Big ideas

My considered view is that innovation is not only a good thing but one of the defining characteristics of humanity as a species. Strange then that, having attempted to do word association on ‘third sector innovation’, the first word I came up with was ‘hollow’.

In the social sectors, ‘innovation’ often seems to be suggested as an alternative to doing things that people want, doing those things properly and getting paid properly for doing so. If, for example, the council is thinking of cutting your grant, they’re generally sure that a bit of innovation can fill the gap. And pretty soon you’re finding yourself stuck in a room with some shouty consultants offering wacky ideas, possibly with a twist of uncomfortable role play. Lukewarm coffee is then followed by a bit of ‘Thinking outside the box’.

Bearing all this in mind, I was interested when a friend who’s an expert in social enterprise innovation pointed me in the direction of Innovation Matters, NCVO’s guide to ‘How being open to ideas can make your organisation more effective’ published last year. Almost needless to say, the problems above are not problems with innovation – which NCVO define as ‘successful implementation of ideas’ – but with attempted innovation as (a) a desperate by-product of impending disaster and (b) a vehicle for the promoting the new at the expense of the useful.

Innovation Matters is, understandably, grounded in the challenges currently facing our sector(s) – the first section ‘Why innovation?’ includes the sub-heading in ‘Being innovative is a way to survive in hard times’ and the point that “in the currently climate, the greatest risk may be not taking any risks at all.”

Section two, ‘What is innovation?, usefully distinguishes between creativity (having some ideas) and innovation (successfully implementing an idea) before flagging up the need for innovation to solve intractable problems.

Section three is ‘How do you get an innovative culture?’ This includes the reflection that:

“‘Being innovative’ is not a stand alone activity. It is not an explicit function that belongs in a Department of Innovation. Processes and capacity for innovation should be integral to an organisation; innovation should be part of everyone’s job remit, just as one might wish one’s staff to be efficient, outcome-focused or user-orientated.

While this quote clearly degenerates into policy-speak truisms – is it likely that any manager would actively want their staff to be inefficient, disinterested in outcomes and indifferent to the needs of people who use their services? – the essential point is still a good one. Coming up with (at least some) new ideas and (hopefully) implementing them successfully needs to be a fundamental part of what we do.

My social enterprise, Social Spider CIC, has used several innovative approaches in the development of its current largest project, the mental health magazine, One in Four. One in Four is national magazine written by and for people with mental health difficulties. It’s innovative in at least two ways:

1. On the technical side, the Distribution Model: when One in Four was launched it was primarily available through organisational subscription. Organisations were invited to buy copies of the magazine and distribute them to people who used their services. This model enabled the magazine to achieve a relatively large circulation in a relatively short space of time without a significant marketing budget and it also meant that the magazine was quickly available ‘free at the point of reading’ to thousands of people.

This is a fairly pragmatic, unspectacular bit of innovation. Social Spider clearly didn’t invent the idea of bulk distribution of magazines but this innovative application of that process was vital, both in enabling Social Spider as a small social enterprise to even attempt to launch a national magazine and also in terms of delivering a valuable resource at a relatively low cost (compared to the cost of the public sector producing a similar product).

2. On the philosophical side, the commissioning process: over 80% of the content of each issue of One in Four (usually more) is written by people with direct experience of mental health difficulty but, unlike many newsletters produced by charities and service user groups, the aim of One in Four is not ‘to give people a voice’. Social Spider strongly supports the work of charities and service user groups that aim ‘to give people a voice’ but the aim of One in Four is to complement that work by providing something different.

One in Four commissions people with mental health difficulties to write articles on the same basis that journalists are commissioned to write for any other publication. Writers with mental health difficulties are given are a brief and write articles based on (some or all of) their own experiences plus interviews and research. Submitting articles are edited before publication and, assuming their article is accepted for publication, the writer is paid (modestly) for their work. This process treats mental health difficulties as professionals whose experiences mean they’re well place to provide information and advice that may be useful to other people in similar situations.

In developing this model, Social Spider didn’t invented either the process of commissioning content for a magazine in a professional way or the idea of self-help but it did find an innovative way of bringing them together.

These examples – along with many of those in Innovation Matters – show that innovation doesn’t have to be either wacky or disconnected from the core of what you’re trying to do. It doesn’t have to involve plucking an amazing new idea out of the sky and waiting for everyone to gasp in astonishment. At its best, innovation is about finding ways of doing stuff based on what you want to do and the resources you have available.

Ultimately, social entrepreneurs and others in the social sectors don’t need to spend the coming years thinking outside the box. If we need trite metaphors at all, then we’re better off looking in our boxes, working out what’s really there and making some positive use of it.


