Reflections on The Nature of Innovation
Executive Vice President, ImpactAssets
It would seem “innovation” is the “it” word of the day!
We have innovation funds, summits and workbooks. We have awards for social innovators and the assumption that without innovation there is no forward movement, no radical insight, no champion of change. In truth, innovation is critical to the advancement of our society, organizations and each of us. But the challenge of embracing a call to innovation is that we must first understand what truly is innovative as opposed to simply old toys in shiny new boxes; the challenge of innovation is cultivating our ability to discern the wheat of heralded innovation from the simple chaff of latest enthusiasms.
There are at least two rules to maintaining our enthusiasm for innovation while restraining our inclination to over-sell or lose track of the ultimate goal (which is, of course, not simply innovation for its own sake, but innovation for the sake of moving us closer to the goals of sustainability, impact and justice…). The first rule is a fairly simple one: Know What You Don’t Know. This would seem, of course, to be a fairly fundamental truism, yet in today’s arenas of social entrepreneurship, venture philanthropy, impact investing, effectiveness measurement and so on, one is often struck by the number of supposed “innovations” which are not actually innovations as much as iterations around established themes.
To truly understand what is “new” one must have a historical perspective of past and current practices and only then may one be able to assess one’s thoughts, proposals and practices as to their relative innovation. This might be seen as obvious, yet in the past 20 years of working to advance “new” thinking and practice, I’ve been struck by how easy it is to be truly ignorant with regard to what exists. Indeed, I’m not afraid to say there have been moments in my life when I’ve been truly ignorant; not stupid mind you (that is for another essay!), but simply ignorant of the true state of knowledge or practice and thus deceived into thinking my “innovations” were unique or insightful.
When George Roberts and I first began working around the question of how to bring more of a business framework to community ventures, I spent five months simply reading and interviewing many of the leading lights in what is now our “field.” This effort at understanding what had come before and—most importantly—why it had failed, made it possible for us to develop and then execute a strategy of funding which supported risk taking and innovation. But let me be clear—we were not gambling in a risky manner. Rather, we took informed risks on innovators we had identified through research while structuring our support in a manner that was at odds with the traditional approaches to philanthropy that had taken root in the Bay Area in 1989. The first rule for us was the fundamental one of seeking to define the known and the unknown—and than placing ourselves on the learning edge of that divide.
The second rule is one many today appear to have forgotten: Do Not Pre-Sell. As I read various examples of “innovation” and listen to many of the discussions of the day, I’m struck by how rapidly people are willing to take their ideas to market—to prematurely promote ideas and confuse intent with impact. One of my favorite memories of working with George was the day he endorsed the creation of the Homeless Economic Development Fund (which laid the foundation for our creation of REDF several years later). In my enthusiasm, I boldly stated we should hold a press conference to announce his commitment that in 1990 was one of the first significant philanthropic investments in Social Entrepreneurship made in the United States. He wisely replied, “Instead of telling people what we’re going to do, why don’t we first just go do it and then we can show people what we’ve done!”. To this day, I really value the gift of that statement for it gave me several years of deep work, thought and strategy revision prior to going public with the 1996 release of our book, “New Social Entrepreneurs: The Success, Challenges and Lessons of Nonprofit Enterprise Creation.” In today’s TED-ified world and global Facebook community, I am often surprised to see how rapidly success is declared and the field of battle shifted to the “next big thing.”
Innovation is critical and must be affirmed; but in the process let us also reflect more deeply upon the known and spend more time building for deep, sustained value in our process of creating long term success.