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Mythbusting – Social enterprises are inherently innovative

Is there something about social enterprises that means they’re the best settings for innovation? Here’s the second of my exciting mythbusting columns for The Guardian‘s Social Enterprise Network.

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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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