Nonprofit organizations - many struggling with limited resources in a complex and changing environment - can use innovation to stimulate renewal. Innovation means creating something entirely new. It is different than "continuous improvement," which means making something that already exists better-- important in its own right. Marketing authority Ted Levitt would have said that much of innovation is really imitation - entirely new to one organization but an imitation of a product or service at another organization.
"In this world of intensified competition," wrote Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter in Learning Organizations, "organizations can no longer afford to be followers, to wait for somebody else to innovate."
"Once people have enough intelligence to function in their work," Alan Robinson and Sam Stern wrote in Corporate Creativity, "one person is just as likely as another to be creative." And, they concluded, "most creative acts, as they now occur in companies, are not planned for and come from where they are least expected." A classic example: Post-It notes, invented by a 3M employee by accident.
Many of us get our best ideas in solitude and away from the office. Mine come on long walks and while I'm driving. To choreographer Twyla Tharp, writing in The Creative Habit, new ideas are apt to come from the intuitive right hemisphere of the brain and in times of solitude:
"You're seeking thoughts from the unconscious, and trying to tease them forward until you can latch onto them. An idea will sneak into your brain. Get engaged with that idea, play with it, push it around - you've acquired a goal to underpin this solitary activity. You're not alone anymore; your goal, your idea is your companion."
Creativity - artistic or intellectual inventiveness, innovation - can benefit people and nonprofits in every field. Psycho-biologist Roger Sperry of Cal Tech won a Nobel Prize in 1981 for discovering that the two sides of the brain processed information differently. The left side is the verbal, objective, analytical, detail-oriented side. The right is the visual, subjective and holistic side that sees patterns and wants an overview. We all draw on both sides but most people use one side more than the other. I favor the right. My father was an industrial designer, my mother a writer, my brother an architect.
The process-oriented quality revolution in manufacturing, which began in America in the 1980's, merged the innovative tendencies of individuals with cross-functional teams. Collaboration/dialogue on teams is an acquired skill for many of us but when it happens it expands the capacity for innovation and problem-solving.
Edwards Deming, America's most prolific quality guru, taught manufacturers to improve product quality and customer satisfaction by using cross-functional teams of empowered workers with customer input to manage production, not as a collection of separate elements but as a system of elements that interact with each other and their environment. He acknowledged in Out of the Crisis that "teamwork is a risky business," employees in one department are often not used to working with those in other departments and many are afraid to speak up. But, he believed "teamwork is sorely needed…Teamwork requires one to compensate with his strengths someone else's weakness, for everyone to sharpen each other's wits with questions."
As teams became more common in American industry, management became more horizontal, managers more facilitating. When CNN asked employers what they looked for most in new hires, they said: a capacity for teamwork. That includes a capacity for give and take and continuous learning.
Teams "contribute significant achievements in business, charity, schools, government, communities and the military" wrote Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith in The Wisdom of Teams, and are "more flexible than larger organizational groupings because they can be more quickly assembled, deployed, refocused and disbanded, usually in ways that enhance rather than disrupt more permanent structures and processes." They outperform individuals "especially when performance requires multiple skills, judgments and experiences," the authors said.
Years ago, I coordinated summer job enrichment training programs for Macalester College students in St. Paul, MN and their real world supervisors in the Twin Cities using industrial psychologist Frederick Herzberg and his "motivation-hygiene" theory. Author of Work and the Nature of Man, named one of the ten most important management books of the 20th century, Herzberg believed that employees were more motivated to work because of the opportunities they had on the job (for achievement, recognition, advancement, growth and meaningful work itself) than "hygiene" factors surrounding the job (working conditions, security, supervision, social contacts, status and compensation). However, he told me "if the hygiene factors aren't competitive you've got a morale problem." I taped one of his presentations to supervisors who were about to receive their student interns. He said:
"Make these assignments based on your subject matter knowledge, not on bureaucratic control. If you really want the students to solve a problem, then make it a problem for them. You can still give them information. But, who is doing the job - them or you? It isn't difficult to get people to move. The question is will they move without outside stimulus? Movement is not motivation. What we should ask ourselves is how can we install generators in people. If you pre-determine the task, you prevent creativity. You must give assignments that give them a chance to think. If you load a job with so much information, you will limit creativity. If they can be creative, they will reverse the process and get more information. But, if you give them only information, they won't want more."
If nonprofit organizations provide opportunities for their employees and volunteers to be innovative, it will stimulate individual and organizational renewal. As John Gardner wrote in Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society, "In a society capable of renewal, people not only welcome the future and the changes it brings but believe they can have a hand in shaping the future."