Fostering Innovation

By Kirsty Buggins, MFINZ
Butterfly Consultancy and Training™

There is considerable talk about innovation in the philanthropic sector today: who is practicing it, the need for it, the models for it, how to get it.

But what is innovation and how do you foster it in your organisation?

Understanding Innovation

Innovation is the creation of something that is new and has positive impact.

It might offer an idea so new that we didn’t know we had the problem until the solution was offered. It is something fresh. It is a different solution to a current problem. At the very least, it must be better than what is already in place.

The Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship describes many examples of social innovation as:

‘a new combination of existing approaches … cutting across organisational, sectorial or disciplinary boundaries … compelling new social relationships between previously separate individuals or groups.’

Enabling Good Lives is a contemporary example of this type of innovation being developed in the social sector. It has the intention of cutting across funding and systemic silos and handing the choice and control to the consumer. In this case, people living with disability and their families.

When I think about how to foster innovation within an organisation, I find myself thinking about how to create innovative, effective teams. One of the most important things to understand about innovation is that it rarely happens as a result of isolation.

Innovation is far more likely to result from communication and community, through the celebration of diverse viewpoints, from constructive controversy and intelligent decision-making.

‘Humanness does not weaken business. It strengthens it. It cements the relationships upon which the teamwork and innovation must rest … Teamwork and trust are seen as vital components of world-class entrepreneurs of today,’ said Nelson Mandela.

Removing Barriers to Innovation

Key to fostering innovation in any organisation is the recognition and removal of any obstacles that might be stifling or repressing innovative practice. If you want innovation, you have to empower your people.

Fear of change is a very common barrier to innovation. Change is not easy for everyone. People become accustomed to doing things the way they have always been done. This can become a part of your organisational culture — ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.’ How often have we all heard that?

Imagine though if Gideon Sundbäck had thought that … we’d still be fastening everything with buttons instead of having the option of a zipper. And this example illustrates another two important barriers to innovation.

One is the assumption that an idea has to be a big solution to a complex problem to be considered innovative. In fact, the very simplest of solutions to an everyday challenge can change the world. The other is the idea that innovation is all about new services and new client groups. Not so. Innovation is often about finding a better way to do something. This is particularly the case with social innovation.

Sometimes fear is not related to change, but is simply a fear of failure. This may be a result of prior experiences. Whilst you have to be able to manage your organisation’s risk profile, being risk averse can stop innovation in its tracks. Some level of failure has to be accepted if you want teams to suggest and try new approaches.

Another potential barrier is the inability to recognise a good idea when it is presented. I imagine that Western Union might have regretted deciding that, ‘The telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.’

One of the most frustrating barriers to innovation that can be experienced is a mismatch between responsibility and decision-making ability. Staff and managers are regularly asked to achieve aspirational outcomes, expected to be responsive and reactive to the needs of the end-users and of the organisation. To innovate! But often, these same people are given little or no decision-making capacity.

So What Does an Innovative Organisation Look Like?

Well, it is an organisation without the barriers described above!

It is an organisation where leaders actively encourage and visibly value innovation by rewarding the development of new ideas and accepting risk.

It is an organisation that fosters innovation by developing structures that empower and support, by managing dysfunction and through encouraging on-going professional development.

It is an organisation with empowered teams that feel energised by their interactions. Innovative, effective teams are united by a common purpose. They are collaborative and productive. They are agile. They understand the potential for failure when trying something new and are mindful of this, but not paralysed by the fear of it.

It is an organisation with a culture of trust. Trusting your team — enabling them to be fluid, to respond to challenges or to try out new ideas — is essential if you want to foster innovation. Restricting movement and having too many layers of authority suppresses innovation. How much influence over project design and budgetary control do you give to the people responsible for achieving your outcomes?

It is an organisation that learns and adapts, that sometimes finds a solution to a different problem than the one that it was looking at. Did you know that the Post-It Note was in fact a failed attempt at developing a strong glue?

'Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.’ — William Pollard

Kirsty Buggins specialises in facilitating change and offering effective staff and leadership development interventions based on real experience. With six years in the consulting field and 12 years working directly within the nonprofit sector in NZ and the UK, recent clients include The Wise Group, Wellington HELP Foundation, Phab, The Cube and IDEA services. She is a SAMS Developmental Evaluation Team Leader and a training partner for Portal. She recently completed her MBA and is accredited to deliver the Nine Conversations in Leadership© and training on the Outcomes Star©. Learn more at

Fostering Innovation



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