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Embedding Innovation: What it takes to Change Organizational Systems and Culture to Elevate your Teams from Workers to Innovators

Craig Zelizer

April 18, 2016

For my first workshop session at the the Interaction Forum 2016, I attended Embedding Innovation: What it takes to Change Organizational Systems and Culture to Elevate your Teams from Workers to Innovators. The highly interactive and fun workshop featured three leading innovators including:

This was probably the most entertaining and fun panel I've attended in my several years of going to the Interaction event. It is clear that innovation, disruption and similar concepts are trendy and hot in the development well as well as in business, government and many other sectors.


From the start the session was setup to help the participants break out of a more traditional panel or workshop format. Upon entering the room (which was filled too capacity) participants could observe a number of tables each of which had the name of the leading company that used to be one of the leaders in their respective industry, but then eventually failed. The companies included, Kodak, My Space, Blockbuster, Border book Stores, etc.

Given my frequent use of Blockbuster video many years ago, I decided to sit at the company's table. After a brief introduction to the session and review of each speaker's impressive bio, the participants at each table were asked to discuss what happened to the particular company that led it to fail and what are some lessons. This was followed by a short sharing of learning from across the tables

It is beyond the scope of this blog to cover all the points highlighted but some key ones about why companies may stop innovating included:

  1. They failed to put customers first - in the 21st century it is essential to put customers or beneficiaries first.
  2. They got too confident - A number of companies had such a large market share that they got too comfortable.
  3. They didn't adapt to changing times - Many companies started off with providing an innovative service or product but failed to adapt. For example Alexis Bonnell highlighted how Kodak got stuck as a film company and not a digital memory company. Blockbuster was too focused on brick and mortar stores to see the trends coming how people would use video.
  4. They stopped innovating - many of the companies that beat (at that time) their more established peers put a high emphasis on trying out new ideas, tracking data, etc. This doesn't mean they were always successful but they put a high premium on this.

The second part of the workshop was the most fun, where at each table we were given a set of building blocks about some innovation

This includes things like making it an organizational priority, defining innovation, providing time and resources, supporting failure, coaching and capacity development. Each team then had approximately 15 minutes to put together their construction of how the base of innovation and how the different elements fit together. A prize was promised to the most innovative design to provide some extra incentive.


The Blockbuster team had a frantic 15 minutes of talking, building, reflecting. Questions such as what is more important for innovation, a culture that allows experimentation and failure or is it more important to define innovation, should their be an innovation team or should it be embedded throughout the organization arose.

In the end we created our structure but then realized we had created a model that was too traditional and in the last several minutes we quickly put together a more horizontal open space model.

Each group then presented their model and some key thoughts followed by a great discussions with the panelists.

Some key lessons for innovation include:

  1. Defining innovation is important but don't be too narrow. Bessenecker from Project Concern International discussed how important it is to have a definition and criteria. For example at PCI he said it has to be something that contributes to making lives better and meets two out of three criteria which include making a current process obsolete, do something 50% better than previously, and be a product or set of skills valued by beneficiaries, donors or employees (he emphasized innovation should be everyone's job). According to Hoffman, his team in Montgomery county has defined innovation according to the following criteria Has to be testable in an iterative manner,has to have ability to show type of return on investment and be a safe place to fail (biggest one. Is it truly experimental) Needs to Have the chance of not working
  2. Innovation requires top down and bottom up approaches - All the panelists agreed that if innovation doesn't have top level support then it is likely to fail. Leaders of organizations need to provide space, resources and the organizational culture space to allow for experimentation and failure. However, innovation cannot just take place from the top and all members of an organization can have a stake and role in innovating. Project Concern International has adopted an approach where staff work on innovation for 15% of their time. This is a wonderful goal, the trick is how to put this into practice without making staff working even more. This requires creative thinking by departments and people who are supervising staff.
  3. Many roles are required - Bonnell and Hoffman discussed how innovation requires thinker, but also planners, people who design, market, etc. Thus,working in teams can be quite important but they need to be setup in an authentic way.
  4. Innovation needs to be more than a buzzword - Hoffman and others cautioned that there is a danger that innovation and disruption are hot terms these days. Who doesn't want to be innovative and many organizations are setting up innovation teams, spaces, etc. however to really build an innovative and sustainable approach it needs to go beyond buzzwords and be authentic to the organizational culture.
  5. Customers - Bonnell described how many development organizations have traditionally been more middle organization connecting donors and beneficiaries through programming. Frequently development programs are constructed in advance with a concrete plan for what the outcomes will be for beneficiaries. However, in a more digitally connected age, it should be possible and actually needed to involve the people impacted by programming in all stages of the process.
  6. We need to innovate - The question of how can the development industry become more like Netflix or Uber or Airbnb in terms of engaging and providing transformative services with and the communities who have been traditional locations for development programming an underlying question. In short how do we move towards more demand driven development, where there are many other competing actor?. Bonnell said one of out of every five NGOs closes shop within five years, and how we can make a more responsive, engaging and transparent industry.
  7. Development is an Industry - We need to see ourselves as an industry with established ways of doing business, getting funding, etc. We also need to challenge how we do things and not just continue to repeat things that may be obsolete.
  8. Just do it - While all emphasized the importance of thinking carefully about innovation, there was also a caution that there is a danger in doing all talk and no action. At a certain point there isn't a perfect way to innovate and it is important to start experimenting, trying things out, failing, learning and having an iterative process. Organizations and leaders need to recognize failure is a normal part of the process.
  9. Creative Dialogue is key - The speakers cautioned against relying too much on brainstorming and instead said innovation requires challenging dialogue, discussions and the need for a safe space for people to test out ideas, challenge each other, etc. Bonnell said one practice her lab has started is an idea space where anyone can challenge, share or critique ideas in a safe space. They call this the battle dome.
  10. Scaling is hard - One of the challenges in innovation, is going beyond pilot attempts to finding out what works, and then getting learning shared across and organization and industry. The Global Development Innovation Lab and others are working to address this in numerous ways including launching the Social Innovation Exchange to share and disseminate best practices. Bonnell stressed how the lab seeks to disrupt, develop and mainstream learning and best practices across USAID, other Govt agencies and the larger industry.
  11. Process is important - The speakers all stressed that creating a true innovative organization requires a lot of attention to internal processes, ranging from looking at human resources, to structures, etc. While the final product is important, too many orgs focus on this as the end result without addressing the underlying institution and culture.

What are your reflections on innovation?


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