Innovation logo designed by Mike Rush

Orchestra as Sustainable Ecosystem

Innovation: is it the word of the year for orchestras? On June 7, the opening plenary session of the League’s National Conference in Minneapolis will tackle the issue of how orchestras create an environment for innovation with insights from Deborah Borda, Larry Wendling, and Katie Wyatt, leaders who are committed to innovative thinking at their organizations. Wendling, head of research for 3M, which is based in St. Paul, Minnesota, will take Conference delegates behind the scenes on the journey from concept to the creation of a new product or program. Wyatt, the founder of an El Sistema-inspired center in North Carolina, will offer fresh thinking about how orchestras can align artistic mission with service to the community. To wrap up the event, Borda, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, will challenge listeners to further their capacity for innovation and risk-taking.

What do the speakers have in store? We caught up with Deborah Borda and Larry Wendling as they prepared for their June 7 plenary session at the League Conference.

Deborah Borda (below) is president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Photo credit: Mathew Imaging.)

 

Robert Sandla: You will be talking about innovative thinking at the League Conference. What attracted you to this topic?
Deborah Borda: I believe innovation is the central issue for the future of orchestras. Simply put, innovation is not a necessity—but then neither is survival. We simply can’t manage our orchestras as we did twenty or ten or even five years ago. The world continues to change, and we must as well.

Sandla: What reactions do you anticipate to your comments?
Borda: I hope there are reactions. In fact, a measure of success is that people do react in some way. I’m not putting these ideas forward to be provocative; I am putting them forward because I believe them to be true. This is surely a moment of critical opportunity for orchestras.

Sandla: How is innovation a part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s core?
Borda: We have an adage at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which is “innovation and excellence,” with an emphasis on innovation. These aren’t simply words. They embody the lens through which we make every crucial decision at our organization. I can promise you, that motto not only permeates the organization, but every board member, every musician, every staff member can tell you that we live by those words. They are essential to our being and part of our DNA. They are truly a core value.

Sandla: Can you offer a few examples of innovative projects or programs at the Los Angeles Philharmonic?
Borda: We’re known for our unique collaborations with artists, such as our Tristan Project or the upcoming Mozart Opera Project that has us working with three of the leading architects in the world. Our ongoing collaboration with our community is essential, particularly with the launching of the biggest El Sistema-orchestra-based music-education program in the United States, YOLA. Our philosophic commitment to the music of our time is integral to everything we do. The embodiment of this is our extensive and far-reaching commissioning program—a concert rarely passes without at least one work from the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. Our new theatercasts “LA Phil Live,” where we show live concerts in movie theaters, give audiences access in a fresh and engaging way. And, some people might say, it was innovative to select a then-unknown 26-year-old Venezuelan conductor as our music director.

Sandla: How does an orchestra make room for the various outcomes of innovation—for success, for surprises, for ideas that don’t work?
Borda: That’s the exciting part. Innovation is messy. Innovation can be destabilizing. But, when you acknowledge the inherent human and institutional need, you recognize that our world is constantly changing and that an institution or a person that ceases to change or grow is in decline. Albert Einstein said that insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. Valuing the product of innovation makes you willing to keep driving when you hit a speed bump.

Sandla: Orchestras are often thought of as the keepers of the classic tradition. Does innovation threaten that?
Borda: I think quite the opposite—I think that innovation will insure our longevity. If we entomb ourselves in the box of our tradition, our outlook could be irrelevant, or at best, extremely limited. The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

Larry Wendling is 3M’s vice president of Corporate Research Laboratory and International Technical Operations. Below, Wendling is shown surrounded by one of the firm’s better-known products: the ubiquitous Post-it notes.

Robert Sandla: What attracted you to the notion of addressing a group of people from orchestras at the League Conference?
Larry Wendling: I have had quite a bit of experience with nonprofits as an emeritus trustee at the Science Museum of Minnesota. In these times, nonprofits are under stress as philanthropy and government support subside. I believe that many of the practices from the for-profit world can be applied in the nonprofit world. However, to do this, orchestras must be willing to change. Hopefully, I can add value.

Sandla: How might the innovative thinking at a large company like 3M be applied to orchestras and the nonprofit world?
Wendling: To me, innovation is creating value from the available resources within your organization: scientists at 3M, musicians at orchestras. When you do this, you have a sustainable ecosystem. It makes no difference whether you are a large multinational corporation or a nonprofit.

Sandla:What characteristics of orchestras might be applied to a corporation?
Wendling: There are many similarities between scientists and musicians; they are the respective creative forces for 3M and orchestras. However, as an outside observer, I would like to point out an apparent difference between orchestras and 3M—namely that at 3M the scientists regard themselves as an integral component of the total business, whereas in orchestras there appears to be some separation between the musicians and the business side of the orchestra. There appears to be an opportunity for orchestras to much better leverage their tremendous human-capital resources to create sustainable value. However, this would require a major cultural change within orchestras.

Sandla: How does innovation work at 3M?
Wendling: Innovation—creating value from science and technology—is literally 3M’s business model. We have practiced the same model of innovation for over 109 years, so it is firmly embedded in our culture. If we were to stop innovating, we would begin to die. Creating an environment conducive to innovation doesn’t just happen; it takes careful attention to systems and practices to recognize and reinforce innovative behavior.

Sandla: How does an organization make room for the various outcomes of innovation—for success, for surprises, for ideas that don’t work?
Wendling: Innovation is a messy process. The key is to provide for freedom, risk, customer interface, and failure, especially early on in the new-product development process. When we fail, we like to fail early. If you don’t fail, you probably are not taking enough risk. We like to learn from customer input early on, and then have a higher probability of success when moving to scale-up and product-launch phases.

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