Socrates called himself the “midwife of ideas.” Since he himself knew nothing, his work was to help bring out the truths locked up in others. Fine for philosophy, but what about business? Does this attitude work to bring out good ideas and drive innovation in an organization?
I spoke with Edwin Goutier, Vice President of Innovation for United Way Worldwide about that. United Way is a far-flung organization, a network of more than 1,800 independent United Ways across the world. They work to improve lives by mobilizing the caring power of communities. It is not a single-issue organization or a single organization at all. Innovation poses challenges, which any large, highly distributed organization can relate to.
To drive innovation, Edwin’s team does not focus on being the most innovative. Rather, they focus on equipping innovators across the network. They give them the necessary tools, space, and resources to create innovation that’s relevant for their communities. They are always exploring new technology and making sure United Way is aware of what could be coming next. Keeping a keen eye on the value that we can create in our communities, but also 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.”
The “Moon Shot” is a prime example of this. This project is helping local United Ways share data with their nonprofit partners. It seeks to build a 360-degree view of donors’ interests along with the people United Way serves. It’s creating a comprehensive view of the resources that they need in the community. United Way can use this knowledge to highlight the needs they haven’t met yet. Edwin’s team facilitated the funding and infrastructure for the United Ways bringing this to their communities.
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.
Prioritization is key. Edwin’s approach is to start with the customer and focus on user experience as a prioritizing lens. Experience is concrete and a focal point for all stakeholders. Even when it is hard.
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.
To learn more, listen to our conversation here: