In an increasingly globalized and dynamic world, innovation is extolled as the key to success both in the profit and nonprofit sectors. But in practice innovation is not as easy and romantic as it sounds; it is risky, the inertia can be highly limiting, success is not guaranteed, and creativity may be lacking as is the leadership required for creating and sustaining the changes associated with innovation. In this blog I reflect on my experiences with innovation, both in Zimbabwe and the United States with the hope that these lessons will inspire many a soul seeking to do things differently and make the world a better place.

Innovations begin with an idea but the process of conceiving an idea for a new service, project or line of business can be a daunting one. To encourage innovative ideas, I have learnt that one has to ask the question ‘What if..?’ New ideas are born when we ask ourselves this question and we have to constantly ask questions such as;

What if we considered this from another nonprofit’s perspective?

What if we asked men to lead advocacy on gender based violence?

This type of thinking needs to be encouraged during meetings and also works best during project and staff performance reviews.

I have also learnt that constantly seeking out new and diverse sources of data can help with conceiving new ideas. This new data can be used to counter arguments that are in favor of doing things the traditional way. My experiences at Lutheran Social Service demonstrate that we need to change our perspectives by frequently scanning the horizons of our work for new and emerging trends, both inside and outside our sector.  Sometimes we need to actively seek out data that disagrees with a long held point of view and challenges any assumptions we may have.

One additional thing I have realized is that every day challenges or problems may be calls to innovation. Instead of fretting over challenges we encounter in our work, let us see those challenges as opportunities for innovation. I agree with John W Gardner who once declared, ‘We are all faced with a series of great opportunities, brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.’

I have been part of some successful innovations in my professional career and these innovations have been successful due in large part to passionate and committed leadership. Each innovation needs a passionate and committed leader to drive it forward. But conviction and passion are not enough. Leaders also need to engage the rest of the team and secure their commitment, and not just their agreement, because team members can agree with an innovative idea but may not be committed.

During the early stages of innovation, learning and implementation can occur simultaneously and teams need to learn quickly, adapt quickly and move on. There is no time to nurse wounds. One of the phrases I have learnt over the past couple of months is ‘drinking water out of a fire hose.’ This phrase has been used to refer to a state of being overwhelmed or inundated with information, emerging issues and roles and expectations that all need to be consolidated into one coherent and focused course of action. When we pursue innovation we sometimes have to drink water out of the fire hose.

Innovative ideas may face resistance and unfamiliar challenges often call into question the very tenets of innovation but I have learnt that optimism, tenacity, persistence and keeping the long term goal in in sight are bedrock qualities that can stay the course and keep the team focused on the goal until it is achieved. And so it is with the same optimism and passion that I call on everyone to change their perspectives and do things differently.

[Photo credit: Thomas Hawk;]

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