Or... are not-for-profits not innovative or do we just do innovation differently?
Does that point to a lack of strong innovation culture in NFPs? Or do we need, as a community, to better define what a good innovation culture looks like for us?
The popular model of innovation is based on the idea of inventive entrepreneurs in business, devising a new thing that consumers love in droves. However maybe in NFPs, our role is often to be the ‘first follower’ as well as the visionary; because our work should always be in the service of a community of people.
Here are some starting points for what not-for-profit innovation culture could look like:
1. Recognise our risk/reward calculation is different
A not-for-profit working with vulnerable populations, perhaps in fragile geographies, has to make a different kind of risk/reward calculation than a business developing new consumer technology. When you’re taking risks with other people’s well-being, or donor money, that calculation is usually set in quite a different place.
It is perhaps not surprising that one of the most widely name-checked innovations in development, the low-cost mobile money transfer service of M-PESA in East Africa, emerged initially from the private sector, although it always had social purpose in its DNA and has proven to be a unique platform for the development of new socially valuable programmes from a huge array of other groups. As Edgar Schein, organisational psychology theorist and Professor Emeritus at MIT Sloan School of Management, said:
‘I was struck by how different computer companies were from chemical companies because of the underlying technologies that spawned engineers with very different worldviews, concepts of time, approaches to experimentation, and so on. For example, the easy fooling around with circuits that DEC engineers revelled in would have been career suicide in the chemical environment of Ciba-Geigy.’ (Organizational Psychology Then and Now: Some Observations)
I think not-for-profits will often feel more like the chemicals company than the software firm in terms of their risk profile. The humanitarian principle of ‘do no harm’ has to be applied to innovation in not-for-profits. Organisations like the Gates Foundation which do fund innovation in health have serious standards in research protocols, in order to ensure that their work does no harm.
2. Acknowledge the constraints in our type of (social) businesses
Then there are operational challenges to innovation, such as the inability to free up time to share ideas, or as Clay Christensen and his colleagues might say, the time to develop the ‘five discovery skills for innovators’: (associate ideas, question, observe, experiment, network). Research Councils sometimes run five day sandpits, (innovation workshops) but I find it hard to imagine most NGO staff I know being able to take five days out of their jobs for something that may turn out not to help their project at all. Meanwhile our ‘experts on the problem’ – the intended beneficiaries of the innovation – are probably busy or hard to access.
That said, there are many, many channels for innovation in the not-for-profit sector - there is a lot more innovation going on than people realise.
3. Celebrate innovations that our community is developing right now
(Mostly at the level of process or business model innovation rather than product innovation but a lot of the time, that’s where the innovation is needed). We have technology that is good enough for most basic needs; the challenge is getting it through the last mile.
Tim Black, the founder of Marie Stopes International invented a social enterprise model for MSI back in the 60s. People are still re-discovering that model today. Meanwhile the consistent piloting of cash transfers as an aid model (instead of food aid, or building shelters for people) is producing an overwhelming body of evidence that cash transfers (especially electronic) are effective and way cheaper than moving food around. Development practitioners have proven willing to disrupt themselves and their traditional ways of doing their work.
If things like product innovation don’t flow naturally from your social business model, don’t worry about it. You’re probably doing a great job on frugal innovation in how to deliver vital services with hard-to-reach communities. Don’t worry so much, you people are good at this.
4. Document, reflect and share your work
Most importantly: even if management is hardass and don’t really believe in toilet breaks as long as we’ve still not solved world hunger, quickly document your work and get feedback. Reflect on it. There may be innovations in there that you can’t see yourself, or that only become obvious after a year of implementation has kicked them into shape, like the camels carrying solar powered mobile pharmacies my colleagues devised at Save the Children with a partner organisation in the Somali region of Ethiopia. It was a great example of applying an existing technology and an existing – er – camel – to the problem of health services for nomadic populations in terrain where sand regularly chews up jeeps.
It doesn’t have to get written up in the Lancet to be valuable. It could be a relatively small problem that you solve - but share it. Who else is having that problem? If you or someone else fixed a problem, however small, and 10,000 people are having that same problem, actually you could be fixing a medium-to-large problem before you know it. Sometimes even carefully and thoughtfully delineating a problem can help someone else working on it to understand it better.
So in summary: Stay aware of innovations in our community; reflect; write up and share your cool problem-solving stuff. That’s all I’ve got for now. I am sure I have missed many important points and welcome your thoughts. What do