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Leadership and Innovation: Three questions we should be asking ourselves

Are nonprofit leaders producing innovation and break through change?

In the past twenty years, have we made impressive progress on even one significant social problem (hunger, poverty, environmental degradation…take your pick)? Beth Kanter, a leading nonprofit blogger suggests we haven’t, “There has been an explosion in size of the nonprofit sector over the last twenty years, huge increases in donations and number of organizations, and yet the needle hasn’t moved on any serious social issue. Growing individual institutions ever larger has failed to address complex social problems that outpace the capacity of any individual organization or institution to solve them.” Whether we agree with the extent of the problem, it would be hard to disagree that we have a problem calling desperately for innovation. Among the proponents of strategies that promise innovation there is one common thread, it’s the work of many! Investing in individuals will not seed innovation and breakthrough change.

Where is innovation being produced and how?

In an article on Design Thinking in the Harvard Business Review, Tim Brown explains that one of Thomas Edison’s greatest contributions was the R&D design methodology, “He surrounded himself with gifted tinkerers, improvisers and experimenters. Indeed, he broke the mold of the “lone genius inventor” by creating a team-based approach to innovation." A hallmark of this process was trial and error, what he referred to as 99% perspiration, not to confirm assumptions but to learn from every attempt. The starting point of innovation is an acknowledgement that we don’t know. I have to confess that I have been in thousands (I am really afraid to try and figure out how many thousands) of meetings and only once have I heard people honestly say, “We don’t know if anything we have tried has made a lasting difference." This awareness became the springboard for prototyping innovation and it’s not a coincidence that this group was supported in this frank exploration by a creative problem solving process called Theory U. I described the process in more depth in an earlier post, A Tear in the Matrix. The U process emphasizes the power of collective observation with an open heart and mind, and letting go of preconceived ideas and agendas to prototype innovative solutions.

In a recent blog post, LLC Director of Communications, Natalia Castaneda, shared similar reflections about what the field of leadership development could learn from design thinking. She described the phases of the design process: understand the problem; observe to really get to the bottom of the problem; develop a point of view through collective vetting and synthesis of different offerings to develop a strong statement about the subjects, the need and insight about the problem. The final steps tap the divergent and convergent thinking of the team to ideate, prototype and test solutions to accelerate learning.

Last month, we featured Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From, in our newsletter. He explores the spaces that support the creation of good ideas and points out that innovation percolates over time as many ideas collide and are combined. During the period of enlightenment coffee houses became an important space where good ideas collided. In today’s environment he talks about the increased connectivity of the internet incubating the development of ideas and innovation.  Leadership programs could be the coffee houses of social change, but are they?

I opened this post with a quote from Beth Kanter, co-author of the book The Networked Nonprofit, which builds on Steven Johnson’s observations about increased connectivity supporting innovation. In their book, Beth and Allison share many examples of nonprofits who harnessed the creativity of their followers. For instance, the Brooklyn Museum launched a photography exhibit where the public submitted photographs and ranked them in an effort called “Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition.” At very little cost, this show generated a great deal of excitement, a quality exhibit, and a very high level of public engagement. The show was based on the principle of crowdsourcing. In his book Crowdsourcing-Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business, Jeff Howe describes crowdsourcing as the process of organizing many people to participate in a joint project, often in small ways. The results are greater than an individual or organization could have accomplished alone.


How can leadership programs in the nonprofit sector support innovation?


As a culture, we are strongly attached to ideals of individualism that have led us to elevate the role of individuals in change. Many leadership programs focus on bolstering the individual’s skills to be more persuasive and influential. This bias is reflected in organizational hierarchies. Ideals about individuals persist (everyone loves a hero) in the face of what we know about innovation and the collective creative process. Innovation comes from groups, not the genius of even the most brilliant or dedicated lone individual. Considering models of non-profit leadership, is it really surprising that there has been a lack of innovation in the non-profit sector over the past 20 years? The good news is that leadership programs shifting their focus from individual skill building to the collective work of leadership are becoming incubators for innovation by engaging participants in deep observation, prototyping and testing new strategies through action learning. Innovation is not a mystery. We can do a better job of fostering innovative leadership in the nonprofit sector and we have never needed it more.