Some More Thoughts on Innovation

Posted on July 6, 2010 by


Innovation is a buzzword. It has been for quite some time.

Let’s face it, we all want to believe that our organizations, or we as individuals, have a high capacity to innovate (and for the sake of humanity, let’s hope we do,) but let me pose a rhetorical question here: is it safe to say that things we think are innovative sometimes aren’t? It’s been the go-to descriptor of products and services in business and marketing for years, and has expanded to various other niches such as organization innovation, ancillary innovation, and so on. For the past year, the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation and the Social Innovation Fund have been on the radar of just about anyone connected to, or having an interest in the third sector. Beyond this, it has attracted a renewed interest in the ways government works with nonprofit organizations and socially conscious businesses. And, thus, we’re enamored with innovation all over again.

My friend and colleague Jasmine McGinnis offered her take on the pros and cons of the Social Innovation Fund and concluded with this statement:

…I fear that without changing the process of awarding these funds to innovative nonprofits, the Social Innovation Fund risks falling into a trap of being just another organization that provides grants–and that my friends, is simply not that innovative after all.

She’s right. Doing something that another organization has done before–time and time again–is anything but innovative. Research on innovation has told us that in order for something to be innovative, it has to be novel, unprecedented, or even groundbreaking, as it were. We have yet to see this from the Office of Social Innovation, but some, including Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, believe it will be a “new paradigm for solving social problems.” Professor Christensen wrote last year that the “social sector in its current form…fails to foster, support, and scale innovation. Fundamental shifts need to occur in the structure of the social sector in order for systems of innovation to truly take hold.” Now, because I study innovation–specifically organizational environments that foster innovation–I am a fan of Professor Christensen and his work. We even share a few things in common. However, I take slight umbrage with the first part of his statement. The social sector has indeed fostered, supported, and depending on your perspective, scaled innovation. That’s not to say that the nonprofit sector hasn’t confronted a fair share of challenges, though as much as Christensen claims “innovation in the private sector has been the key to our nation’s longstanding economic prosperity,” I dare say current times aren’t prosperous enough for me to be too enthusiastic about this statement. We will all wait with great hope that the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation and the Social Innovation Fund provide the paradigmatic shifts Professor Christensen outlines.

Here is a list of three simple things I try to keep in mind when thinking of innovation and how we can put the accompanying minutiae in perspective:

  1. We need to quit playing the “my sector is better” game. If you think about it long enough, you’ll realize that there are good components to any type of organization. Businesses, nonprofits, and yes, even government, all have the capacity to innovate. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently garnered some press when he claimed that nonprofits can’t change the world. There is marginal truth in that statement, but only as it applies to nonprofits whose mission it is to change the world. Most of them, however, are much more grounded in reality and recognize that they do better by focusing on specific areas within their realm of control. As for the other part, he’s quite wrong. Nonprofits have already changed the world in the way goods and services are delivered. They provide an alternative to commerce and government, and fill in gaps that those two sectors leave open. Zuckerberg believes that “building a company is the best way to change the world, because it’s the best way to align the interests of a lot of smart people…to build something that’s great and serves people.” There are plenty of smart people in the other sectors, too, Mark. Their interests are aligned, and they serve people, too. The takeaway here is that each sector is important in its own right, as since collaboration among organizations of differing sectors is common, we would do best to look for strengths within a given sector and how they match with others.
  2. Innovation has a life cycle. This is pretty simple. As innovations become more diffuse over time, they evolve into standard practice (or even “best practices”…more on that in a second), and thus their saliency as an innovation diminishes. Or, in some cases, what was once an innovation in one respect, is taken over by something else even more innovative (in fact, you may want to look up Professor Christensen’s concept of disruptive innovation.) This, quite obviously, forces an organization to look to continually innovate, even if only to maintain legitimacy. What is innovative today won’t be innovative tomorrow, especially if you come up with something more innovative next week.
  3. “Best practices” should be used carefully, and re-evaluated often. I am not necessarily against best practices, but I share a view espoused by Sandford Borins in one of his books: do not become beholden to them. An unwillingness to deviate from the comforts of best practices could diminish an organization’s capacity to innovate. The failure to evaluate on a constant basis perpetuates the stereotype that governments and nonprofits can’t sustain innovation. Governments and nonprofits can and often do sustain innovation. There’s a great book by Paul Light for those who might be curious as to how they innovate, called–wait for it–Sustaining Innovation.

Innovation may be a buzzword, but at least it’s one that keeps us talking and thinking.

NOTE: For those newly interested in social innovation, I would suggest a new book by Stephen Goldsmith called The Power of Social Innovation. I haven’t read it yet, but it quickly captured my interest and it’s on the top of my reading list. Goldsmith himself is a great example of a social innovator, so I look forward to reading it and discussing it with anyone else who reads it as well!