One of my favorite parts of the longest job I ever held was that my boss welcomed innovation. If I attended a conference or read an article, and learned about something new I thought we should be doing, she was all ears. We talked out the pros and cons, together.
Usually we made a plan that took into account likely cost/benefit. We made a timeline and gave ourselves what we believed to be a reasonable amount of time to allow the benefits to accrue. Then she let me take the ball and run with it.
Not every place I worked looked as kindly on trying new things.
What’s your workplace like?
Do you nurture innovation, or do you kill it?
Sometimes premature deaths can be accidentally expedited.
Is your culture accident prone?
Let’s take a look…
How Fear of Failure Stymies Innovation
If your culture punishes failure, obviously you’ll go to great lengths to avoid taking risks.
Usually, this is done with good intentions, under the guise of such accepted best practices as research, forecasting and strategic planning.
But you can do all those things and still take risks!
What holds you back from moving outside your comfort zone? [See How to Fight Nonprofit Resting on Laurels Syndrome]
In 6 Accidental Ways Companies Kill Innovation, Emily Wenstrom writes on the Convince and Convert blog about the ways for-profit companies use “best nonprofit management practices” to water down new ideas and kill them.
“It gets dialed back again and again until it’s completely unrecognizable, and it dies a slow, silent death. The company returns to its status quo… When it comes to innovation, companies fall into the same bad, idea-killing habits over and over again.”
Have you ever suggested a great idea that somehow never turned into reality?
If so, why do you think that happened?
Likely, it was one of these six rationales Wenstrom outlines.
6 Accidental Innovation Killers + 6 Purposeful Truths
1. “We Need More Research.”
Research is important. I never approached my boss without data and examples to back it up. But… there’s a point at which you’ve got enough to go on. You’ve got to take a leap. Even if you researched the idea until you’d squeezed every little bit of collectible information on the topic, you still wouldn’t know if the idea would work the same way for you. You’ve got to try it. You can’t be so risk averse you never have enough information to move forward.
TRUTH: You’ve got to be willing to create your own research.
“When you pitch a new idea, you better have the data to back it up. But it’s also an easy thing to hide behind—especially these days, when big data makes analytics an utterly bottomless rabbit hole.”
2. “Let’s Get Input from ___.”
This excuse actually makes my stomach cramp. You know it means the idea will never go anywhere. It’s the proverbial fundraising letter written by a committee problem. The idea becomes neither chicken nor fish, but some sort of weird multi-headed creature that ultimately no one wants to take credit for. Or maybe everyone wants to take credit, but first they just need to shave off a little bit here and there. Or put the decision off for a little bit longer (until the timing no longer makes sense, or no one has the time or energy to move ahead). The creature gets more and more funky.
TRUTH: Every new project needs a clear leader and prime mover.
“With so many others trying to turn your project into theirs, how can you possibly make a real impact with any of them?”
3. “What Is the Competition Doing?”
As a reason for hesitation and delay, this is a variation on the “we need more research” excuse. Of course it’s good to know the experience of your competitors. But… they aren’t you! And if something is working/not working for them, it doesn’t follow it will work/not work for you.
TRUTH: You must apply new ideas in a way that’s right for you.
“If your way is different from your competitor’s approach, that’s not just okay—it’s great. All you need to know is why your approach is better for your company.”
4. “What’s the (Immediate) ROI?”
You’re not always playing a short-term game. And long-term gain isn’t always easy to foresee. You can’t eliminate all risk factors. That’s why it’s called risk management. My favorite management guru, Peter Drucker, outlines four kinds of risk in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices:
- Risk that is built into the nature of the business
- Risk one can afford to take
- Risk one cannot afford to take
- Risk one cannot afford not to take
If your idea is not going to cause you to go broke, and might just yield a whole bunch of benefits, maybe you should give it a try.
TRUTH: You need to give your idea time to succeed or fail.
“Like any project, iteration should be an assumed, ongoing part of implementation. Rather than set a threshold ROI, set a goal ROI to work toward as the project is honed.”
5. “Are Our Clients Asking for This?”
You could just as easily ask if your donors want this. And it’s not a bad question. In fact, I always try to get inside the donor’s head and consider their WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?) question. However, you don’t always know what’s in your donor’s head. Even if they’re not asking, that doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking or wishing. (e.g., “Gee, I wish I could ask friends to donate here for my birthday.” “Gosh, I wish I could easily set up monthly giving so I didn’t have to write one big check.”) From what we know about the dismal rate of donor retention, if you’ve got an idea that’s going to bring your donor more joy, satisfaction, convenience and meaning, there’s a good chance they’ll be happy if your idea gets implemented.
TRUTH: Don’t let an idea die simply because there’s no current hue and cry; the clamor, furor and need for that idea may be simmering below the surface.
“So don’t wait for clients to ask—forge ahead and then show clients how this benefits them.”
6. “Let’s Start Small and See.”
Oh, dear. I constantly counsel nonprofits to think bigger. The last thing you should do is shoot yourself in the foot before you even get on the road. And that’s what the “let’s dial this back a bit” mentality does. It’s another mentality born of fear. Let’s dip a toe in the water, but not get into the deep end of the pool. You’re not going to win any Olympics events that way! If you water down the idea of developing a signature fundraising/donor cultivation event, but begin with a small dinner in the private room of a restaurant, you’re not going to make the statement you set out to make.
TRUTH: Go big or go home.
“If you take a big idea and trim it down until it’s just a small fragment of the original, it reaches a point where it can’t make a real impact anymore. Lackluster results are held up to the glimmering potential of the original concept and determined to be a flop.”
6 Strategies to Stop Killing Innovation at Your Nonprofit
Want to help your nonprofit breathe life into new ideas? You need to move away from the killing fields’ culture and instead foster a culture of curiosity, abundance and openness.
“In the innovative organization executives do not say “That’s a damn-fool idea.” Instead, they ask “What would be needed to make this embryonic, half-baked, foolish idea into something that makes sense, that is feasible, that is an opportunity for us?”
1. Let Yourself Be Stupid
Silicon Valley says “move fast and break things.” Nonprofits tend to move super, super slow. Consider this a variation of “embrace your errors,” and a reminder to us all that if you never fail you never learn. One of my son’s favorite book series growing up was “The Magic School Bus.” Miss Frizzle always said: “Take chances! Make mistakes!” Nonprofits could learn a lot from Miss Frizzle.
2. Prove Everyone Wrong
Don’t let yourself be put off by “but we don’t do it that way here.” Do it anyway, and show ‘em the error of their ways. Of course this is risky, and you may have to beg forgiveness afterwards. But take a look at #3 below; do what you know is right and true.
3. Stay Curious, and True to Yourself
When you stop being curious you stop learning. You become boring, to yourself and others. You can’t effectively brand your organization this way, nor can you fundraise passionately.
4. Address and Solve Problems Creatively
Whenever you encounter resistance that wants to elongate the decision-making process, use the power of the brainstorm. Agree to carve out a little time to think, plan and come to a go/no go resolution. Do it collectively. Don’t look back.
5. Attack Opportunities to Learn
Nip resistance in the bud. Remind folks that great leaders are great learners. People — and organizations — learn from their failures. Celebrate successes, but also embrace mistakes. It’s how we learn. And if an organization doesn’t keep learning, it stagnates and eventually withers.
6. Set Aside Budget for Innovation
You need a systematic approach to bring new things to life. So set aside some gambling money. Reward employees who contribute new ideas. Don’t punish failures. And nip resistance in the bud; remind folks of the rewards that come to those who dare to innovate.
What’s killing innovation in your neck of the woods?