Everyone wants to be innovative, right? But incorrect beliefs about innovation are getting in our way, and outdated attitudes are holding us back. In a recent article in Stanford Social Innovation Review, author Polina Makievsky shared a fresher perspective on six stale beliefs about how innovation works in social sector organizations. I enjoyed reading this, because her point of view was grounded in lived experience. It reinforced and expanded my thinking about innovation, a topic near and dear to me.

Makievsky’s findings, which were based on a design summit hosted by her organization, Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, were similar to what Idealware discovered in our research on innovation in nonprofit program delivery. In 2012 we conducted a study in partnership with MAP for Nonprofits that looked at technology innovation at 180 human service organizations. The resulting publication, Unleashing Innovation: Using Everyday Technology to Improve Your Services, describes a model for how innovation occurred in the organizations we studied.

Proximity to the Problem Helps

One similarity was that we both found people closest to the work, and the clients, had the best ideas. In a mentoring program Idealware studied, a staff member made an observation: While all the teens carried cell phones and used them frequently, few would answer phone calls or emails. She proposed using text messages to communicate with the teens. Her simple, free solution has substantially increased the number of teens who attend their programs. People like this program staff member have direct experience of a problem and therefore are well-positioned to solve it.

To pave the way to innovation, Makievsky recommends creating formal channels for proposing solutions. “[Organizations should] give staff opportunities to pick solutions, test them out, and report back results,” she writes, “and create incentives for employees to contribute solutions to business problems.”

Small Ideas Are OK

Most of the technology innovation Idealware discovered among human service organizations consisted of applying everyday technology in a new way rather than inventing something new. “Innovation is rarely a magical ‘eureka’ moment,” Makievsky emphasizes. “Rather, it’s often an iterative process of solving problems—sometimes very small ones.”

For years I have been preaching this gospel to nonprofits that falsely believe they aren’t capable of innovation. They think if they can’t do something huge, innovation is not worth the bother.

Makievsky offered some great reasons why micro-innovation is valuable. For example, doing things incrementally reduces the risk of large-scale failure. Besides solving an immediate problem, albeit a small one, every time you achieve a small innovation you are also building your organization’s capacity for innovation.

Culture Matters A Lot

I believe the most innovative organizations aren’t simply lucky. If you look closely, you will almost always find that they have cultures that support innovation. What does that look like?

  • Innovation-positive cultures have a curious leader. While Makievsky warned against the attitude that the CEO is solely responsible for innovation, I suspect she might agree with me that a top executive’s attitude toward technology, regardless of her actual knowledge or skill level, is a good indicator of overall capacity for technology innovation.
  • Innovative organizations set aside resources. If money is scarce, then maybe time is all you can offer. In a previous organization I used to have my team set aside 5 percent of their time—two hours a week—for learning and trying out new tools, because we all knew that staying current on technology was essential to our success. (And I had them report out on how they were using that time.)
  • Innovative organizations have one or more champions, advocates, and sponsors for great ideas.
  • They provide a container for innovation. By a container, I mean a mechanism for presenting, evaluating, and piloting ideas. It could be as simple as a suggestion box and a transparent procedure for reviewing the suggestions.
  • Innovative organizations are strategic and mission focused.
  • Innovative organizations are action-oriented. They don’t stop at generating ideas. They try things out.

Makievsky underscored the last item, emphasizing the importance of experimentation, generating multiple ideas, and tolerating (or even celebrating) failure.

How To Unleash Innovation

According to Makievsky, Innovator’s Mantra No. 3 is “We need to define the positive goal we seek to achieve.” Perhaps taking a page from Appreciative Inquiry, she writes, “…by defining the desired future state, [an organization] can look for examples where these behaviors are already occurring.”

This is essentially what Idealware and MAP did to develop our model for the technology innovation process in nonprofits. We looked at situations where innovation was already occurring, and attempted to reverse-engineer them to discover the secret recipe.

In that model, behavioral and cultural aspects combine with knowledge about technology and inspiration to spark a change. Often, innovation happened after an individual was exposed to outside ideas. A peer conversation or conference presentation might have been the crucible in which problem and tech tool combined into an innovative solution.

Now that we know the recipe, it’s possible to recreate some of the conditions for innovation, by rethinking our management mantras and exposing ourselves to new knowledge and ideas.

In Summary: Some Practical Advice

If you want to invite innovation into your organization, ask the people on the front lines for their ideas. Better yet, equip them to pursue those ideas themselves.

Don’t believe the myth that all innovation has to be big or inventive. Everyday, practical problem-solving is a valuable form of innovation within everyone’s reach.

If you want to be innovative, dedicate resources to innovation, nurture champions, provide structures to support it, and then go ahead and try (even though you might fail).

Look at successful innovation for inspiration, and feed yourself a steady diet of knowledge and ideas from disparate sources.