How Nonprofit Leaders Can Embrace Innovation As A Core Value

24 March, 2017 / Articles

Years ago I heard a story about one of the great industrial tycoons of the last century; it said that this man would spend part of each day trying to visualize what his industry would look like in 10 years. Though I no longer remember who the story was about, I still value the lesson.

Looking ahead is critical to business success. Many companies consider innovation a key business value, but to practice innovation takes creativity, strategy and courage. It requires the ability to take missteps and even to expect failure from time to time. A culture of innovation means never being satisfied with the status quo and understanding that you will get passed by if you are not moving forward.

When my organization was developing its core values, innovation was an obvious choice. As with any organization in the healthcare field, change is constant. Still, choosing this core value meant more to us than meeting the expectations and requirements determined by our industry. Being future-facing is good for company morale. Giving a team the space to push itself and achieve more pays off, and we sought to embrace ourselves as innovators — people who understand that looking ahead is essential to getting ahead.

This type of thinking is particularly important when business is going well. It can be tempting to imagine that good economic conditions will continue to favor your business, but that’s unwise. When there are no emergencies, there is time for strategy and growth.

The nonprofit world is continuously changing. To stay successful, it is critical to look at today’s problems and develop tomorrow’s solutions. How is this achieved?

Stay Informed

Read, observe industry trends, and have conversations with colleagues. Ask questions — curiosity is vital to innovation. As you go through daily life, listen to the challenges people are having. Innovation lies in every complaint or issue. Don’t just focus on your industry, either. Explore various fields of interest; you will likely discover a confluence or flowing together of the various streams of knowledge as you explore. Science can inform education, and beekeeping can inspire engineering. It’s all a matter of the observer’s ability to synthesize information.

Overcome The Fear Of Failure

First, acknowledge that failure is inevitable. Second, realize that it can be a tremendous opportunity. As Thomas Edison famously said after nearly a thousand unsuccessful attempts at making his groundbreaking electric lightbulb, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Failure can be one of the harshest but most instructive teachers. Not everything you want to do or try to do is going to work. Anyone who has ever achieved has also likely experienced some monumental failures throughout the course of their career. The key is to let that motivate you to work harder. Seeing leaders make mistakes and then dust themselves off gives their teams the permission to do the same. A work environment where the occasional screw-up is permitted is healthy for an organization.

Say Yes

Vision is critical to success. You must, on occasion, be bold enough to take on challenging projects. The confidence to say that you can do something before you know exactly how you are going to accomplish it can make or break a company. I am not suggesting that you agree to things that you have no knowledge of, but rather, that moving toward projects and initiatives that are in your wheelhouse but outside of your comfort zone can revolutionize your business and invigorate your organization.

Remember, It’s The Little Things

Never forget that small improvements can add up over time. It is probably true the majority of positive change across an organization comes through the accumulation of small positive adjustments. Always keep an eye out for ways that processes and procedures can be improved. This is how innovation culture is fostered. Think about the British Cycling team that had marginal success in its 76-year history, until finally, it began winning in 2008 at the Tour de France and the Olympics. When asked what had transformed the team, Coach Dave Brailsford pointed to what he called “the aggregation of marginal gains,” or the accumulation of many small improvements over time.

It can be difficult to establish this type of company culture. There is always some level of resistance to change. New technology can be difficult to learn and new processes can be frustrating for a team who has been doing things the same way for years. Resistance is normal as a company’s culture changes. In a business organization, as in society, there are a very small number of innovators and a slightly larger number of early adopters — and then there is the rest of the population. When you choose innovation as a core value, you have the permission, and even the obligation, to seek more candidates who are part of this small, brave segment of the population.

With progress, there are always pitfalls. Learning to navigate those as a team, to make lemonade when possible and to walk away when necessary, will help your organization to embrace innovation as a core value.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.

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