Crossing over: 6 learnings from innovating at 1 NGO, coming from 100 corporates.

Before I dig into these learnings, I’d like to let you know it wasn’t my idea to write about this. A friend of mine asked (and then 2 more). She said that I have experience that not many people have. I’d like to emphasize how modest my knowledge really is. My research population (n) of corporates is about 100, while my of NGO’s is 1. But 1 is more than 0, which is the level my friend is at. And since she insisted, I told her 6 things I’ve learned. And now I’m sharing them with you, to inspire your innovation work at either side of the coin.

An ever increasing number of companies use innovation to work for better. This can mean many things. Coca Cola just announced their new bottles are made of 100% recycled plastic. That’s clearly doing better. A pessimist would state ‘they’re just fixing what they broke first’.

Recently I joined an organisation which works for good. Not ’just’ better. It is a large global NGO. Picture the organisations you donate to, or those that ask for your support. At first instance you might think there are many innovation opportunities there.
I spent nearly 8 months helping to organise innovation at one of such organisations. A different experience. And a different ball game.

Which led to this conversation with my friend:
> You are saving the rainforest, I see.
– Well, I joined an NGO to organize their innovation. I think it will help, yes!
> I want something like that.

I understand where this comes from. Innovators are usually optimists who work hard at improving things. But watch any newscast, talkshow or twitter feed and you quickly believe that it’s all falling apart. Is it a waste of talent to innovate at a corporate, to do better? My friend was previously innovation director at an industrial company. Would she have more impact working at an NGO?

– It’s quite different, the way things go at this NGO…
> You mean, you think I’m not ready for it? Would my experience not transfer well?
– Well… I can compare innovation at one NGO with innovation in some corporates. You said you want to save the rainforest, or alike? These are a few things you should know first. Let me tell you what I’ve learned…

The 6 things I learnt from innovation in an NGO:

1. People have enormous personal drive. 

At an NGO, the purpose of work is clear. And real. And urgent. Working with highly motivated people is a blessing – if you’re ready to set your own bar really high too. Rare at a corporate, normal at an NGO: you can plan a meeting at midnight and expect 100% attendance. The task with such a driven team, is to bundle that drive, feed it, and focus it in one shared direction. Oh, and it has a flip side…

2. Personal drive means lots of opinion.

At a corporate, chances are you have colleagues that have strong opinions. Multiply this by everybody in the company, and you have an NGO. Since everybody is so invested, they all want to be included in any decision. Not to be smart asses, but just to ‘do better’.

Imagine how hard it is steer innovation in this forest of opinions. Innovation that challenges the status quo and seems to steer away from the chosen course. Knowing when to share what is very important in such a situation.

3. The process gets slowed down.

And in all honesty, the problems NGO face are often so much more complex and audacious than those of private sector corporates. This is ‘wicked problem’ territory. This level of complexity requires many perspectives when innovating. This makes it sometimes feel inert and sluggish, but it seems the only way.

It is not only the complexity that slows the process down, but also the high level of compliance. And righteously: every donor-funded penny is accounted for, all reputational risks are managed, no corners are cut to reach the goal. All stakeholders – also innovation-related ones – are managed meticulously.

4. Many great opportunities present oneself.

All these stakeholders, though, have a very bright side too. Stakeholders often feel the same urge to do ‘good’. They have their ‘doing good’ hat on, and so the default answer is ‘yes’. This makes them willing to join, to partner, to ‘give’.

And this will multiply the amount of opportunities for innovation. Great when diverging, tough when converging. Your backlog of opportunities will fill up swiftly.

5. Breakthrough innovation feels less urgent than ‘fixing the thing’.

To allow for truly different perspectives, many companies have internal startups, labs and skunkworks. That’s where their breakthrough innovations come from. Discussing new business models, servicing new target groups, productizing ‘good’ – such things might spark strong reactions from your NGO-colleagues.

It takes guts to explore ideas that are radically different from traditional non-profit ways of working. They might be seen as detours, or even ‘moving over to the dark side’. You will have to explain new concepts often, and have strong perseverance to follow through all the way.

6. Corporate innovation processes and tools do apply.

While some things are fundamentally different at an NGO, the way innovation works isn’t. This made my first experience a comfortable one. I knew little about rainforests, but my knowledge of the mechanics of innovation allowed me to contribute big time.

> I think I still want this. Don’t you?
– I’d definitely love to do more work for good. But I enjoy working for better too. We really need to do both.
> Sure. I’m convinced though: I’m going to take a stab at innovation at an NGO. If I get stuck, I can always call you, right?
– Or I might call you. Together our n will be 2…

Since she a pro in innovation at NGO’s, I asked Michelle Risinger for a reaction to my learnings. Apart from sharpening the learnings, she says:
“In my experience, ‘Innovation’ is incredibly important and very misunderstood in the social sector. The social sector seems to view ‘innovation’ as a rhetorical buzzword rather than a suit of tools, methodologies and processes for sense-making and launching new ideas. It’s unfortunate that innovation is perceived as more elective in the social sector, rather than essential research and development, as it’s understood in the private sector. Regarding your learnings, I have lived them firsthand and can’t wait for the time when innovation becomes an institutional business unit in every NGO!”
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