Enablers for innovation - Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi

Enablers for Innovation

Enablers for Innovation

This is the fourth article in a series: The Future Emerging: Innovation in Arts and Culture in Aotearoa. You can start the series here.

So far in this series we have considered why, how and where we may wish to innovate. In this next article we explore what is needed from people and teams to innovate, and how we can create an enabling environment for innovation across the sector.

What is needed to innovate well together?

Innovation projects cannot plug systemic problems

Innovation funding and activity needs to sit alongside sustained support and investment for healthy people and organisations. It cannot plug systemic problems in the sector.

It cannot be done effectively when the people that make up the arts and culture sector are stressed and in positions of vulnerability. The average creative earns $15,000 from creative work and supplements their income with other employment outside of the sector[1]. There needs to be a long-term strategy for innovation. One that supports a shift from innovation as a ‘fix’ for scarcity, to one of long-term sector transformation.

‘ We need to look beyond quick fixes. Funding reserves have been used up, and people and organisations that make up the arts sector are highly vulnerable…What is needed is sustained support. ‘
– Art Fund Director Jenny Waldman

A collaborative endeavour

Long-term transformation cannot be the responsibility of creatives alone. Arts and culture agencies, institutions, and ecosystem organisations need to actively participate in this innovation, working in partnership. It is not possible for creatives to shift the sector dynamics, such as resource scarcity and competition. It needs partners that will work alongside and support the kaupapa.

Innovation is a team game that needs to be approached with humility. It is uncomfortable. It requires trust in, and respect of, people and process. It holds a mirror up to our assumptions, differences, and egos – and can cause tensions. These are all feelings and practices that are familiar to creatives. It will take other players in the ecology to join them in this vulnerable, creative place.

Practice inclusion and embrace creative collision

Let’s be intentional about who is in the room when decisions are being made. Who is there? Who is missing? Diversity of experience, culture and perspective can ignite new possibilities. It can also ignite creative tension. A commitment to diversity and inclusion invites challenge, welcome it. It needs to be accepted, and knowingly and intentionally, worked with for a better outcome.

Create a supportive climate

We need greater empathy and support for others who take risks and innovate. A competitive climate, fuelled by competitive funding, can lead to harsh judgement for those that carve a new path. Are we creating a positive culture of innovation across Aotearoa where risks are celebrated, where failure is not only acceptable but is valued as a necessary part of sector progress?

We need to be conscious about slowing down to go faster. If funding and policy design is rushed it can lean towards the safe and the status quo. Established thinking and practice are rolled out without questioning assumptions and breaking norms. Being daring is hard work and it needs space.

How can we nurture and grow clusters of innovation in arts and culture in Aotearoa? We have discussed innovation as a sector-wide endeavour. How might we accelerate the development of new industries and new ways of doing art and business through intensive interactions; sharing talent, resource, and facilities; and the development and exchange of new learning and practice?

Any innovation programme or fund should consider how to strengthen these enabling factors in teams, organisations, collaboratives, networks and in the environment. The more enabling the environment the greater the capacity of the sector to innovate in the long-term. Below we briefly present these factors. It is an area rich for exploration.

Enabling innovation, how we organise

Organisations that generate successful innovations repeatedly share characteristics, although this may be a journey, rather than a destination:

Strong kaupapa and commitment by leadership

A commitment to the purpose and process of innovation by leaders and managers is key. Where there is a layer of management in an organisation it needs to be ‘hands-off’ and to give the team the freedom to execute, test and learn. Autonomy around the process fosters creativity because it strengthens the sense of ownership over a project or a situation.

This is less of a concern when creatives are effectively also acting as leaders and managers in addition to creating. Although it may be burdensome to carry out multiple functions, it does give freedom of direction.

Where there is a layer of management, the most effective managers act in support and service to the team, rather than seniority. These leaders take time to listen, to share the mindset of curiosity, rather than exert control. It’s a form of qualitative management that gives space and time for results to emerge. As discussed before, classic performance measures can act as a break, rather than enable, innovation.

The risks associated with the endeavour need to be acknowledged and accepted. ‘Moon shots’ and ‘puddle jumps’ have a different quantum of risk, and there is no wisdom in chasing large steps forward with little appetite for risk.

In any endeavour the appetite for risk should be openly discussed including reputational, financial, or operational. Creators without organisational structure or management hold all of the risk and the consequences for failure. Innovators need to know they have firm foundation; to know that support will come from their funding or organisation (if they have one) if their experiment doesn’t see immediate results. This means celebrating brave action, even if learning and capacity development are primary outcomes, rather than ‘results’.

