The Discipline of Adaptive Changemaking

“When we say Destination Crenshaw is ‘unapologetically Black,’ we speak about the entire process, not just the end product,” says Jason Foster. Foster and his group created an artistic display more than a mile long. But not only have they created art, they have built a process of community engagement that tries to be equitable at every step along the way. The result looks to be not only a destination for tourists and lovers of public art, but also for community builders who seek to build beauty that stays rooted in a specific neighborhood.

The Discipline of Adaptive Changemaking
by ArtsFwd

What is it and who can benefit?

“The entrepreneurial spirit is strong right now – we want to plunge into doing things differently!”  “People are tired, exhausted right now – we want to get back to certainties, to doing what we know.”

These two views, put to us by arts leaders, sum up the tension of the moment.  Seize the crisis by adapting to find new and better ways to serve our communities?  Or pursue stability by planning for the return of past successes?

Before all this, arts organizations put a lot of effort and money into trying to become Stable.  It didn’t work – the world proved to be too capricious a place, funding too fickle, and stability kept on disappearing over the time horizon.  We also learned that too much (short-term) stability can become rigidity – we stick with our known and proven solutions no matter how things change.

In recent years, the arts and culture sector and its investors have come to see that Adaptability is as important as Stability – and more achievable.  In fact, long-term Resilience is what we call the ability to flex the right muscles (stabilizing or adaptive) in response to the challenges at hand, depending on the specific conditions.  And right now, few would dispute that building the capacity to adapt is the essential discipline needed if recovery and rebuilding are to mean anything more than survival and nostalgia for the old normal.

We define Adaptability as “the ability to initiate and implement purposeful change in response to complex shifts in the operating environment, where the future is unpredictable.”  The capacity to adapt therefore underlies every new call to radical action, whatever the topic or agenda: it’s the engine of practice that turns just learning things into sustainable impact.

See the article below for descriptions of 8 Essential Adaptive Capacities.  Among the most important in becoming adaptive are: The ability to question ingrained organizational assumptions early and routinely, the ability to bring multiple network perspectives together to diversify your knowledge, the ability to encourage productive tension between ideas to generate multiple new pathways forward, and the ability to make progress through repeated experimentation that tolerates extended uncertainty.  Developing these capacities stands at the heart of the discipline of adaptive changemaking.

Cultural organizations and grantmakers across the country are joining the movement to lift up adaptive changemaking as “the new planning” – and many are preparing to use the cascade of new federal recovery funds for this purpose.  Many organizations will be resuming operations and staffing up again in the months ahead.  For them, the value proposition in this work includes its power as a focus and framework for onboarding new staff and reuniting the whole organization around creative re-imagining for the future.
The new discipline of adaptive changemaking is for the strong, not the weak; for new leaders in the field, not those attracted by “the gravitational pull of the familiar.”

Learning to adapt with precision and deep purpose is not a merely technical skill.  The most adaptive organizations know that the journey is never done.  That’s why the programs of EmcArts are not remedial at all – they are, in fact, for leaders and organizations that are departing from old models, letting go of ingrained assumptions, not complying with any dominant orthodoxies.  And that’s why they are so widely applicable at this time of challenge and change.

Who can benefit from strengthening their adaptive capacities?  Not everyone.  There is a small proportion of our sector, a set of visionary leaders supported by imaginative, flexible staff and go-ahead, questioning Boards, that used to be called “pioneers” in radical adaptation.[1]  But the alignment needed across constituencies for these qualities to have a long life is rare, as most of us would acknowledge.  Even in a creative sector like ours, these organizations are few.  Many more in number are the “early adopters,” organizations who recognize the power of this new discipline and are keen to get in early; they have played a central role in EmcArts’ programs over the last 15 years.

The “early majority,” perhaps a third of our sector as a whole, are less inclined to jump in quickly, more skeptical, demanding “social proof of concept” before moving on from received wisdom and diverging from strategies that used to predict success.  These are the organizations who can no longer wait.  Evidence of the value of adaptive changemaking is now widespread – transforming organizations, not just enabling new programs.  These are the organizations who are now stepping forward.

Social change and the pandemic are twin wake-up calls to act now and put aside any reliance on hoped-for “business-as-usual.”  This new discipline – so very unlike traditional strategic development – has a clear methodology, a sequence of deliberate steps, and a compelling underlying logic that produces results.

In EmcArts’ services, the discipline of adaptive changemaking is, in fact, the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity…..

If you want to join the growing number of organizations committing to this work at low cost, contact Richard Evans at  If you’re a grantmaker looking to support selected grantees beyond immediate COVID relief, we can create a learning cohort with you.  We also have a history of establishing collaborations with service organizations and intermediaries to support their members; we would welcome a conversation to explore a new partnership.

[1] Everitt Rogers, in Diffusion of Innovations (5th Edition, Free Press, 2003) uses the term “pioneers” and the other terms cited here in his model of how innovations are adopted and spread across fields of endeavor.

This blog post first appeared on ArtFwd.

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