August 15, 2016
Too often foundations ask their grantees for "innovative ideas" but fail to deliver the same thing themselves — or even bother to define what "innovation" means. The assumption is that it "just happens." That lack of definition has come to imply that innovation must involve a dramatic, game-changing, disruptive new idea or practice: the iPhone of early childhood education, the Post-It note of economic development.
As a result, the expectations for innovation are both so high and so fuzzy that most people feel intimidated, not realizing that they too can create innovations and that innovation is not the exclusive domain of those who are smarter or more creative. After reading a book called The Innovation Formula: How Organizations Turn Change Into Opportunity by business gurus Michel Robert and Alan Weiss, I now realize the opposite is true. Most people, in a supportive environment and with proper supervision, can generate, vet, test, and implement innovative ideas. Here's what I learned from their book, and how I've applied it when working with my clients.
Supportive environments for innovation are created when:
- Leadership – especially the CEO – serves as champions for the process.
- Leadership believes that everyone can be innovative.
- Leadership is willing to regularly identify, test, pilot, and implement potentially innovative ideas.
- Leadership prudently monitors risk (not every innovative idea is a good one!).
Once these conditions are in place, there are four steps a foundation can take to generate innovations on an ongoing basis. They are:
1. Brainstorming. There are many sources that staff and trustees can review and use to generate potentially innovative ideas. These include unexpected successes or failures, unexpected events or changes in the external environment, or weaknesses in an organization's grantmaking or other processes.
Look for changes that can produce opportunities. Focus your group discussions on questions such as: What has surprised us lately? What has changed in our environment? What has changed for our grantees?
Once you've generated responses to those questions, ask yourselves: What specific opportunities or ideas can we develop from these changes, challenges, and/or successes? What new approaches, products, or services can we create to take advantage of these opportunities or to address emerging needs?
2. Assess your ideas. Once you've identified a handful of potentially innovative ideas, the next step is to assess them against four criteria:
- Cost – the likely investment of financial resources, staff, outside expertise, new technology, etc., as well as potential risks.
- Benefits – do they outweigh the risks, and will results be delivered within an acceptable time frame?
- Strategic fit – with your mission, values, and overall strategy.
- Implementation – the processes needed to make the innovation work.
Assessing the ideas you've identified against these criteria should enable you to determine the opportunities with the most potential.
3. Develop your idea. Far too many organizations fail to fully develop their potentially innovative ideas before rushing to implement them. Don't be that organization. Take the time to evaluate each opportunity you've identified, assess the pros and cons, create best- and worst-case scenarios (and the critical factors likely to drive those scenarios), and identify the risks and rewards. Only after you've subjected an opportunity to rigorous scrutiny and agree that it is worth pursuing should you move on to implementation.
4. Implementation. Formulate an implementation plan that identifies the factors needed to support a successful implementation of the idea, as well as the things that will work against it — and what you can do to minimize them. You'll also want to create a detailed action plan that spells out the steps to be taken, deadlines, and responsible parties.
Innovation can take many forms, depending on the community, the foundation, and the opportunities at hand. But perhaps the greatest thing about it is that one innovation often breeds another, which leads to another. Indeed, the only limits to meaningful innovation are the ones we place on ourselves.
Global philanthropy advisor Kris Putnam-Walkerly recently was named one of "America's Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers." This post originally appeared on Kris's Philanthropy 411 blog. ©2016 Kris Putnam-Walkerly, Putnam Consulting Group, putnam-consulting.com.