In the dictionary the word innovation is defined as:
- introducing something new
- creation resulting from study and experimentation
While innovation is about creating something new, it is also about:
- transcending the traditional
- combining thoughts or ideas that have never been combined together
- turning something on its side
- thinking outside of the box
Useful social invention and innovation should have at its core: a need, problem or issue that it is addressing. It should also be aligned to a powerful vision and key guiding values. And, for the purpose of social innovation, it should have positive change as its end goal.
Innovation is also about effective action – not just having an idea. It is essential to realize the importance of rigorous feasibility and business planning plus excellence in the implementation and evaluation of a new idea.
For an idea to take root, it needs a good producer and promoter to inspire, touch, motivate, cajole, alleviate fears, shift perceptions and garner results. And that champion must be courageous and doggedly determined.
Think of your cause as a movement
The word “movement” at its essence embodies concepts such as:
- Dynamic energy
- The involvement of many
Just the very essence of what movement implies, awakens new possibilities. A movement invites people to rally around an idea, approach or initiative. The power of many supercedes the power of a few. If we think of organizations and causes from a more active and engaging paradigm, we will awaken and animate our cause, our vision and our dreams for a better world.
Margaret Wheatley says, “We have begun to speak in earnest of more fluid, organic structures, even of boundary less organizations. We are beginning to recognize organizations as systems… no longer in this relational universe, can we study anything apart from ourselves.”
This way of thinking about interconnectedness immediately begins to awaken one’s creativity and ability to innovate. This is because you will begin to consider new partners, new markets and new entry points for your services and programs. In our complex environment, the need to create interconnections between our efforts is more essential than ever before.
There is a wonderful Ethiopian saying that states: “When spider webs are woven together, they can catch a lion.” This saying embodies the idea that we can collectively weave a web or strategy that helps us overcome our greatest, largest and most powerful challenges and problems in our work.
When you think of your cause and begin to envision it as a movement, who – and what else – do you see yourself connecting to? Where can you link to others and where do you have heightened points of influence with making change?
We are part of a system or many systems. Thinking this way challenges us to explore and examine issues with a goal to uncovering innovation and creative solutions that address broad systemic challenges. Systemic change results in powerful social change. It changes the entire spider web.
Pump up your “opportunity recognition” muscle
Recognizing opportunity and being inventive is a skill, not a character trait. There is a need to build entrepreneurial or “opportunity recognition muscle” in order to identify exciting new possibilities.
Social leaders in the face of change have honed their ability to identify opportunities and “transcend the traditional”. These leaders are often at the forefront of positive change because they focus on opportunities and minimize threats. These leaders are like warriors who stand on the battlefield and strategically assess and reassess their best plan of “attack”. They are forward thinking and acutely aware of what they have to work with in their environment. They anticipate situations and identify challenges – always along with strategies to address them.
Below are ideas to help pump up “opportunity recognition” muscle:
Monitoring Emerging Trends
Constantly monitor emerging trends. Those leaders with bulging “opportunity recognition” muscle understand the subtleties of their environment. They see what opportunities and threats exist. They constantly ask themselves what opportunities they should be maximizing in light of their strengths and weaknesses.
And they do this a variety of ways including:
- tracking trends in the media
- reading voraciously just about anything written on issues of importance
- touching down with “Mavens”
Touching down with Mavens refers to people who accumulate knowledge. The term “Maven” was used by Malcolm Gladwell, in his book the Tipping Point – which looks at social epidemics and mass social change and shifts. According to Gladwell, Mavens are exceptional information people who see trends – they are curious and actively seek out information. They are in the know and they seem to sense what hot new trend is coming next. Are you a Maven or do you know a Maven?
Social innovators also engage a breadth of smart people and sources from different vantage points in their process in order to create a more dynamic process and result.
Studying Best Practices
There is a wealth of learning and knowledge that is already present in the nonprofit sector. Looking at what others are doing and uncovering does not only save time, it also allows one to consider new possibilities and ways of doing things. In finding a best practice, we often have to modify the idea and approach to suit our unique environment. It is in that adjusting of the idea that we come up with an even newer concept.
Assessing Risk and Risk Taking
Social innovators are very good at gauging risks. They are risk takers, but only after they have undertaken a thoughtful assessment of what a given strategy might involve. If a strategy is risky but bears exploration, smart innovators create contingency plans and alternative options. They take nothing for granted.
Remember, opportunity recognition is not a trait we are born with. We can exercise muscle and open ourselves to emerging trends, best practices and effective risk assessment strategies so that we create meaningful innovation.
Seek out and engage the unusual
If creativity is the idea of simply combining two new things together, then looking for and involving unusual elements in your work will result in invention.
What unusual suspects can I involve in my initiative or undertaking? What individuals, groups, associations, entities, companies, and bodies of people can I engage? Who might be the most unlikely group to link to my cause? Who might be the most obvious to engage and who do they have links to that I have never thought of before?
Engaging unusual people is an investment in one’s future ability to innovate. Unusual people bring different perspectives and ways of seeing things that result in even more alternative thoughts. Ultimately, unusual suspects strengthen an organization’s creative muscle.
