Make Innovation in Associations Easy
Socrates called himself the “midwife of ideas.” Since he knew nothing, his work was to help bring out the truths locked up in others. This learning method is fine for philosophy, but what about for business? Does this attitude work to bring out good ideas and drive innovation in the context of an organization?
I spoke with Edwin Goutier, Vice President of Innovation for United Way Worldwide about that. United Way is a far-flung organization with a network of more than 1,800 independent United Ways worldwide. They work to improve people’s lives by mobilizing the catalytic power of communities. It is not a single-issue organization or even a single organization at all.
Innovation poses challenges for United Way, which any large, highly distributed organization can relate to.
Edwin’s team does not focus on being the most creative themselves to drive innovation. Instead, they focus on equipping innovators across the network with the tools they need to succeed and spread the wealth of their knowledge across their communities. They give them the necessary tools, space, and resources to create relevant innovation for their communities.
They are constantly exploring new technology and ensuring United Way is aware of what could come next—keeping a keen eye on the value we can create in our communities and having a foot in the future. He is rarely the person who’s coming up with the idea. He says he is “constantly just stealing great ideas from others and trying my best to give them credit.”
Their “Moon Shot” project is a prime example of this idea in action. This project is helping local United Ways share data with their nonprofit partners. It seeks to build a 360-degree view of donors’ interests and those of the people United Way serves. It’s creating a comprehensive picture of the resources that they need in the community to produce the results the community itself wants to see.
United Way can use this knowledge to highlight the needs they haven’t met yet, and to begin to understand what their jumping-off point for further innovation may be. Edwin’s team facilitated the funding and infrastructure for the United Ways bringing this framework to their communities.
Innovation As Facilitation
He sees his innovation team as facilitators. He points out that the root of “facilitate” is facile, which means easy. His team makes it easier for people to be innovative. They break down cultural barriers where the risk of being wrong appears detrimental to someone’s career. They provide platforms where people can launch their ideas into a public space. They ask how innovators in the United Way world could do things differently.
Innovation in associations should be easy. It should work alongside the resources and networks you already have to produce results that will expand on the value already delivered by your organizational capital.
Prioritizing Innovation In Associations
Prioritization is key. Edwin’s approach to innovation in associations starts with the customer and focuses on the user experience as a prioritizing lens. Experience is concrete and a focal point for all stakeholders. Even when it is hard. Change happens from the inside out. To facilitate change that will speak to the customer, you must first understand where the customer is coming from and how they define value in their relationship with your organization.
United Way is unique in its ability to collaborate and navigate competing interests to serve a greater good. There is a lot to learn from how innovation happens in that environment.