Creating organizations that innovate

Imagine you’re trying to create change in a community, and you need a civic-minded organization or group ready to innovate. Imagine, too, that each of the organizations you have in mind has a strategic plan; is guided by sophisticated benchmarks to measure impact; and their staffs have attended conferences on some of the latest management theories. Unfortunately, too often the gap between good management and public innovation is far too wide. This week I’ve been writing about the need for public innovation in public life and politics. It’s needed so that people and communities can create more pathways to tap their own potential and join together to make a difference.

But not just any organization is ready to innovate. We need more of them ready to go.

Most organizations are guided by good intentions. But too many of our civic-minded organizations – whether they be community foundations, United Ways, newspapers and public broadcasting, art-based groups, local education funds, not to mention others – are trapped in old assumptions about their roles and old practices about how to see and engage with communities.

Sometimes their efforts can be summed up by the notion that they “act upon” communities rather than act as a “part of” community. They can see themselves almost as outside of the communities in which they work.

Existing organizations must become more catalytic if we are to innovate in public life and politics. After 20 years of working on this challenge, my experience is that organizations need to see themselves as spanning boundaries in communities; they need to work with others to incubate new ideas and then spin those ideas off once they are off-the-ground; they need to actively build connections and networks within their communities to lower obstacles to knowledge-sharing and true collaboration; they need to make engaging the community a part of their daily work – not just a special project from time to time; and they need to cultivate the community’s resources, capacity and political will for change.

I know this work isn’t easy. But I also know it’s possible. Why? Because I’ve done it with various groups including art-based organizations, community foundations, chambers of commerce, educational institutions, and even a regional transit authority. To innovate requires having a deep understanding of the community. It means being able to identify the true strategic levers for change. It takes having a keen sense of how one’s efforts will create new pathways for people and communities. And it takes being rigorous about how one’s efforts provide the opportunity for real change and hope – especially over time.

What’s more, public innovation requires us to calibrate our work. On the hand that work needs to take into account the current context of a community and challenge; on the other hand, the innovation needs to transcend that context to help us reach a new destination.

When I talk to many groups about this work – about public innovation – they tend to nod in agreement. And yet there is a point at which many people step back and decide that such innovation is not for them; or, even more so, that they need to focus on the bread and butter of their work in lieu of innovation.

But, I would submit that if we are to move community life forward, then public innovation needs to be at the core of at least some organizations in our communities. As I have said in the last two days, the prevailing system of public life and politics is calcified and rigid; and the new, emerging system that is being placed atop of the old one often serves to further fragment society. More business as usual won’t get us to where we need to go; nor will simply applying better management techniques, or unfolding new one-off initiatives that fail to change the existing dynamic of our chaotic public life.

Our goal must be to generate new ways of seeing and acting on both persistent and emerging challenges. The goal must be to create new pathways for people to engage, and these pathways must offer the possibility for change and authentic hope.

There are many ways for organizations to start down the new path I am suggesting. Bottom line: we need more civic-minded organizations to see themselves as homes of public innovation – and to innovate.