Organizational capacity for continuous innovation: reflections from a brainstorming session

Last week I attended a meeting at the Rockefeller Foundation’s office in New York convened in partnership with the Stanford Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society.  The topic: “organizational capability for continuous innovation in established social sector organizations.”    This was a perfect chance to learn what scholars were saying about social innovation and how it could best be achieved in an organization like BRAC!

I realized when I arrived that this group, largely comprised of academics from top institutions, was looking to BRAC to provide input on two primary fronts: the first, as a practitioner with 40 years of innovation experience.  Secondly, to help them determine what research on innovation to prioritize.  These topics were quite interesting.  I had a chance to learn that there is substantial literature on innovation, most of which thinks of it as a process or the assembling of fertile factors rather than an outcome or orchestrated event (i.e. you can’t lock people in a room and tell them they must innovate!).  Many factors matter—from the vision and values at the highest level, to individual personalities, to how meetings are conducted, what behaviors get rewarded, and how learning is captured and shared.  Despite all of this thinking, it seems that still no one has created an accepted definition of “social innovation.”  Evidently the fog of conceptual ambiguity still envelopes us all.   One person recommended we spend the day just coming up with a definition!  Not my idea of a good time.  Mercifully, we decided to forge ahead and jump into the literature review.

I had reflections from the session about the larger framing of the activity that jumped out at me.

  1.  Assumptions matter.  All research includes assumptions, including expected potential for change resulting from the new knowledge generated by a study.  Sometimes assumptions map closely to reality, other times they don’t.  Sometimes we don’t know, and to choose prematurely can predispose us to certain findings or strategies.  For example, it’s clear that many see innovation as primarily taking place in small, “nimble” NGOs that have a deep sense of local communities.   Larger NGOs are partners to quickly take effective innovations to scale.  If BRAC defies this assumed trend, how have we maintained that characteristic?  Certainly our history as a learning organization is a strong contributor.  I would argue that BRAC’s homegrown innovations also consider scale from the conception—not a dichotomy of design then retrofitting for scale. What do you think?  What about our assumption that innovation is a good thing?  It comes at a cost, that of change and some level of risk-taking.  With the hype around innovation, there is certainly a danger of jumping for new approaches and solutions when the old ones were just fine, or needed some minor improvements.
  2. Think about translation.  And I don’t just mean from English to Bangla or Swahili (though if we’re serious about global impact, this matters too).  I mean from research-speak to practitioner-speak! Practitioners are action oriented; simplicity and ease of adoption are important to them.  Researchers often tend towards “thorough” or “exhaustive” descriptions that capture the complexities of systems and phenomenon.  So they produce long papers that don’t get read.  Even the more bite-size blog posts to date are largely consumed by audiences in advanced economies, including some Northern ex-pats living in the Global South.  Why is this?  What are better forms to get information to leaders of development organizations is a way that’s biased towards action?
  3. Stop focusing solely on methods.  Researchers worry A LOT about methods.  At business schools, methods often take second priority to common sense and practice.  Take something like the value chain.  It’s a tool that is commonly used to map out all the primary and secondary activities involved in a complete production process.  Companies use it to determine what activities and configuration of all these activities can deliver the most value (i.e. produce the best product at the lowest costs, sustainably).  No one has rigorously tested what it does.  But people keep using it because they find it helpful.  I find it helpful!  There is a balance to be struck in seeing things work empirically and disseminating them, and robustly researching new interventions.  Research has limitations and can take time; these are serious issues to consider when we have knowledge of practices that could be scaling up and saving lives.
  4. Ongoing dialog can improve research and practice.  I learned a lot from collectively learning and discussing innovation with this group.  It’s clear that there is great interest from academics in understanding what we are doing and helping us improve it.  This type of collaboration would give us outside eyes and expertise to see ourselves from the outside, perhaps revealing things that are hard for us to see.  I hope that there will be opportunities to host some of the other participants and find other ways to engage with them.
  5. More than research is needed.  When I gave a brief presentation on Sunday to the SIL team and a few others that have expressed interest in spending time with SIL, I asked them what they that the #1 thing BRAC needed was to be more innovative?  A few talked about communication and information flow, others talked about the need for a “safe space” or “culture of candor“.  None mentioned research!  It was exciting to hear the meeting participants in NY include these sentiments when summarizing the day. 

Hopefully a summary document will be available soon.  I’ll post a follow-up on the blog then!

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