In this month’s Stanford Social Innovation Review an article called “Innovation Is Not The Holy Grail” quite persuasively challenges the fervor around innovation. They assert that innovation has become an ideology, perceived as the panacea for all that isn’t working, when in fact the evidence shows that most of the value created by social sector organizations “comes from their core, routine activities perfected over time.” This is exactly what we found to be true in the bright spots research. Those organizations who were exceeding above the norm were inventive, but they weren’t reinventing themselves all the time. Rather, they were refining and improving on the basics to an extremely high level. One person we interviewed expressed exasperation over the focus on innovation, saying, “lots of little adjustments…that’s how great people do great work.”
The authors of the SSIR article point out: “Oddly, it is often the scarcity of organizational resources in established social sector organizations that legitimizes the argument for more innovation. But this argument is based on a wrong and dangerous assumption that innovation creates more bang for the buck and constitutes a development shortcut, solving big problems faster.” In other words, innovation is just like the latest fad diet that promises you can lose weight and still eat hamburgers every day. Unfortunately, the “wicked” challenges that the social sector is trying to solve do not, by and large, have a magic bullet solution.
The article is worth reading in its entirety, as they provide a number of suggestions for alternative ways of thinking about how to make innovation a more productive part of organizational practice. My favorite: “Treat innovation as a process, not primarily as an outcome.”