Building Innovation Muscle

I’ve written before about the role of best practices and my skepticism that an overly narrow focus on identifying and replicating them is the best and most effective way to address client needs. I recently read a book titled “High Performance Nonprofit Organizations” by Letts, Ryan and Grossman that points out one of the unintended consequences of a narrow focus on replicating practices established elsewhere; the decoupling of idea generation and program development (i.e., the “creating and innovating” part of the business) from service delivery systems and capacity (i.e., the “doing” part of the business). The authors argue that adaptive capacity – the capacity to innovate based on identifying and responding to needs – is a critical element in high performing non-profits, just as it is in successful for-profit companies around the world. By outsourcing idea generation and program development, non-profits lose out on the powerful impact that a strong culture of innovation can have.

My experience is that innovation is an organizational muscle, and like other muscles, you use it or you lose it. I don’t subscribe to the idea that organizations simply have innovation as part of their DNA, though I believe that most human service organizations start out with a relatively well developed ‘innovation muscle’ because most are born out of the passion of a small group of individuals to address a particular need by doing something that isn’t being done or isn’t being done well. Regardless, you still need to exercise the innovation ‘muscle’ to maintain it.

So what kind of exercise plan does the Good Doctor prescribe? Start with frequent environmental scans (i.e., repeated repetitions) to continuously identify and monitor both client needs and broader community trends. Scanning should be a structured and focused activity, not just something ‘we kinda do all the time’. Follow that up with targeted data collection (e.g., focus groups or interviews with key stakeholders) to see if there’s an opportunity to address unmet needs or concerning trends, either through creating new programming or adapting existing programming. As with any exercise plan, it’s always a good idea to seek some expert advice. In this case, that could mean looking to the literature on what others have done in the past (i.e., best or promising practices), or looking to local exerts that are already steeped in the issue or problem. If you choose to adopt an idea developed elsewhere, such as a best or promising practice, commit to doing the work of ensuring that it’s appropriately adapted to your specific context and the needs you identified through your environmental scan. Some of the things we hold out as examples of innovation are simply well executed adaptations of existing ideas.

And you should always get your friends involved!!! Research suggests that exercising with your friends increases the likelihood that you will stick with it. I believe that involving like minded organizations in your efforts will do the same. Create a strong network of supports to increase your odds of success. Partner and collaborate wherever possible. Perhaps most importantly, it is critical to have an attitude that anything is possible and that even a little progress is important. A little bit of something is better than a lot of nothing. If you believe in Complexity Theory (which I do), small actions have the capacity to stimulate large and often unpredictable reactions (the principle of non-linearity). So do something. You simply never know what it will lead to.

One more critical point; I think the exercise plan should be embedded both at an organizational level and a program or service level. Each of your programs and services are like fibers of an your organization’s innovation ‘muscle’. They need to be exercised constantly or they can atrophy. Put another way, efforts to build up innovation capacity can’t be a top-down only process. It’s not very attractive or functional to have an amazing set of biceps, but spindly little legs that you can barely stand on! To have a truly strong innovation ‘muscle’, innovation has to be a mindset at all levels of the organization.

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