One of the key obstacles in bringing about change in communities is that many organizations, leaders and networks (among other factors) need to beef up their capacities to help create change. Oftentimes the response to this challenge is to do “capacity building” – when it’s “innovation readiness” that’s needed most.

I make this distinction thinking about the scores of local United Ways, public libraries, public radio and television stations I’ve worked with and their own challenges in bringing about change. Or the countless number of conversations I’ve had with foundation presidents and program officers about their frustrations that more community change is not being produced as a result of their funding. And it’s the numerous meetings I’ve had with leaders of faith-based institutions and organizations that worry about their very relevance.

It’s not that capacity building isn’t necessary. My own organization has spent the last year strengthening its internal operations, board of directors and financial systems. Without this strength, it’s hard to move forward, and it’s impossible to sustain good efforts. Moreover, we all recognize that it is critical for individual leaders to develop new skill sets to run meetings better, improve planning, and learn to engage in an increasingly diverse world.

The problem is that too often “capacity building” helps us to do what we already do, only better. Our path forward remains largely the same. We can all name an organization or two that have undertaken new strategic plans under the banner of “change,” only to end up incrementally modifying their programs, or even creating new ones, but without having shifted their approach to tackling the challenges and underlying conditions in their community.

And yet challenges in our communities call for us to think differently about the best paths forward, and to act differently. In Spokane, Wash., for example, leaders of the local United Way started to ask themselves the question, “What would having a real impact in the community look like for us?” Ultimately, it meant upending their long-held model of raising dollars and distributing them to local agencies and instead focusing more on building collaborative efforts on education concerns.

This required the United Way’s leaders to organize their work differently, and to organize themselves differently. It meant changing their very notion of what constitutes a partnership – and changing their partners. It meant dislodging themselves from basic assumptions about what was actually needed in the community and their potential role. And it required them to imagine fundamentally different strategies for creating genuine progress.

Closer to home, my own Temple Micah, where I attend synagogue, came to the realization that our religious school could do better in producing the kinds of Jewish-spirited children we all want. Many incredibly smart and dedicated people there tried to “improve” the existing school, undertaking one “reform” after another, only to conclude that what we needed was a fundamentally different approach to education – one that integrates the congregation’s different generations, emphasizes hands-on learning, and helps each child develop a personal Jewish identity. That’s happening now.

My own experience is that “innovation readiness” takes a certain mindset and set of practices. I’ve just started to write my next book on this topic. But I’m curious about what you think and about your own experiences. What does “innovation readiness” mean to you?

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14 Responses to Capacity Building vs. Innovation Readiness

  1. Margaret Holt says:

    As you have described the two concepts, Rich, I believe capacity building can be easier than innovation readiness. Innovation readiness calls for a willingness to let go of some “old stuff” – this is really difficult for some (often “founders”) to do. Also innovation readiness may call for new types of leadership, and again many organizations resist these rather dramatic changes. There is a lot more risk in innovation readiness, I think.

    • Rich Harwood says:

      Thanks, Margaret. Yes, my experience is that innovation readiness requires people to really step forward and think and act in new ways. It requires uncovering and challenging basic assumptions about how and why things work the way they do, and what it takes to move in new or different directions. But the pay-offs are potentially big in terms of impact and highly meaningful in terms of our own engagement.

  2. Dave Beal says:

    Capacity building practiced in the manner described above recalls this Thoreau aphorism:

    “…an improved means to an unimproved end.”

  3. Lisa LaRocque says:

    For me your message says capacity doesn’t mean vision. I also think that even with vision there is a series of steps (levels of concern) that we need to take to reach the visions. I have often used the Concern Based Adoption Model (CBAM) to identify where people are in their journey to implement innovation and use suggested strategies. Those of us that have embraced an innovative practice are not concerned about the say things as others that are new to the innovation. But which innovation do we promote, who picks it and why would they want it are all antecedents to my point. Good luck with your task. I will be sure to follow it.

    • Rich Harwood says:

      Hi Lisa, thanks for you insights. I really like your questions at the end about: which innovation to promote, who picks it and why would people want it. These are all questions that innovation readiness addresses and which I will be writing future posts about. But quickly, the starting point must be that we are “turned outward” toward our communities — that the community is our reference point for what we are doing.Otherwise, we end up innovating in a vacuum and toward what end? More on this later. Thanks!

  4. Great area of inquiry! I would build on what you are saying by offering the discrimination between adaptive change and transformative change. Adaptive change helps us to maintain homeostasis and to stay upright in the rough and tumble of the waves that pound us daily. That’s what you did when you improved your work processes. It is essential to regulating and ensuring life (sustainability).

    Many of the things you probably implemented were indeed innovations, things that were new to the Institute. Many of our innovations (ideas, practices, technologies) are incremental improvements that make our lives easier. The most elegant and widely used definition of innovation (not very sexy tho’) is that it allows us to “do more with less“.

