The Way of Innovation


The word “innovation” conjures up positive imagery. We see it as something we want to be known for. It’s creative, desirable, inspiring, and we sense that if we can do it, if we can achieve it, we will lift ourselves up above the status quo, not to mention those who are quite comfortable in the box of convention.

cavefiguresHow to be innovative is of course the question and that is what this little article is about: the way of innovation and a call for the kind of leadership that fosters innovation throughout the organization.

Anticipate Tomorrow
This is both a mindset and a discipline and require that a leader accept that anticipation is rife with uncertainty. In other words, at the same time as a leader must try to plot the future course of the organization, he or she must also understand it is impossible to do so with certainty.

This means one’s view of the future is a mixture of projection based on current momentum and one’s sense of various scenarios that could unfold. This “sense” of things might also be seen as the result of educated, creative, and courageous “guesswork.”

An example: demographics enable us to project current realities into future scenarios. We understand that by 2031, the aging of the population and a low birth rate will result in fewer workers supporting more seniors than in the past. In that year, Stats Can predicts there will be 2.3 workers for each senior.  Today there are 4.2 workers per senior, and in 1971 there were 6.6 workers per senior.

One can argue that Stats Can doesn’t have it quite right, but getting the exact ratio is not the issue here; the issue is the direction of the trend. Could the trend be affected by an increased birthrate or increased immigration? Yes. But those factors are, at this time, unpredictable even though they may be desirable.

What we anticipate is that there will be a much lower participation rate in the workforce in the future and that, along with the aging population, implies impact on tax generation, wages, and in the case of non-profits a deleterious effect on hiring and sustaining employees.

Leaders who anticipate a future based on these projections recognize that the impact of the 2031 scenario is taking place now. It is a structural reality that a leader cannot change, but what can be done is to explore innovative ways of operating in such an environment. So how might such exploration take place?

Innovative Culture
There are those who suggest that culture-change is by nature a slow, difficult process rife with resistance from those who are comfortable with the current pattern of beliefs and practices that make up the organization. I suggest that accepting this as the norm lacks ambition.

My experience tells me that most people are not by default resistant to change but rather lack clarity of what change to make and/or how they might engage in change-conversations, which restrains their willingness to take risks and venture into new territory.

This calls for leadership that is aspirational and more focused on the exploration of tomorrow’s possibilities than on stipulating and then managing the changes people must make. Aspirations built together will not only shine light on tomorrow but also on the actions required to move toward the light.

Our propensity to want blueprints of change, chart duties via job descriptions, and limit actions to the prescriptions of best practice are not innovation-seeking attributes or activities. Rather they often create a culture that over-values the status quo and under-emphasizes possibilities.

Innovative Space
In a 2008 W.K. Kellogg publication, Intentional Innovation, Gabriel Kasper and Stephanie Clohesy stress the importance of “setting the conditions required to support innovation.” In effect these conditions are about creating space in the organization to seek out new and actionable ideas that are focused on solving a problem or exploiting an opportunity.

The implications of “creating space” are structural and systemic in nature while also calling for a discipline to not only create the space but to live and work in it.  As Kasper and Clohesy point out this space has a democratic mien in that it is there for the entire organization to populate and contribute to – not just leaders or managers, but front line service deliverers and functional staff as well.

It is a space in which routines, history, and best practice are welcome but not as confining forces to limit free thinking and the collective generation of new, if not radical ideas. In other word it is an open space for taking chances, postulating the wild dream, mixing colors together never before mixed and not being chastised or disciplined for experimentation that ends up failing.

It is a space that desires the view points of the boat rockers, the lone ranger, and the outliers, while also enabling collaboration, group think, and collective sense-making. Here is where true dialogue occurs purposed to explore and understand before running to the gates of resolution or submitting our minds to the machinations of logic models and unrealistic expectations of ordering actions into a matrix of outcomes and indicators.

Of course the space cannot be created unless accompanied by the time required to enter it. Again this is a structural challenge. If we are content to fill staff time with status quo work, we will be hard-pressed to engage in “intentional” innovation. How staff meetings are designed and lived out have to change to allow for generative conversations. Hierarchy – while always present – must be
de-emphasized, if not absolved of being present, within innovative space. Idea generation will not happen if staff are assessed as being successful only if the ideas produced are the right ideas.

Innovative Purpose
Innovation is a response – whether to a problem or crisis, a possibility or opportunity, or an issue or trend that poses harm to the organization. To seek out innovation necessarily means we wish to journey beyond the status quo because we have determined or at least sense that the status quo will not serve us well.

Acting on such purpose also requires discipline. We have to ask key questions like:

  • What isn’t working and what do we envision will work. Do we require a new theory of change in order to craft new actions?
  • What are we doing and thinking that inhibit our progress toward our desired or anticipated future?
  • Are we seeking to produce the right results for the circumstances we are trying to address? If our clients are failing is it because of us, a system, them or a blending of all three — and then how do we adjust our programs or actions accordingly?
  • How might we alter or reinvent our functional work, whether to streamline, save money, enhance quality, add to our business intelligence, and so on?

Such questions and others like them are not for leaders and management to address and resolve. Instead it is their job, if not innovative mandate, to create the space and conditions for everyone in the organization to ask and address such critical questions.

Investigating Innovation
In the Kellogg report, the authors go much deeper and wider than this article about how to be intentional about innovation. Leaders who work hard to anticipate the future must also work as hard to increase their knowledge and their tool box about innovation and practices that empower its presence and practice. I suggest a good place to start is to read the Kellogg report (click here) but also take a look at some of the other resources offered below.


Innovation Core Competencies
Although written from a corporate perspective, these core competencies are relevant to the non-profit sector.

Becoming a Networked Nonprofit
Beth Kanter writes about the “networked non-profit” for the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The article is about “redesigning your nonprofit organization to become more participatory, open, authentic, decentralized, collective, and effective—via social media, networks, and beyond.”

The Most Innovative and Impactful (Emerging) Charities – One writer’s view of who the most innovative charities are. It’s subjective of course, but worth a look.

10 Best Practices for Enterprise Innovation
Again, focused on corporate innovation but applicable to the non-profit sector.

Creating High Impact Non-Profits
Another article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The article is about: “Conventional wisdom says that scaling social innovation starts with strengthening internal management capabilities. This study of 12 high-impact nonprofits, however, shows that real social change happens when organizations go outside their own walls and find creative ways to enlist the help of others.

Social Impact Bonds: A Practical Social Innovation – The Alberta Government is interested in exploring Social Impact Bonds as a new way to finance social good. Do you know what SIBs are? You might want to know more.

Patterns, Principles, and Practices in social innovation – Principles, tools, trends, and examples. It’s worth the read.

New Skills for the New Social Economy
“What exactly is the new “social economy,” how did it come about, and what are its implications for nonprofit management? In this audio lecture, philanthropy, policy, and technology researchers Lucy Bernholz and Rob Reich explore some possible answers to these questions. Evaluating the changes that the social economy has created, Bernholz and Reich focus on new options that are available for both doers and donors.”
This is a podcast so listen to it while you work at your computer.

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