Innovation Requires Discipline: Habits for Organizational Learning

Blog post by Maria May. This was published in the Standford Social Innovation Review on April 12, 2012.

Innovation is rightly described as a creative and often collaborative process. As a result, we usually talk about “making space” for innovation, rather than “enforcing rules for innovation.” Rigidity seems stifling to risky and novel idea generation. Yet at all frontline organizations, staff fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent. Poverty alleviation feels like an emergency every day. It’s easy to start doing without thinking critically, much less learning or reflecting. Implementers (present company included) are quite critical of the lack of investment and practice of knowledge management—the institutionalization of these activities. But time is limited, and we don’t always have the luxury of sitting down to write; we also can be quite successful without explicit systems for learning or documenting.

Recently I learned about the tactics developed by firefighters to capture real-time insights in the midst of combating a raging forest fire. At the end of the day, each was responsible for sharing one thing they should do the same way and one thing to change the following day. I saw three secrets in their method: The value was clear to participants; the process was feasible given the constraints; and lastly, they did it every day. It was a collective habit and socially recognized expectation; to skip it would have been akin to leaving a day’s work half-done. If firefighters consistently find time for these practices, most of the rest of us can as well. The bigger challenge is figuring out what to make time for, how to elicit useful outputs, and how to sustain the practices. Currently my team at BRAC’s Social Innovation Lab is working on creating discipline in three domains:

Learning. There is nothing like a fresh idea to shake up our routine thinking patterns and trigger light bulb moments. Unfortunately, for many, the idea of spending time reading or, worse, watching videos at the office feels unproductive. I’ve seen a number of journal clubs start and die, as people got too busy to read the articles or attend regularly. Within the lab, we’ve set the expectation that everyone should frequently share articles. When we meet with outside visitors, particularly those who have a bit of a global circuit, I ask a lot of questions about other interesting models they’ve seen and about their assessment of our programs. These “external scans” are phenomenally useful in helping us identify good practices.

Capturing. We see part of our mandate as creating a global body of knowledge at BRAC that anyone can tap. To some extent, we must record this knowledge. Knowledge shared via email is often lost in individual in-boxes, so we keep an internal blog that captures meeting notes, field visits, learning sessions, and anything else worth saving. We use the blog as a place to brainstorm, and to record ideas or suggestions in a transparent and preserved way. We even use tags like “failure,” “learning,” “idea,” and “sustainability.” Most posts are fairly short and casually written (we aim to spend less than 10 minutes writing each one), but they contain the most important information. For me, the blog is also a great managing tool, making it easy to keep up with what all five folks on the team are thinking, doing, and learning—even when we’re in different places.

This is also a safe space for us—only core members of the team have access. We can use it to record doubts or misgivings, to honestly assess projects, and to comment freely, enabling a much more robust dialog and allowing us to capture the nature of the projects much more thoroughly, without worrying about the sensitivities of others. This has proven quite important, both in terms of building a “culture of candor” and trust within the team, and expecting all members to be forthcoming in praise and criticism.

Reflecting. Without a doubt, this is the most difficult and important category. Learning and capturing can become routine with relatively little effort. Reflecting—that is, organizing your experiences and observations into an articulation that informs and improves future behavior—is quite hard, particularly in the context of a busy office.

First, after completing an important event or project, we sit together and co-create a quick blog post about what we learned and what to do next. While talking, someone just types the notes directly. You’d be surprised how often the trivial logistical things come up (like “have everything printed out a day beforehand”).

Engaging thoughtful outsiders is another great resource. We’ve received several really insightful academic visitors over the last few months for learning exchanges—they spent time looking at our programs firsthand and then applying an academic lens. They facilitated conversations among our senior leaders on difficult issues, including “cannibalizing” programs and the dangers of an unwritten theory of change. Over time, we have keener reflections because we’re keeping these mental muscles limber and creating a norm of intellectual engagement, both internally and externally.

While we are not firefighters, we do face emergencies that test how deep our habits run. Last week, the largest slum eviction in Dhaka’s history took place, just across the lake from BRAC’s head office. Two thousand people were left homeless, sleeping on the streets and in the park. With access to water shut off, local markets closed, and with nowhere to go, many were desperate. BRAC rallied quickly to provide small cash transfers to all affected households. We learned a lot in the process—what systems were and weren’t in place to respond quickly to emergencies, how reliable our information systems are at the household level, and how programs coordinate at the field level. By already having the discipline to exercise some level of learning, capturing, and reflection in the midst of an emotional and urgent crisis situation, we’ll be able to leverage this experience of improvisation to respond swiftly and effectively in the future.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *