Making it Easy: Innovation in Complex Organizations


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, working to improve lives by mobilizing the caring power of communities around the world to advance the common good. It is not a single-issue organization or a single organization at all. So innovation poses challenges, which any large, highly-distributed organization can relate to.

To drive innovation across the network, Edwin’s team does not focus on being the most innovative, but rather on equipping innovators across the network, giving them the tools, space, the resources to create their own innovation that’s relevant for their local communities. At the same time, they are always exploring new technology and making sure that 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.”

One example of that is a project to help a group of local United Ways share data with their non-profit partners to build a 360-degree view of donors’ interests along with the people United Way serves, and ultimately a 360-degree view of all of the different resources in the community that they need, the needs that they haven’t had met yet, etc. Called the “Moon Shot”, his team facilitated the funding and the digital and human infrastructure to support the United Ways bringing this to their communities.

He sees his innovation team as facilitators and points out that the root of “facilitate” is facile, which means easy. So do they make it a little bit easier for people to facilitate, to be innovative, whether that’s breaking down some of the cultural barriers where the risk of being wrong or having an idea that fails can be detrimental to someone’s career, all the way to how do we provide platforms where people can get their ideas out of their minds and into a space where others can communicate with them about that concept, to what are the methods and methodologies that could inform how our innovators in the United Way world are doing this work differently?

One key is prioritization, not just seeing the innovation team as “organizational slack” to take on new things and experiment, and saying yes to things you should not have. 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 their ability to collaborate at scale 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:




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