Metcalf Interview: Melissa Dibble

Melissa Dibble is a Lead Process Facilitator at EmcArts, a non-profit service organization working primarily in the arts and culture fields with an impressive twenty-year history. It has worked with over 250 cultural institutions and 2,500 individual arts leaders across North America. In September, she stepped into a new role of Lead Facilitator in Metcalf’s inaugural Staging Change Associate Facilitator Training Initiative. Led by Metcalf and EmcArts, this train-the-trainer program expands the capacity of local performing arts consultants, facilitators, and organizational leaders from the cultural sector by immersing them in the practice of adaptive change.

Adaptive change is an approach to organizational development that requires new learning to solve the unique and increasingly complex challenges faced by arts and culture organizations of all sizes. EmcArts is dedicated to helping organizations learn to adjust to quickly changing technological, economic, and demographic landscapes. Working with EmcArts President and Co-Founder Richard Evans, Melissa supports organizations in long-term transformation.

The Staging Change Associate Facilitator Training Initiative is an integral part of Staging Change, Metcalf’s latest multi-year strategic funding program in the Performing Arts. The initiative is a response to the Foundation’s longstanding commitment to investing in the development of the leadership capacity in the arts sector.

Beginning in September 2018, nine Associate Facilitators were accepted into the training program to work and learn alongside the fourteen Toronto-based performing arts companies and organizations selected for Stage 1 of Staging Change.

Melissa talked to us by phone from New York City.


Metcalf launched Staging Change as a program with a twin focus: to support performing arts companies address complex challenges and to train local leaders in the adaptive change facilitation method. How is this a different way of working for EmcArts?


Staging Change’s Associate Facilitator program marks the first time we have integrated training new facilitators into adaptive change learning program. In the past, to fill this role, we largely relied on either EmcArts staff members or people who are part of our network of facilitators. With Staging Change, we are building the capacity of consultants, facilitators, administrators, and artists in Toronto to work in this manner. They will learn how to facilitate arts organizations grappling with adaptive change. So, this is a fantastic opportunity for local Toronto folks to watch how the EmcArts team – Richard Evans, Jonathan Halsey, and myself – work and to learn the techniques we use.

Melissa Dibble provides insight to one of the organizations in Staging Change. Photo: Guntar Kravis.

EmcArts is known for its adaptive change facilitation process. How is this different from technical assistance?


When EmcArts starts working with an organization, the first step we take is to help people understand the difference between a complex and a complicated challenge. This is essential. A complex challenge has no single or known solution. The response to a   complicated challenge, on the other hand, is one in which there is a direct relation between cause and effect. So, a technical expert is very good at assisting an organization to address the latter situation but not appropriate when dealing with complexity.

In adaptive change facilitation, the emphasis is always on inquiry. Groups must identify their complex challenge by looking at how their organization works from a number of different standpoints. When we start working with an organization, people don’t know what they don’t know, so they must be free to ask questions and make suggestions. Every voice matters, whether you’re a new assistant working in the organization or a longtime board chair or even an artist who’s mostly spent their lives on stage and/or in concert. The facilitator helps the group have a better, deeper conversation, one in which we truly hear all the voices.

Melissa debriefs the SCAFTI participants on an exercise designed to build team leadership. Photo: Guntar Kravis.

What other qualities does a good facilitator bring to adaptive change facilitation?



Another key aspect of being a good process facilitator is helping an arts organization live with uncertainty and to have patience. Groups must resist the urge to quickly pick a solution simply in order to get going, to do something. It’s important not to act hastily.

As a facilitator, you may have ideas about how the organization might address their issue but the key is to not put your own ideas out there, for instance by saying “Hey, what about this?” The facilitator’s job is to help the groups have better discussions and make sure that they’re not skipping over their blind spots and to encourage the group to think, to ask specific questions, and to posit small experiments. The organization can then go and try stuff out, regroup, and learn from it. It’s a very iterative process. It’s not a straight line to get to a solution and we don’t always know how to get there. A process facilitator helps a group stay in this learning mode.