A second way to consider the unusual is to ask yourself if there are unusual ways that you can combine two new approaches or strategies together to create a new initiative. This idea is illustrated by Mary Gordon from Roots of Empathy. As an educator, Mary worked within the school system. She also worked on early childcare and child development issues. She came up with the idea of bringing an infant baby into the classroom to teach children empathy skills. Now who would have thought that an infant could be the best teacher on the topic of empathy? But it makes sense!
A third way to look at the unusual is with using new mediums or places to promote an idea or concept. Develop creative communications and messaging strategies that build momentum for your cause.
By exploring and embracing the unusual it can lead to combining together the most intriguing and stimulating people, concepts and mediums – with far-reaching and positive results.
Create and steward learning cultures
Organizations that are learning organizations are committed to continual improvement. Everyone is encouraged to embrace the concept of continuous learning as we all have new things to learn from each other and from new ways of thinking.
The strongest leaders have an unquenchable curiosity to understand the world. They are constantly in a learning posture, as they never believe that what they know is enough. They ask everyone around them for advice and a fresh perspective. They weave ideas together from all kinds of sources never believing that they alone have the right answer.
Studies show that this “exploration” quality is a critical element of excellent leadership. It ensures that many ideas are considered before problems are solved. It also results in a humble non-arrogant approach that heightens people’s loyalty for the leader.
For example 3M and other companies, known for innovation, emphasize the importance of creating a culture where people are encouraged to experiment. In order to learn, we must be willing to make mistakes. We must be willing to learn from what does not work as much as what does work. These findings can often change our entire approach or hypothesis for our work.
As a social innovator, build your organization’s culture to innovate. Build this culture everywhere that you go. Encourage people in your organization to think productively. Ask them how many different ways they can look at a problem. How can they rethink it? And how many different ways they can think to solve the problem? Reward experimentation and challenge your peers to think outside the box or, better yet, consider changing the box.
Humour is a marvelous way to create new possibilities and uncover new ideas. A famous quote reads: “At the height of laughter, the universe is flung in a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.” When you are laughing you are not attached to anything. Your mind is wide open. It is in this place that a new idea may arise. There is a strong correlation between creativity and humour. Humour is a new, bizarre and wonderful way of looking at something.
New ideas also rise at quiet moments. Scientists report that most often their best ideas come through in moment of silence following periods of intense focus. The idea arises in an open space. They often describe the experience as if they were “inspired by the idea”.
This teaches us that there is a need for breaks away from our focused, intense work. Organizations with the strongest learning cultures work hard but they also play hard. A part of sustaining a learning organization is balance and even time away from the work.
Think to be effective – not to be right!
As linear thinking expert, Edward De Bono says, “the purpose of thinking is not to be right but to be effective.” Being effective does eventually involve being right but there is a very important difference between the two. Being right means being right all the time. Being effective means being right only at the end.
Circles represent 360 degrees from which to look at something. Looking at situations from different points around the circle will help us understand the situation better. We are more likely to develop a new paradigm or way of seeing something, which may lead to new approaches. An outrageous idea is important to consider not because it is the right idea but because it jettisons our mind along a new trajectory that results in an effective idea.
Often the best innovators and leaders work hard to protect seedling ideas because one day they will sprout up into something marvelous. We must learn to remove our egos from the thinking process and we need to eliminate our need to be right. How do we do this? It requires being able to be in a place of not knowing. It requires that we embrace uncertainty. This requires courage, adaptability and a willingness to be wrong. It also requires the need to stretch your mind and think about things differently.
There are many techniques to train your brain to think in different ways. Strategies that build your lateral thinking process help. This includes techniques like:
- reversal thinking where you train the mind to think in “reversal” – or in extremes, opposite and polarities. And while it often results in obviously wrong ideas, it leads the mind to think in other directions and therefore open up new possibilities.
- techniques to fractionalize situations – this is about how you take a problem apart – depending on how you segment the problem, you will find different ways of seeing it and solving it
- mind mapping -a whole brain activity that allows you to see the big picture in a more spatial way
- brainstorming with others and suspending judgment
The goal in the end is to find new ways to restructure ideas and patterns of information in order to provoke new ones. The more you think effectively and make space for this approach in your life and leadership style, the more it will rub off. Others will begin to value the power of effective thinking and it will be less and less important for people to be right all the time. It will become more important for people to explore issues from many vantage points so that the final idea or outcome is effective and right!
Many things start with your ideas and intention. Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” So pay attention to your thoughts and ideas. Watch where they lead you. Maximize your brainpower and harness new ways of thinking.
Five Good Resources
- How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, David Bornstein Oxford University Press, New York, 2004.
- Enterprising Nonprofits: A Toolkit for Social Entrepreneurs, Gregory J, Dees, Jed Emerson and Peter Economy, Wiley Nonprofit Series, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 2001.
- How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day, Michael J. Gelb, Bantam Dell, New York, 2004.
- The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell, Back Bay Books, United States, 2002.
- Stanford Social Innovation Review, Quarterly Journal, Center for Social Innovation. Stanford Graduate School of Business, United States