How to Activate Innovation and Cultivate New Ideas


Social Enterprise Series #4

Hello again! This is the fourth of five posts in this series on social enterprise in the nonprofit sector. You’ll find the first three posts here, here, and here. In the last post, I listed the 11 steps I advocate organizations take to become more innovative and entrepreneurial. I also went into some detail about the first six steps. In this post, I will cover steps 7 and 8.

7. Recruit serial innovators and entrepreneurs.

Until this step, individuals that are already enrolled in the work of the organization are driving efforts related to social enterprise. These individuals are closer to the organization and its mission, and are more habituated to the norms and processes established over time to ensure that the organization runs smoothly. Despite careful attention to step 3, this group is more likely to fall into the ‘this is the way we’ve always done things’ rut, albeit unwittingly.

By recruiting a serial innovator or serial entrepreneur or two to the group, you can guard against the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ tendency, and turbo-charge the entire effort. These individuals bring a perspective that is not likely to come from insiders and they have experience building something of value in the marketplace, usually without many resources beyond their own ingenuity and grit. These innovators and entrepreneurs have built their careers around seeing possibility where others don't, creatively working through or around challenges, and persuading others to enroll in the effort. They will challenge and expand your thinking. And they tend to be well connected and often open doors that you might not otherwise have access to when it comes time to launch your initiative.

A sign that you’ve selected the right individuals is that they make you and others on the adventure team a little bit uncomfortable. This is a good thing as research shows that creativity and innovation can be enhanced by reducing team harmony. Teams that are able to work under a certain amount of productive tension are more innovative. These outsiders will ask questions of us that we’d just as soon avoid. They will challenge our thinking in ways that we didn’t imagine. It’s in their nature to cut to the chase, lifting out the right question at the right time. They’ve realized success by balancing insights from data with an intuition developed over years of trial and error on the streets.

While their involvement is critical, you must also bring them into the context of your work in order to educate them on the realities of the field on which you are playing. There are more similarities between the for-profit world and the nonprofit world than those of us in either sector like to admit. (Principal among these similarities is the fundamental need to provide value to a customer or beneficiary.) However, there is one general distinction that is important to internalize: the private sector is mostly driven (but not entirely) by a zero-sum mentality—that is, in order for me to ‘win,’ it’s necessary that my competition ‘loses.’

The language of the private sector is rife with ‘us versus them’ undercurrents and battle analogies. Whereas in the nonprofit sector the name of the game is the improvement of some condition or redress of some problem, the accomplishment of which is generally and universally accepted as ‘good.’ Given that the types of challenges your organization is tackling are complex systems challenges, it’s important that the innovators and entrepreneurs brought into this effort are fully exposed to these realities.

While they have enormous and valuable experience and expertise in the areas of innovation and entrepreneurship, you and your team bring enormous and valuable experience and expertise in the cause area you’re working in and, critically, the nature of the systems your work is embedded in.

Expect that it will take a bit of time for the team to develop cohesion, reminding yourself and your team that this is normal. Recall that item one on the list of 11 is acknowledging this is a change initiative. We know from years of experience across industries that change initiatives can be problematic, so it’s only natural that you’ll experience some challenges along the way. In my experience the most difficult challenge is getting comfortable with the uncomfortableness of thinking and acting differently.

8. Generating Ideas

If you’re like me, you’ve been a part of countless brainstorming sessions where idea upon idea are thrown out and someone captures them on a flipchart. There is some grouping of the ideas and then it’s left to someone, or a small group, to ‘do something’ with them. Over the next days and weeks, not much gets done, and, alas, eventually the entire effort gets filed under ‘we tried that once and not much came up of it.’ This scenario is an example of how we do it wrong. Step 8 encompasses the development of a system whereby ideas can be collected in a number of ways, and over time. You’re doubtlessly familiar with traditional brainstorming, however, it has its drawbacks (as does every strategy or tactic). Other approaches, such as brainwriting and brainswarming, could be used in conjunction with more traditional methods to generate ideas. (Steps 9 and 10 will encompass a system for processing the ideas generated.)

The mortality rate of ideas is necessarily very, very high. Most ideas won’t pass muster. This can be hard for people to accept. After all, an idea is somebody’s brainchild. Step 4, which includes communicating the 11 steps, helps in this area. In my experience, people are much less likely to feel personally rejected if their idea doesn’t make the cut if they understand that there is a comprehensive evaluation system in place, and how the nature of innovation and entrepreneurship affects this winnowing process. Some ideas are rejected fairly quickly on their merits, while others morph into another idea or are combined with another idea or two, and become something else entirely. This is a critical part of the creative process.

The big challenge here, as is highlighted in step 1, is that our typical organizational systems place a premium on orderliness and efficiency. The process I’m describing here, while orderly from a macro standpoint, is inherently messy at the micro level. This messiness runs counter to our cultural conditioning, which rewards precision and accuracy in all facets of our work. But, if you’re able to push through this resistance, and continue in the messiness, you’ll eventually find that the ideas that pass muster have a nuance and depth that you’d not have otherwise.

Okay, we’re in the stretch run of this series! Up next, steps 9 through 11. In the meantime, go ahead and get started on the first eight steps, and continue developing the meta-skills covered in the second post of this series. Be comfortable with the uncomfortableness of this. You and your team will learn as you go. A good guide here is Maya Angelou, who provides my favorite life—and business—advice: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better do better.”