Innovation is a big buzzword in business today, having been described as the key ingredient that will keep the United States ahead of its overseas competition. But innovation is vital to success in the nonprofit world as well. Organizations that use innovation to propel themselves forward are leading others in the quest for funding and other resources. They are learning, however, that to infuse innovative thinking into a culture requires thinking strategically, rather than tactically. This strategic approach requires more than just encouragement and open-mindedness. It requires commitment to systems and processes that can create new solutions to old challenges.
Many successful nonprofits have built momentum based on innovative strides. Catholic Charities formed a partnership with Catholic Health Association to "deliver innovative services that improve the lives of individuals, families and communities." The Ford Foundation, founded in 1936, defines itself today as "a resource for innovative people and institutions worldwide." The United Way has set out to "find innovative solutions to transportation needs through partnerships with businesses, nonprofits and public agencies." For these nonprofit leaders, innovation is a core strategy for the growth of their organizations.
Some organizations claim to be innovative but fail to do it well. Others are clueless about where to begin. Although most leaders agree they would like their organizations to be more innovative in problem solving, they may fall short on having a plan to achieve that goal. But if innovation is in fact the new road to growth, companies will need to know how either to enhance innovation in the workplace or at the very least to get out of the way when it happens.
Defining innovation is an important first step. Can you name one way that your organization encourages innovative thinking? Has management taught or used a process that supports innovation in the company?
If you aren't sure what innovation really "looks like," it might be helpful to examine some real-life examples that have earned recognition from others. A New York City-based nonprofit, DonorsChoose, invented a way to provide students across the country with resources often lacking in public schools. At the DonorsChoose Web site
, teachers submitted project proposals for materials or experiences their students needed to learn. These ideas then became classroom projects when individuals who read them on-line choose to fund them. DonorsChoose received the Amazon.com 2005 Nonprofit Innovation Award, which included a $1 million grant.
In 2004, Real Alternatives measured the counseling outcomes of more than 16,000 women served annually through pregnancy support centers, social service agencies, adoption agencies, and maternity homes throughout Pennsylvania. This "first-of-its-kind" statewide automated program earned Real Alternatives the Fifth Annual Nonprofit Innovation Award 2004, sponsored by the Central Pennsylvania Business Journal.
Associate publisher Peter B. Burke praised Real Alternatives for the "level of originality, effectiveness, and measurability of the innovation used in your daily activity."
Another nonprofit, NPower Seattle, created its own innovation award to recognize creative and non-traditional uses of technology. The 2005 winner of this award, Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, challenged assumptions about how information gets collected and created new ways to use technology to interview and gather stories from Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II.
In each of these examples, organizations were rewarded for taking unconventional approaches to social improvement and for focusing on the benefits of challenging assumptions about how we gather information. They clearly demonstrated that innovation isn't just for big business. Nonprofits of all sizes are solving problems in ways that were never dreamed of. In short, they have raised the bar for nonprofit ingenuity.
Beyond Ideas and Barriers
Bringing innovation into the workplace is not an easy task. It takes more than, as some people believe, sitting around and wait for big ideas to happen. Everyone struggles to overcome blocks and barriers. For example, what if you work within a group that is very hierarchical, top down? Your coworkers may be afraid to embrace an idea that hasn't been suggested by the higher-ups.
Innovation takes an open-minded culture. But not all workplaces offer an environment to challenge the status quo. There may be concerns, for example, about a substantial investment in an approach that has always been used to solve a particular problem. People become comfortable with, and most often unaware of, continuously using the same problem-solving techniques.
Years ago, Albert Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome." To change the way you think about problem solving requires a paradigm shift. If you seek to encourage innovation, expect resistance. The step between individual creativity and organizational innovation often looks more like a leap. That's where simple problem-solving tactics end and an innovation strategy begins.
One proven method to address a challenge in your organization is to learn and follow an innovation process. Start with something simple by taking on a small issue in your organization. Put together a diverse team and create a clearly defined problem statement to be sure everyone understands your goal.
Innovation: A Five-Step Approach
Here's a process your organization can use to identify new solutions to old challenges.Step One: Gather Information.
The team will need to spend time and devote attention to gathering relevant data on the project. Asking the right questions, such as who makes up the marketplace and what do they want, will lead research in the right direction.
For example, teams will want to read such important information as reports, journals, and meeting notes. They will need to look at the environment surrounding the projects and note useful insights they observe. They will present their information offering a general view of their whole findings.Step Two: Observe the Real Situation.
Step two is all about looking. The team needs to act like anthropologists and not only observe the process or system they are about to change but document findings with notes, photos, and even videos. Beware of making assumptions that will sabotage the effectiveness of good observation techniques.
In this step, teams will observe what confuses and perplexes an end user. They will need to review their information carefully, perhaps often, to catch important details. Videotapes will need to be watched multiple times. The teams can expect to begin to see common areas of concern emerging within their project research.Step Three: Develop New Concepts.
If you approach brainstorming as a "no-brainer," your team will probably come up with the same old same old. Employing solid brainstorming techniques will help generate many more solutions with greater originality. The team leader needs to be well versed in a variety of approaches to get the process off the ground.
In this step the team is applying divergent thinking techniques to a wide breath of ideas, some of them even bizarre and impractical. Concepts within ideas will be substituted, combined, modified, adapted, magnified, minimized, eliminated, and rearranged. In the end, the team will have flipchart pages on the wall full of drawings of ideas, from which they will now begin the process of choosing three or four possible ideas.Step Four: Convergent Thinking.
Take all your big-picture ideas and start converging them into real application. Here's where the rubber hits the road, when you take your best innovations out for a test drive. Ask yourselves tough questions: How can we improve? What questions are not being asked? Is the focus in the right place? Timing is critical. If this step is done too early in the process, good ideas don't have time to reach fruition. If this is done too late, a practical application may have lost its chance to emerge.
Contrary to the big-picture brainstorming of the previous phase, the team will now work closely to bring together several viable prototypes, using drawings, computers, or whatever building materials are most appropriate. They will both criticize and defend their prototypes. They may go back to step three for another quick look at ideas.Step Five: Implementation.
In this step the team will focus on their three or four best ideas and start to introduce a critical evaluation of the forces both for and against implementation of these ideas. They will identify the blocks and barriers to success and how to overcome these barriers.
Without the right implementation plan, the best innovation will sit in a file drawer collecting dust. Ask: Who will lose if this innovation is accepted? Who will win? What are the organizational impediments to this action plan's success? What is the organizational readiness? The final report should include a timetable for trials, tests, and perhaps an initial market analysis.
Innovation can be a learnable, trackable process that is exciting, enlightening, and FUN! And remember, you don't have to be a Fortune 500 company to have great success. Take an innovative leap into the 21st century—who knows what you will find!
Rachel Fine, Blue Grotto, Inc.
© 2006, Blue Grotto, Inc.
Rachel Fine is the creative director of Blue Grotto, Inc., which helps organizations think innovatively about celebrating milestones. Her expertise in innovation has led her to Singapore, where she has worked as a consultant to the Department of Defense.