If only successful endeavours are celebrated, the implicit message is that ‘failure’ should be brushed under the carpet or to be avoided. Let’s tell stories of people that dared, took risks, influenced, learned and grew in their innovative endeavours. Let’s discuss and celebrate innovation and ‘productive failure’, and the value it has beyond metrics.

How does your organisation respond to new ideas? How does it define and react to failure? How could we support, and celebrate more healthy risk taking?


There is a romantic notion that starving artists are a source of creativity. However, the research is clear. Organisations that can consistently innovate have ‘slack’[2]. ‘Slack’ means more resource than is needed to carry out the basic functions of the organisation. It is a cushion of actual or potential resources – time, people, money – which allow an organisation to adapt successfully in response to internal or external drivers for change.

It is important because it gives space for scanning horizons for new opportunities, generating new ideas, setting up exploratory projects, and changing direction during innovation projects. Without this slack, there is no room to dream or create beyond necessity. Slack needs to be provided continuously over the organisation’s life cycle, including future expectations, to be the source for continuous innovation.


Mindsets are key to driving a culture of innovation. They need to be nurtured and shared across leadership, and throughout the team. The first is that being ‘in the grey’ is not something to be fought against or to be resolved quickly. Innovate Change said being in the grey ‘means we try to feel at ease with ambiguity and uncertainty so that we are open to new ideas.’ Its important not to reach for immediate answers and to let new things to emerge.

Curiosity and a love of discovery helps us to make sense of new information, and to take steps when the outcome is unknown. A bias towards disciplined action helps to stay out of ‘analysis paralysis’ and ensures that we are learning directly from life, as opposed to theorising and supposition.

Supportive team behaviours

Innovation is a team activity and the behaviours of team members can enable or disable successful innovation. Positive, reinforcing feedback in the team can keep motivation high through challenges, and ensure that mindsets are strengthened. Shared kaupapa and tasks need to take precedence above personal motivations and drivers to keeps the team focused and moving forward. Self-directed learning and skills development ensures team capability and growth mindset are developed.

Collaborative behaviours, sound project management and task discipline all contribute to a build, test, learn cycle that moves the project forward.

Enabling innovation, in our environment

The ‘boring revolution’ is a concept that shifts the focus of innovation investment from start-ups and projects, to more fundamental and lasting change by innovating at the level of regulation, institutions and governance. In the context of arts and culture, this would include experimentation in the relationships between creatives and institutions to remove barriers and enable more innovation.

What could accelerate a move to a sustainable, resilient and thriving sector in the infrastructure (physical and non-physical, such as knowledge) and the interconnection and dependency between us (such as policy, networks, funding)? This lens is more attuned to Te Ao Māori, where relationships and interdependencies are vital.

How our environment is organised is organic. There are intended and unintended consequences as a result. There is significant potential in discussing and taking action to improve the health and vitality of the ecology. For instance, what are people and organisations in arts and culture really incentivised for? How does competitive funding affect trust in networks? A more enabling environment requires both long term strategy and a culture of experimentation. Stakeholders in the system need to build, test, learn just as the creatives do. It needs careful sensing of the cause-and-effect of changes in the environment. This needs to come through relationships and feedback throughout the system.

Thinking strategically about innovation systems at a regional or national scale is well established in technology and business sectors. Change can be understood and viewed over time by mapping the ecosystem of entrepreneurship in a city. How might we learn and adapt from the concept of Innovation clusters for the arts and culture sector? How might we develop the conditions where innovation across the sector is the norm, where there is long-term capacity or ‘slack’ to innovate, and that there are strong connections and networks that stimulate new potential? What if this was a ten to thirty year endeavor? What steps would we take now?

We need to think longer term about what people, organisations and the sector as a whole needs to develop the capacity to innovate into the future.

Moving forward

In this essay we have considered the factors that enable innovation within organisations (formal and informal) and in the environment and system as a whole. We advocate for a long-term strategy to enhance these factors to encourage and support innovation in arts and culture in the decades to come. The final essay in the series considers the vital role for funders in this future.

We invite you to share with Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi what resonates, what’s missing, or any alternative perspectives that can enrich our understanding and action. We intend to collate, digest, and share the responses as the start of a dialogue on innovation in arts and culture, and how we shape the future emerging. You can do that by emailing info@tetaumatatoiaiwi.org.nz

For full download of Innovation in Arts and Culture in Aotearoa please click here.

This series was written in collaboration by Shona McElroy, Eynon Delamere, Jane Yonge, and Chantelle Whaiapu.


[1] Creative NZ (2019) A profile of Creative Professionals

[2] Richtnér , A., Åhlström , P., (2006) Influences On Organisational Slack In New Product Development Projects. International Journal of Innovation Management Vol. 10, No. 4 pp. 375–406