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Innovation: It’s More Than You Think (revised)

"Since new developments are the products of a creative mind, we must therefore stimulate and encourage that type of mind in every way possible." ~ George Washington Carver

The words of Dr. George Washington Carver, the famous scientist and inventor who is known for the hundreds of ways he created food, industrial, and commercial products from peanuts, speak directly to the heart of innovation. His message underscores the importance of nurturing and fostering creative minds. Innovation has long been the driving force behind progress. This innovation takes place not just in technology but also in sectors that directly impact social change. However, the broad scope of innovation needs to be more understood and better defined. How can we, as leaders, better recognize the various aspects of innovation? Many times, those of us who work within the philanthropic, non-profit, public, and faith-based sectors question how we can be innovative. Yet, innovation is occurring all around us, and we may not recognize it. My goal with “Coaching Innovation” is to change that perception and mindset. At Jordan Sydnor, we intend to uncover the various faces of innovation, illustrating that it isn't confined to just products but spans processes, policies, personnel, partnerships, and more. This article and my work aim to highlight historical and contemporary examples to offer context and provide interactive exercises and reflective questions to stimulate thought and conversation.

The Different Types of Innovation

  1. Product Innovation: Products and technology are often what people first think of when they hear the word 'innovation.' It refers to developing new products or significant improvements to existing products. For instance, smartphones have revolutionized the way we communicate and access information.

  2. Process Innovation Process innovation pertains to the enhancement of existing methods or the introduction of new processes in business operations. Process innovation not only happens in manufacturing—the implementation of digital platforms for social outreach and community engagement by NGOs and non-profits. Before the digital era, most community outreach was done in person or via traditional communication channels. However, the integration of social media platforms, online workshops, webinars, and digital fundraising campaigns has revolutionized the way these organizations engage with their target demographics, making their operations more efficient and expansive.

  3. Policy Innovation Advocacy and activism have changed the rules of the game and sometimes have led to breakthroughs. For instance, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were monumental policy innovations that reshaped American society by promoting equal rights to challenge discrimination.

  4. Personnel Innovation Hiring or assigning roles that were previously non-existent in an organization can be transformative. The hiring of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)Executives in institutions that previously lacked such a role has been one of the first steps in communicating an organization’s commitment to equity and the need to become more diverse and inclusive at the governance level, in the C-Suite and overall, in our workplaces.

  5. Programmatic Innovation This involves the implementation of new programs or significant improvements to existing ones. Out-of-school programs incorporating STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) represent programmatic innovations tailored to prepare the next generation for a tech-driven world.

  6. Partner Innovation Building new partnerships or redefining existing ones can lead to innovative outcomes. Non-profits entering strategic partnerships with tech companies to promote digital literacy is a prime example.

Quick Takeaways

  1. Broaden the Horizon: Innovation isn't limited to tangible products. It encompasses processes, people, partnerships, and more.

  2. Embrace Change: In the quest for innovation, be open to changes in policies, personnel, and partnerships. These can be the catalysts for transformative results.

  3. Historical Context is Key: Understanding past innovations can provide insights and inspiration for future endeavors.

Interactive Exercises to Spark Innovation

  1. The Innovation Journal: Maintain a journal where you allocate 15 minutes daily to brainstorm ideas without any restrictions and jot down innovative practices you observe in your daily lives that can help uncover unexplored areas of innovation. Regularly reviewing these notes can spark ideas for innovation.

  2. The Role Reversal Exercise: Swap roles with a colleague for a day or even a few hours. This can provide a fresh perspective on routine tasks and potentially reveal areas ripe for innovation.

  3. Cross-sector Collaboration: Organize a workshop with leaders from diverse sectors. This mingling of perspectives can lead to groundbreaking ideas that wouldn't have been conceived in silos.

Questions Leaders Can Reflect Upon

  1. How am I fostering a culture of innovation in my organization?

  2. Are there untapped areas in my sector where innovation can profoundly impact?

  3. How can I ensure that innovation in my organization remains inclusive and benefits a diverse audience?

The non-profit, philanthropic, social, and faith-based sectors benefit immensely by embracing the multifaceted nature of innovation. Let's ensure we're prepared by recognizing and capitalizing on the myriad opportunities for innovation that surround us in our companies and communities.


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