Chicago Chronicles: Workshop #2 Frameworks for Innovative Practice

Rachel Bergren of the Lincoln Park Zoo reflects in her experiences in the New Pathways Program, which aims to incubate innovation in the arts community of Chicago.

Lincoln Park Zoo, along with our colleagues and other innovators-in-training, gathered for the second New Pathways for the Arts workshop in mid-September. In this workshop, we explored innovative frameworks and practiced techniques related to the effective design and management of adaptive change processes.

I thought I would use this blog post to share three thought-provoking maxims I jotted down, which prompted further research on my part, and two simple exercises that I found useful to jumpstart outside-the-box thinking.

Maxim #1. Innovation is a Management Discipline

There are many definitions of innovation, but Geoff Mulgan provides one that I find particularly useful. Innovation, he says, is simply “New ideas that work.”  I find it useful because it distinguishes innovation from improvement (which is incremental) and creativity and invention (which don’t include the hard work of implementation) – all of which might play a role in innovation, but are not the same.

For me, Mulgan’s definition is a reminder that innovation isn’t an uncontrollable or unpredictable force that hits like a lightning bolt out of the blue. This lead me to the Kellogg Foundation’s definition of innovation, which argues that innovation “Can be a rational management process with its own distinct set of processes, practices, and tools,” and more importantly, “Research shows that this type of systematic innovation in an organization typically yields much more productive, scalable, and sustainable ideas over time.”

These definitions challenged me to reconsider my understanding of innovation and to begin to see how innovation is a legitimate and important organizational discipline, just like communications, fundraising, research, marketing, and planning.

Maxim #2. From Judgment to Movement

Innovation is possible when we move from “judgment” (“How does this idea stack up to our past experiences?”) to “movement” (“What can we make of this idea?”). As an educator and facilitator who genuinely believes that “there is no such thing as a bad idea,” this approach appeals to me because it creates an inclusive and accepting environment where any idea has the potential to become an innovative solution to a long-standing challenge.

Maxim #3. Act Your Way into a New Way of Thinking

Instead of training ourselves to a new way of thinking, some innovation experts suggest that, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than it is to think your way into a new way of acting.” In other words, innovation is often stifled by our impulse to hold everything up to a familiar yardstick and we succumb to “analysis paralysis.” Instead, we are more likely to experience innovative breakthroughs when we apply a systematic process, which is designed to support innovation from the beginning.

Lateral Thinking Exercises

The workshop introduced participants to two relatively simple exercises that can be used to generate new ideas when faced with adaptive challenges.

Exercise 1. Random Entry

The first exercise, “Random Entry,” utilizes random word choices to stimulate new lines of thinking and reveal connections between seemingly unrelated things. During our session, an organization described an adaptive challenge they were facing related to providing programs to reach untapped young adult audiences. First, we were asked to rattle off a list of terms related to the randomly selected word “government.” Many were proposed, such as “money,” “service,” and “gridlock.” Then, the word “gridlock” was randomly selected from the list, and we were challenged to come up with programs for young adults related to the term “gridlock.”

Although these two ideas have nothing in common on the surface, the group created an impressive list of ideas, such as, offering programs in the streets—the programs would be so popular, they would cause “gridlock,” and offering programs using a grid or block system that would allow young adults to select programs that aligned with their busy schedules, thus avoiding scheduling “gridlock,” and so on and so forth. Not only was this a fun, interactive and action-oriented exercise, but it actually produced useful and innovative ideas that have real potential for our colleague and his organization. How exciting!

Exercise 2. Innovation Transfer

The second exercise called “innovative transfer” seeks similar results—creating a new way of thinking and identifying solutions to a challenge – but it uses a much different approach. Instead of connecting on seemingly disjointed concepts to create new ideas, innovative transfer focuses on the emotion response to an adaptive challenge and draws on past success to create new strategies.
The first step is to identify an adaptive challenge. Then, list the feelings (affective or emotional responses) that arise when considering this particular challenge. For example, in response to this adaptive challenge: “We don’t know if we are meeting the needs of our diverse audiences,” some example feelings might be “overwhelmed,” “anxiety,” “pressure,” “curiosity,” or “hope.”

From this list of feelings, participants were then asked to consider other situations that evoked the same type of emotional response, with examples such as “leading a new team” or “overhauling a beloved program.” From this list, we were asked to focus on one situation that went well and then to list all of the strategies that were used to meet that challenge successfully, such as “regular communication,” “taking time for research and reflection,” “having permission to make mistakes,” creating a clear plan,” and “establishing benchmark for progress.”

From the list of successful strategies, we were asked to select which might also be useful when responding to our new adaptive challenge (knowing if we are meeting our audiences’ needs, for example). I found this to be a practical and systematic approach, which focused on transferring and applying successful strategies to new challenges.

Next Steps for the Lincoln Park Zoo Team

The final exercise for the workshop was to review some example frameworks for innovative practice and then assess their similarities/differences, strengths/weaknesses and applicability in our home institutions. The first framework explored is John Kotter’s 8 Steps in a Change Process, which outlines a linear progression through key phases of the innovation process. Next, we investigated the Glasl/Lemson U-Process which presents the change process along the curve of a “U”, starting with an assessment of the current situation leading to a process of “unlearning what is not working,” finally ending at our “ideal, desired” situation. The final framework explored is the one developed by EmcArts, which blends and builds upon fundamental aspects presented in the previously described frameworks. One strength of this framework is that it identifies non-linear connections between key phases in the innovation process. Depicting these links provides a more realistic and useful depiction of the sometimes “messy” innovation process.

The Lincoln Park Zoo team had a few minutes to discuss the attributes of the various frameworks and we began to discuss which model might be most successful for us “back home.” No surprise, each of us was attracted to different aspects of the frameworks and none seemed to be the perfect fit for the entire team. With that in mind, we will probably want to explore other framework models or perhaps create our own, by selecting elements from existing frameworks that seem to align best with our institutional needs and culture.

Heading into that process, we’re excited to be walking away from the workshop with two new shared values: 1) innovation doesn’t happen by accident and 2) there are many ways to innovate.

Stay tuned as we develop an innovation framework that works for us!

Rachel Bergren is Lincoln Park Zoo's Vice President for Education.

  • I thought that the exercise on Innovation Transfer was really powerful. It aligned really well with feelings I have about challenges we face at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Glad to have this tool.