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Trainer, Teams Designer, ENFJ. I train agile multidisciplinary teams for business and social changemakers.

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The Smokescreens of Nonprofit Innovation

Bryann AlexandrosBryann Alexandros

Disruption can be scandalous. Bruised and defensive egos. Fear of uncertainty and the unknown. But if you can pull through, the changes can be fulfilling. As I reminisce about the themes from the last few months, it got me thinking about the prerequisites for, ahem, innovation. For organizations facing apathy, can disruption be the antidote? Consider it a prerequisite for anything innovative.

Disruption means provoking on purpose. It means tossing up and talking out a hypothesis and then acting on it. It means taking those what-ifs, mashing up and envisioning the possibilities, and then turning them into why-nots. Yet what exactly in the nonprofit sector could use a shakedown? Business models? Fundraising models? Service delivery? How about the way we think about strategic planning and development?

Faces of Disruption

Speaking of strategic planning, this seems to be a source of despair for a lot of people. Here's a brilliant muse by Kevin Monroe of X Factor Consulting titled "Rethinking Nonprofit Strategic Planning, Part I: Plan or Process?

His hypothesis? What if our utter dismay dealt with the process of planning itself?

For a moment, let's bury any common conceptions about how strategic planning should unfold. Here are some good questions Kevin asks -- spoken and presented plainly:

Have we limited our ability to envision a better, brighter future by using the wrong starting point for our planning process?

What different tools could we use to be more effective in our planning process?

What if organizations developed strategies with their communities rather than for their communities?

Could we achieve a different outcome by asking different questions?

Here's another separate case that explores nonprofit board meeting and the different energy and momentum it could bring: Celebrating our Board’s 1 Year Anniversary

And then there's this question on Quora: What are some key areas of non-profits/charities that could use disruption?

All this talk out there, but why doesn't it happen?

Or, why don't we see a massive unfolding or a tidal convergence?

Guidestar CEO Bob Ottenhoff had previously addressed the issue of implementing the Agile process into an organization. He says Agile isn't just about product or software development, but embracing experimentation, rapid ideation and iteration to eke out a little creativity, manifest something new, or simply get things done.

But he says that the nonprofit sector moves at a "glacial pace" when it comes to embracing new forms of thinking and doing. A familiar clue on why that is:

Too much nonprofit sector management today is stuck in rigid techniques, standardized work tasks and an overemphasis on strategic planning. The Lean Startup identifies another principle that should resonate with all nonprofit leaders: the value of our people. Reis urges us to realize that all of our employees can be entrepreneurs. As he puts it: Innovation is a bottoms-up, decentralized and unpredictable thing, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be managed.

I concur. Rapid ideation and prototyping aside, what about using design research to gather insight on stakeholers? Or what about considering new emergent fields like service design?

Smokescreens

Where does that leave those who do want to explore change in all its glory and possibility? Who feel that they're ready for it? There are two smokescreens that I can come up with, and I'm sure there are more:

Plain Confusion

Sometimes there's this inclination to seek validation about whether some new way of "thinking" (or doing) is even worth the risk. In the case of service design, there is no official academic definition nor an official process because it's really a concoction of methods and tools from many disciplines. It's always evolving, shapeshifting. Consultancies and agencies map out their own creative processes that are attuned to the context of their respective industry or trade. But therein lies the paradox: The absence of a hard universal definition or process is to our benefit, too:

Frankly, one of the greatest strengths of design is that we have not settled on a single definition. Fields in which definition is now a settled matter tend to be lethargic, dying, or dead fields, where inquiry no longer provides challenges to what is accepted as truth. - Richard Buchannan, 2001

Sadly, Bruce Nussbaum had already given his eulogy for design thinking last year:

There were many successes, but far too many more failures in this endeavor. Why? Companies absorbed the process of Design Thinking all to[sic] well, turning it into a linear, gated, by-the-book methodology that delivered, at best, incremental change and innovation. Call it N+1 innovation.

Design hasn't died: it just reached a period of saturation. The newness about it has reached a plateau.

The Culture

Steve Blank has something to say about how innovation can be triggered in everyone's hearts -- that is, until it takes a severe blow to the head. In this case, when you try to innovate by committee. Are committees all that bad? Probably not, but out of the four reasons he outlines why committees are hazardous, the last two were the most compelling:

Committees protect the status quo. Everyone who has a reason to say “No” is represented. Dealing with disruption is not solved by committee. New market problems call for visionary founders, not consensus committee members.

With a pensive nod towards what Bob Ottenhoff had mentioned, innovation is often and unknowingly short-circuited. It falls squarely on the organization's culture itself, and it requires more than a single change agent.

To be continued....

For further reading:

New Models Redux
The Capacity-Building Game
5 Tips for Building a Great Culture for your Social Good Organization
My Review of the Mission Myth

Trainer, Teams Designer, ENFJ. I train agile multidisciplinary teams for business and social changemakers.