    In contrast, transformative change suggests a level of innovation that shifts paradigms. We often don’t choose it, rather it chooses us because of failure, collapse, and misalignment. That’s what Temple Micah did when they moved from a failing paradigm, education (to lead forth), to cultivating the conditions that will allow a child to develop a Jewish identity (to know one’s self).

    As concepts, capacity building and innovation can be in the service of adaptive change or transformative change. So, they may not be binary.

    As a gardner, my preference with regards to capacity building that allows for transformative change, is the notion of  ’cultivating the conditions’ (more poetic, perhaps).

    I love this topic. Keep writing about it!

    I have written about Becoming the Heart of Innovation on my site.

  5. Jill Freeman says:

    I agree. Innovation requires a fundamental shift in how we approach our work. Not only must we revisit what we do and how we do it, we must learn to ask different questions. Reframing the questions we start with can lead to drastically different approaches and insights. Business books point out dozens of such game changing questions (Steve Jobs and John Chambers come to mind), but perhaps more interesting for the social sector, look at how Utah ‘embraced’ it’s homeless population and completely changed their approach – eliminate homelessness by giving people homes – and they are on track to eradicate homelessness in ten years…fascinating! Thanks for another thoughtful post Rich. Looking forward to reading more in the book.

  6. Bruce Meder says:

    Sorry to be a wet fish, but how many models and whizzbang methodologies (and their names) do we need. We have community development community building, community engagement, capacity building and now Innovation Readiness. Give me a break. No wonder communities and common people are confused. Each and every “professional” intervenor comes in with a new model and a new name for what they do. Where is the change? If that’s what you are seeking, then great. But, please, lets get rid of all the jargon and get back to basics.

    • Rich Harwood says:

      Hi Bruce, Thanks for the comment. I happen to agree with you. There can be too much jargon and abstractness in the words we use. For instance, I dont think that it’s “civil society” or “civic engagement” people in communities want to talk about; rather, it’s how do we get stuff done together to improve our lives.

      Indeed, a few years ago I banned the phrase “civic engagement” from the Institute because it often prompts people to get into long process conversations and whether there are scented or unscented markers in the room and enough news print to hang on the walls. When conversations like this start, we often lose sight of people, their aspirations, and their concerns. How about if we just said, “How are we going to work together… or engage together”?

      But it’s also true that langauge is essential to making sense of things and giving meaning. In this post, I simply wanted to juxtapose two ideas so that people could wrestle with them. Clarity can help. Dissonance helps. That’s it.

      Hope this helps. Thanks again.

  7. [...] We wanted to share a great piece we found on the tension between merely improving capacity and being ready to innovate – even when it means making radical changes – at NCDD organizational member Rich Harwood’s blog. We are developing a partnership with the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation that we hope will contribute to building our own innovation readiness here at NCDD, so stay tuned for more details. You can read Rich’s piece below or find the original post here. [...]

  8. richard puffer says:

    Organizations are often ready for innovation but innovation is not natural to organizations or organisms — it happens — but it is not easy. The Harvard prof who writes about innovation tells how scary it is for those with a stake in status quo. What do those organizations who no longer get United Way funding do, for example? Where do people who like the quiet of the library go when the library becomes the community gathering place? We know the characteristics of the resistance we face today and little idea of the problems the innovation or benefits the “innovation” might bring. That is why your labs are so valuable — they help people build the courage to craft the change; to reframe the situations; to understand there are not two sides but many sides to all our issues. Doing what we do better (capacity building) is really more comfortable than innovating.

  9. davevasse says:

    In my experience, both are important but the leadership required for each is very distinct. So, capacity building requires a strategy based upon goal-setting, mentoring, learning, prioritisation of activities. And, yes, this won’t lead to radical change. Innovation climate requires a much deeper leadership work: leaders are very genuine in encouraging people to think differently, they role-model this behaviour, they ask searching questions, they use laser-sharp data as a reality check, they ask more searching questions. And, all the time they ensure that people are clear that innovating is not an optional extra but rather something that’s an expectation of everyone. Also, let’s be clear that innovation isn’t always radical; it can be more incremental.

  10. Jeff Painter says:

    Love the writing piece on Innovation Readiness. I have found that Logic Models, the use of Place-Based Action Research practices, and Asset-Based Action Planning really move things forward. By using these simple-to-understand processed, most organizations, coalitions, groups, etc. can move from concept/need to practical short-term planning to implementation and CHANGE in less than a month of weekly “practice conversations.” I’ve been doing this with Native Tribes, universities, for-profit businesses, volunteer organizations, grassroots movements, statewide member organizations, state departments, education organizations (school districts, schools, state education departments), and health and social services for the past twenty-plus years. The techniques are easily adapted to whatever ‘flavor’ the group is and the kind of change (effect) that it is trying to produce WITH the community (and service recipients). Again, I love you’re thinking on this. The short four-word title says a lot and says it all, for me. Thanks ~ Nika hyas wawa mahsie.

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