job, I saw that it touched many points that are segregated in traditional job responsibilities: facilities management, building a culture of community, and using creative prompts to facilitate communication between teams. Although it’s unlikely we’d end up looking exactly like them, the IDEO toolkit says, “wild ideas often create real innovation” and this meeting inspired me to continue to encourage and challenge YBCA to move down the path it started on in 2007.  When I joined YBCA, I did not think that innovation would become the trajectory for sustainability at my organization, so maybe we’re just the kind of place to try it.

Special thanks to Alan and Angelique Illusorio for talking to me about IDEO. Be on the lookout for them again when I talk about communication and audience engagement practices at some point in the future.

Ken Foster’s article Thriving in an Uncertain World  

IDEO Human-Centered Design toolkit

*Developing measures of success is another post in itself, but I’ll give you something to think about. To communicate our necessity in the community at large (including funders), we have to be able to talk about the value of art. How do you quantify something that is not easily reduced to numbers?