This post is by Jacob Smith, co-author of the The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit. The book is so awesome that I asked Jacob to post adapted excerpts from it here for you, every Friday for ten weeks. Tweet at @brightplus3 if you’re loving it!
We often claim our nonprofits encourage a culture of creativity and innovation.
If they did, half of the stories at the bar would be about experiments that didn’t work, the annual office party would include an award for the best idea that failed miserably, and staff members would spend more time trying new things and talking about what they learned from their failures than wasting time in meetings debating what they are going to do next. In other words, if nonprofits want to do more than pay lip service, we need to walk the talk. If you genuinely want a culture of creativity and innovation at your organization, and you probably should, then you actually need to reward creativity and encourage innovation.
What does that mean? Obviously, we need to reward the people who try something new when it succeeds. But saying we love creativity and innovation while penalizing staff when their innovative attempts don’t work makes people risk-averse, not creative and adventurous. Criticizing staff for failing leads them to find reasons not to try something new. Instead, they’ll rely on the same old, same old approach to avoid being criticized. Accumulating policies and procedures to protect against mistakes often results in suppression of creativity rather than its unleashing. As long as the risks that staff take are within the guardrails, directors need to reward them for taking those leaps even when they don’t work.
How do you make it clear that you support innovation? Actively encourage new thinking, speak up about your expectations, and implement a new process of asking questions. Recognize and support leaps by your colleagues. When you see someone toying with a new idea or approach, reinforce and encourage their experiment. You can establish an expectation that your staff will look outside of their own circles for ideas. You can institutionalize questions like, “how have other people done this?” and “what approaches to this type of problem have you seen in other arenas?” as part of the project planning process. And if you really want to drive a culture of creativity and risk-taking, penalize those employees that only rely on the tried-and-true instead of testing new ideas.
One national nonprofit we know has a vice president whose job is to encourage people across the organization’s program arm to try new approaches and ideas—this despite the fact that she works for a president that is much less open to experimentation. The vice president makes sure the budget is structured so that her staff can access the resources required to explore different approaches during the year. She encourages and supports her staff in doing this and makes sure to identify the innovative tactics that worked. The vice president shares the success with the president while quietly closing out the efforts that don’t pan out; this enables her to sustain an organizational culture that genuinely encourages innovation while sidestepping the president’s risk aversion. A deliberate debriefing effort after each experiment further strengthens this culture of creativity and learning.
Another approach is the strategy that Google made famous: trusting your employees with an allotment of time to explore ideas they find interesting. Google allows its software developers to use up to 20% of their time to work on any project of their own choosing because this undirected time results in a disproportionate number of successful products. This sort of strategy is an effective tool as long as it’s clear what constitutes a successful innovation and what doesn’t (a good strategic plan is particularly helpful in this regard). By giving your staff a defined sandbox in addition to their normal responsibilities, you can help contain your their tendency to generate new ideas in excess of your organization’s resources while at the same time helping to spark innovative new approaches to advancing your strategic plan.
Organizational innovation won’t always mean adopting entirely new strategies or building radically different partnerships. Sometimes the most important leaps are incremental innovations in workflow, scheduling, meeting logistics, media strategy, or in your program delivery. And fostering this sort of organizational culture doesn’t mean change for change’s sake. Your mission should drive your culture and your activities. Sometimes the tried-and-true solutions are the right ones for the problem you are tackling today. You want to avoid being seduced by the new just because it’s shiny and different.
But the challenges you and your organization face, for the health of your organization and the success of your mission, will continue to evolve, sometimes slowly and sometimes explosively. Fostering a culture that embraces change, risk-taking, and innovation will make your organization more resilient and more successful. Executive directors need to clearly communicate expectations about outcomes and about sideboards, provide their staff with resources and support—and then get out of the way. This is true in your organization’s program work, of course, but it should be true across the rest of your organization, as well: your fundraising team, your administrative crew, your media folks, and everyone else.