It also helps to be an amazing listener. You have to know how to help the people in the room to keep moving forward but also where to let them stand still for a moment in their discomfort.

SCAFTI participant Shannon Litzenberger leads members of Tapestry Opera and Business for the Arts in an exercise. Photo: Guntar Kravis.

Organizational innovation is the end goal for your work. How does adaptive change get you there?


Adaptive change has three qualities and they all need to be present for an organization to find an innovative solution that works. Evaluating proposed solutions against the three aspects of innovation allows us to understand if an organization is merely tweaking things or proposing a solution that is really diverging from how they operate now. For an adaptive change solution to be successful, the organization needs to diverge.

The first thing an organization must do is identify an underlying assumption about how they operate and then create a shift in how they do things. These assumptions are often unconscious. For example – I admit ­this is kind of an old-fashioned example – a company assumes that if it sends print media to its subscribers and single-ticket buyers, they will respond by purchasing tickets. And at one point in time, they did. So, buying tickets because of a print campaign used to be a reliable predictor of success. Today, of course, people get their information in so many different ways. So, a company needs to shift its assumptions about how people find out about shows and recognize that it is different now, with different media used to deliver information. And the company concludes they probably need to communicate with their subscribers and ticket buyers a little more often and differently. So that’s a new hypothesis. Something shifted in their thinking. They have gone from believing that communicating with subscribers and ticket buyers with print media will suffice to understanding that the way and mediums they use to communicate have to change.

The second quality that has to be present in innovation is that the way of operating has to diverge from your current practice. This shift can’t be a slightly brighter hue of what you’ve already been doing but it’s actually – to shift metaphors! – making a hard-left turn, which is the hardest turn to make when you’re waiting in traffic. It’s important not just to fall back into the muscle memory of the organization’s practices but to really try something different. You have to shift practice, saying, “Let’s get off the beaten path and stop doing what we have normally done.”

An organization can come up with a lot of cool stuff that is interesting and fun but it has to deliver public value. This is the third component. What do I mean by public value? It means you have to deliver on the mission, the raison d’être of your organization. If your mission is to deliver a certain style of dance and you’re talking about something you know is really exciting for the people inside the organization but is not really taking the public into account, you need to think again. The organization needs to ask itself: “Is this really worth spending our time on, given our limited resources?”

To understand if you are undertaking a process leading to real adaptive change, as opposed to one that’s heading toward a known solution that you or others have already had, it’s important to ensure that all three components are in place. If you have tried known solutions, tweaking them to make them work for your organization––whether it’s a best practice or simply a good practice you’ve derived from a different field or a different-sized organization––and you’re still not making progress, then you need to embrace an adaptive change process that really pushes you to look underneath your current solutions and ask: “What is our new hypothesis? How could we operate in a way that would really take us on a different path? And, finally, do we believe this will really deliver public value?” And you won’t know the answer to these three questions until you get started and get some feedback.

This is why you usually need a process facilitator. Without one, people tend to act on the first solution that occurs to them. A process facilitator holds the team accountable and gives them courage and techniques that will allow them to examine divergent viewpoints, be vulnerable, and have the courage to ask harder and harder questions. Once they’ve done this, they can then try stuff out and then come back together and reflect on what they should be doing next.

I’m no angel but, as a facilitator, I have to be a better angel, guiding the group, holding them together, to grapple with the deep, gnarly, tough challenges it faces. A facilitator will give the group the confidence to trust the process and to believe that if they follow it, their organization will be vibrant, resilient, and vital to Toronto or whatever city they are working in.

Participants in the Staging Change Associate Facilitator Training Initiative. Top row (l to r): Mike Prosserman, Pru Robey, Kristina Lemieux, Shannon Litzenberger, Metcalf’s Michael Trent, Jeanne LeSage, Allen MacInnis, and Alicia Payne. Bottom row (l to r): Metcalf’s Adriana Beemans, Sue Balint, EmcArts’ Melissa Dibble, and Karen Gilodo. Photo: Molly Willats.