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10 responses to “Big ideas

  1. A good way to use innovating thinking for would be to fix the darn box…


  2. Alisdair Cameron

    What box?


  3. Alisdair Cameron

    More seriously, David makes very salient points. Too often ‘innovator’ in the minds of politicians, senior civil servants and sundry hanger-on advisers is (ironically) conceived of in narrow fashion: it has to be glossy, sexy and completely replace everything that went before. A thousand small changes can sum up to something far more profound and revolutionary than an all-encompassing,remote grand plan that bears little relation to reality.


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  5. As always, well said and to the point. In light of this recession I wonder if the CEO’s in the Banking industry sat around their boardroom tables and discussed ways to think creatively, innovatively, outside the box, a fresh approach, new ideas for old problems, ad nauseam when determining their bonuses this year?!?!


  6. jeffmowatt

    Thinking about this, it’s doing things in the public domain which has perhaps been the impact of our own innovation, in the sense of making a public challenges which could also be interpreted as a maverick style.

    It was what was intended with the conception of a cause driven business model and for example, going public about the childcare mafia culture in Eastern Europe to develop a social enterprise solution.

    We’ve had to innovate ourselves in adapting to survival with no funding assistance and defending our work from predatory business with no social intent.


  7. As the co-author of Innovation Matters (with Mitch Sava) it is good to see that it has been of some use and interest! We wrote it over a year ago now and if anything I think the message about innovation it holds is more important than ever.
    I recently delivered a day of training to a mixed group of organisations and every one of them was facing major funding challenges and yet committed to the huge value of what they were doing. I think that many charities have an innovation advantage in that they are driven by a vision and a passion for what they are doing and strapped for cash so they are forced into thinking up good new ways of doing things.

    There is indeed a lot of scepticism about innovation in the sector which I think comes from a history of having to rebrand what you do well as innovative to get funding. But that to me is not innovation and is also the reason the word has got itself a bad name.

    I love the innovations you mention in your post – it is what I am often saying to charities that I support- look around you, look how other industries and sectors do things and see if you can ‘steal with style’ and make it work in a new way for you.


  8. Dear David,

    I am increasingly concerned about my task of writing an ‘innovative’ book about innovation within the social economy by Sept 2012. Last week, precisely, with my supervisors we decided that we should stop looking for evidence of those groundbreaking, radical ideas within the sector to concentrate instead on the incremental improvements that help us do things better and more effectively. Or the pragmatic, unespectular bits that you describe.

    Somehow the emerging literature on social innovation also focuses on those compelling combinations that cut accross sectors and disciplines and that tend to leave behing new social relations, paradigms etc…The glossy publications, the language, the institutions behind…everything’s really grandiose!

    My own experience of conducting research in the field, suggests that what people considers innovative can be so relative, so localised, so true for them, that it is practically impossible attempting to elucidate the patterns, the drivers, the barriers of innovation within and between SEs. I recently conducted a survey of 200+ SEs and loved (amongst my nerves!) the examples that people gave for innovation: Community cafes, an information management system, an accreditation standard (your favourite!), a re-structuring suggested by a shouty consultant, a food market, an ESOL course…the list has no limits. All of them, without a doubt, helped particular individuals, organisations and by and large, society.

    Perhaps I should go back to my original research question and try to do a critical, philosophical de-construction of the glorification of innovation. But sadly, my only training is in social enterprise and innovation and I have been commissioned with the task of collecting the evidence!

    I hope to count with your sincere companionship (and suggestions, such as printing a youth-led magazine in a cake!) all the way to 2012 and beyond!


  9. beanbagsandbullsh1t

    Thanks a lot for all comments. Much appreciated.

    I think Katherine’s right re: charities (or social enterprises) having an innovation advantage due to being strapped for cash.

    That’s not an argument that being strapped for cash is a good thing in itself – and it’s definitely not a defence of performing professional tasks ‘on the cheap’ – but, when you’re trying out new ideas, if you know that money isn’t available to fund the obvious approach to something, for better or worse, you/we have to find different ways of doing things. And lots of good can come of that.

    Maria, I’m sorry to say that the publishing on cake innovation is not entirely mine. The thought had been lodged in the back of my mind as it’s like something that some friends in the poetry world launched last year:


  10. jeffmowatt

    Have a read of Geof Cox’s post today on the Guardian social enterprise network and my response which describes how the concepts being advocated now had been used over the past decade to create innovation. It began in a practical sense with the city of Tomsk where localised economic development was deployed with good result and proof of concept for the community interest approach to social enterprise.


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