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Just Get Started: The Power of Piloting Innovations

"Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can." - Arthur Ashe

During the culmination of our seminary experience at Virginia Union University, a bold idea emerged - a journey to Africa. This concept started as a mere thought one afternoon during a lunch break between classes but soon became an unforgettable immersion experience in Ghana, which was supported by the openness of Dr. John W. Kinney, former Dean, Samuel D. Proctor, School of Theology of Virginia Union University, and by the wise counsel and support of a visiting professor from Ghana, West Africa, Dr. Livingston Buama. What began as a pilot initiative with 15 graduate students transformed into an innovative program that would have a lasting impact for over two decades.

In the intricate world of transformative leadership, piloting initiatives is the thread of innovation. Instead of a full-scale implementation at the seminary, we embarked on a smaller, more focused experiment. This pilot initiative laid the foundation for a broader, long-term program that enriched hundreds of graduate students' lives.

At its heart, piloting initiatives is about taking small, deliberate steps toward a larger goal. While it's not risk-free, it's a safer way to test an idea, gather feedback, refine the approach, and scale it up once proven successful.

What makes piloting initiatives a successful innovation strategy?

Lessons from Piloting Initiatives

  1. Pilot Aligns with Organization Vision & Values: Initiatives succeed when they resonate with an organization's vision and core values. By staying true to these principles, leaders can pilot new initiatives and confidently navigate innovative challenges with confidence. Leaders can reduce risks and ensure alignment with broader goals by anchoring pilots in these principles. When initiating a pilot project, make sure it's anchored in the organization's vision and ensure it's in alignment with more overall goals, reducing potential missteps. Moreover, when governed correctly, clear roles and accountability further diminish risks. While our cultural immersion experience in Ghana started small, we could still dream and introduce a meaningful pilot idea consistent with the university's vision and values to offer dynamic educational opportunities to students.

  2. Leverage the Power of Culture to Gather Feedback: The fabric of an organization's history and culture can either foster or hinder feedback collection. The very birth of Virginia Union University in 1865, post-Civil War, to provide an education to newly freed Black Americans was an educational, cultural innovation that offered valuable lessons that would support the Ghana Culture Immersion pilot experience more than 130 years later. Understanding past innovations can provide insights and inspiration for future endeavors. With the right people, resources, and infrastructure capacity, feedback becomes actionable intelligence, molding the pilot into its best version. Once we introduced the experience to a small group of students, the leadership committed to testing the pilot, and we gathered important feedback during our 3-week experience upon our return. This feedback resulted in the university building on the feedback by investing in staff so that the pilot became a dynamic, sustainable, ever-improving venture.

  3. Ensure It's an Engaged Team Effort: For a pilot to succeed, every team member, from leadership to participants, must be engaged and included in the process. The pilot was innovative and inclusive because it engaged all local and international team members, including seminary leadership, graduate students, and community partners. When there's clarity on how the pilot fits into the larger strategy, the team knows there's an organizational commitment, and changes won't derail their efforts. When everyone is assured of their role in the process, it increases momentum and serves as a building block for future success.

Questions for Leaders to Pilot Innovation

  • How does your pilot align with your organization's vision and values?

  • How is your organization equipped to gather and act on feedback?

  • What's the organization's strategy for the pilot's continuity, even during organizational and leadership changes?

Interactive Exercises to Pilot Innovation

  1. Vision Alignment Workshop: Use tools like vision boards to ensure the pilot aligns with the organizational vision.

  2. Feedback Roundtable: Engage stakeholders in discussions about feedback during the planning and implementation of the pilot. What's worked? What can be improved? How will you move forward?

  3. Strategy and Continuity Blueprinting: Organize sessions where teams can draft a strategic plan for the pilot and design potential sustainability plans.

Remember that piloted initiatives are not mere trials. They are valuable learning opportunities that provide a solid foundation for future larger-scale implementations. By being vision and values aligned and approaching them with purpose, understanding, and dedication, leaders can transform their organizations, contribute to the scaling and sustainability of the organization, and carve out new paths of innovation for the future.


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