There are four distinct phases to Staging Change. What role does the associate facilitator play in each part?


In Stage 1 of Staging Change, the associate facilitators have their own training sessions where they learn the theory and the science – if I can put it that way – of working in complexity, of adaptive change, and of organizational systems.  There are a lot of frameworks, tools, and techniques to use.

They also join the fourteen arts organizations in the Staging Change workshop series. These organizations range from theatre to dance to musical organizations and in size from something as large and established as The National Ballet of Canada to something smaller and newer like Coal Mine Theatre. The associate facilitators observe and actually practice the adaptive change technique with these groups. We completed Stage 1 in mid-December 2018, and when the associate facilitators were actively working with a group and they encountered a bump in the road, Richard, Jonathan or I would offer them support. Giving the associate facilitators an opportunity to practice facilitation in real time was a great way to build their “chops” and it was also good for the organizations who got more support because we had nine additional facilitators in the room. It was very powerful.

In Stage 2, we move to onsite organizational coaching. Not all of the 14 arts organizations will advance to this stage. Those who do will invite fifteen to twenty-five different people within their organization – everyone from staff at different levels and in different departments, to board members, artists, and community partners to participate on an Adaptive Change Working Group. And there will be an associate facilitator in that working group who will attend all three of these Stage 2 working group sessions. They’ll be able to see what type of change the organization is grappling with. Sometimes the associate facilitator will participate in the small group discussions. And then there’s going to be a couple of – we call them moves or techniques – that we will ask the associate facilitator to lead. I will step back and let the associate facilitator guide the group in these sections. This will allow the associate facilitators to have deeper interaction with the group than the workshops offered.

Just prior to the start of Stage 3, we will do a couple of days of training, coaching, and orientation with the facilitators about the process that EmcArts has developed called Incubating Innovation. This is where an arts organization pulls together a smaller team of ten to twelve folks from across the organization to work on the complex challenge they have identified. One of the associate facilitators will be assigned to guide them through the process of creating and implementing three to five prototypes used to test out their new innovative pathway or approach in order to make progress on that complex challenge. And you never know how it’s going to go. What roadblocks or new ideas might emerge and how to keep testing? Are they really complex? How do we know we’re making progress? We have lots of tools and tips in the toolkit and our goal is to transfer it to the associate facilitators.

Associate Facilitator Jeanne LeSage leads a group discussion with the team from Luminato, including Board Chair Peter Herrndorff. Photo: Guntar Kravis.

What happens next?


All of the associate facilitators who were part of Stage 1 will also be part of Stage 2. Of the facilitators who choose to continue with the training program, we will invite up to five of them to lead Stages 3 and 4.


Assuming they finish the training program, are they now qualified to be facilitators in the adaptive change method?


They are process facilitators for adaptive change, for work that’s grappling with complexity. Beyond Metcalf, there’s certainly interest from folks in the arts and culture sector in Toronto who are excited about the possibility of working with these facilitators who have had real practice time with EmcArts. They can turn to them when other opportunities for adaptive change arise.

SCAFTI participant Mike Prosserman listens intently to Cathy Lace, Board Vice-Chair of ProArteDanza. Photo: Guntar Kravis.

What excites you the most about the facilitators’ training program?


I think Toronto can build a cadre of consultants and facilitators specializing in adaptive change. Working with the lovely, amazing, and thoughtful associate facilitators in Staging Change at Metcalf, I realize that there’s a real opportunity to build a field of practice here and to spread it across Canada. I feel very positive that, five years from now, there will be this network that supports brilliant and vibrant arts organizations by helping them to make this deep tissue change, as the world gets trickier and messier. I’m really excited about this group of folks. I think that there’s some great energy here that will connect up in different ways that we can only really guess at right now. But it’s going to happen.