Innovation matters because it leads to change. And change is what being in the third sector is about. People are always changing, the societies in which they operate altering, and public policy shifting, and an organization that remains stagnant in this context will cease to be relevant. The charity sector relies on innovation in order to continue to serve the communities they work with, and enable maximum impact. Innovation is about fixing current products as well as developing entirely new ideas, and whilst it exists in areas such as technology, partnerships and structures, this article looks at staff innovation – encouraging staff to change their practices, delivery and processes in order to deliver change to the people they work with.
The rationale for stimulating staff innovation is to liberate ideas throughout the organization and to ensure they are heard by those best placed to pick up on, and monetize, these ideas. It enables an organisation to make the most of the staff resources, increase staff engagement, focus on core business concerns, and develop a sense of empowerment.
Innovation has to happen everywhere. Open innovation does not take place just with a Research & Development team, but, according to Henry Chesborough, is “the use of purposive inflows and outflows of knowledge to accelerate internal innovation”. Recognising that these skills exist throughout the organisation, often in the areas most closely associated with a particular problem, holds a vast potential to generate ground-breaking new ideas as well as small changes that can make a big difference.
Truly harnessing the potential requires bold leadership which makes innovation a strategic priority. It should empower staff to dedicate time to innovation while inspiring them to see the ‘bigger picture’ and actively contribute to improving this picture. It moves the role of management from exercising control to providing guidance and facilitation. Certain foundational conditions, including time, culture and resources, are needed for innovation processes to truly reach their potential. The following guidelines were developed from interviews, case studies and secondary research, and are what the Charityworks graduates believe will make a successful innovation process.
Create a structured and continuous idea collection, enrichment and selection process.
It can be challenging to generate and share ideas if there is not a clear process, so ideas need to be prepared with a criteria for success, topic for strategic relevance, participants, duration mapped out, clear communications, further involvement to develop ideas, feedback and extrinsic and incentives for staff. Encourage employees to grade their ideas and provide clear commentary as to the perceived benefits so that selection is transparent from the start.
Motivate employees to participate
People are motivated by different things so there is a need to design the right incentive models. Innovation needs to be applauded and not frowned upon, so staff need to be rewarded for their participation, whether this is through intrinsic or extrinsic benefits.
Obtain high quality and relevant ideas
The number of ideas generated submitted from staff can be overwhelming, and they will not always be relevant or practical. The solution to this challenge is to focus on what the organisation wants to develop, fix or innovate by giving a specific product, theme or issue to suggest ideas. This incremental focus is easier to implement and will fix what is wanted to be fixed rather than adding more work on radical ideas.
Create Innovation Champions
Sometimes idea generation can fall into the hands of a few decision-makers who have preconceived ways of operating, and who may appear to be in siloes from the rest of the team. Some organisations develop innovation champion roles, where individuals who meet specific criteria and have values aligned to the purpose have a clear understanding of their role. They can run workshops, encourage employees, and help instil a culture of innovation. Providing the time and structure for people to be creative is key.
Encourage a culture of no failure
Individuals need to feel encouraged and empowered to share their ideas. Accepting and celebrating failure and taking well-managed risks is a key part of innovation. As the 2013 NESTA report on Open Innovation says. “Charities reported there was no pressure to be perfect and that this in turn made them feel more comfortable about opening up to the challenges they faced and creating new solutions without being seen to ‘fail.’”
Image from Nesta.