Innovation has become a buzzword in the social sector, with innovation units, labs, and funds appearing with increasing frequency. However, while a dedicated ‘innovation department’ or large pools of innovation resource can indeed support the development of new ideas, there are also small, everyday changes that organisations can make to keep innovation at the heart of what they do. High-impact innovation is found in even the simplest of behaviours and processes – from how one conducts internal meetings to how one engages with its beneficiaries or stakeholders. We have highlighted 5 guiding principles that social organisations should adopt to truly become innovative.

1. Make innovation everyday
Innovation is about asking a simple question “what can we do better?” It should not be seen as an elusive concept or an unattainable ideal; rather, it is a by-product of striving for continuous improvement.

For example, social organisations (more so than many private sector organisations) have had to become tremendously adaptable and responsive to their external context. Examining new funding streams, identifying potential partners, adopting a social media strategy – these are all part of innovative thinking that is borne out of a need to respond to the external environment. After all, innovation doesn’t have to be ‘new’, it just has to be new to your organisation. A simple idea can have a big impact and incremental improvements to current ways of working can be just as valuable as a ‘big idea’. As Google, a globally renowned superpower of innovation claims: “innovation is continual, not instant”.

2. Prioritise participation
A common pitfall to avoid is innovation for innovation’s sake. Some new ways of thinking, although they might be valid, do not contribute to the organisation’s overall mission. It is essential for all socially-driven organisations to involve its beneficiaries at every stage of its work, from planning to evaluation. This concept of ‘user-centricity’ about much more than rhetoric and requires a thorough and nuanced analysis of user needs and a willingness to changes based on user feedback. Service users should be at the centre of any innovation and potential new ideas should be rated against the ease of implementation and ultimate impact it will have for beneficiaries. The benefits of actively prioritising participation are that it ensures that solutions are fit-for-purpose and are informed by user needs and feedback; there is a greater emphasis on satisfaction and a greater feeling of co-ownership; and all products, services or activities link back to the organisation’s intended impact.

3. Drive collaboration
It is an accepted truism that another set of eyes provides a new perspective. Through collaboration, both internally and externally, existing ideas or ways of working can be built upon and improved. One such example is using open data and sharing one’s own data to improve multi-agency working and to arrive at a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the ecosystem in which one operates. For this to happen, organisations need to identify and engage with other like-minded stakeholders – again, there might not be a ‘light bulb’ moment, but there is an opportunity to gain fresh perspectives and constructive feedback over a more sustained period of time. Internally, a similar principle can be applied. To break down silos and to encourage improved departmental collaboration, smaller organisations could designate ‘innovation leads’ within departments, responsible for gathering and selecting new ideas for development.

4. Celebrate success – but reward failure, too
By implication, innovation requires spending time generating, refining and testing unproven ideas, and, for the very fact that these ideas are untested, the majority of them will be unsuccessful. An overlooked concept is that a function of the quantity of output. Otherwise put, for every viable or ‘good’ idea, there might be ten previous ideas that are not usable. However, without the unsuccessful or ‘failed’ ideas, the viable idea might have never arisen. Research suggests that the quality ratio of idea generation neither increases nor decreases as the creator gains more experience or maturity, meaning that there will always be ideas that fall by the wayside when trying to come up with a successful one. In this context, failure is a symptom of the innovation process and the real hindrance is inaction or a lack of commitment. After all, overly ambitious ideas can be channelled and shaped into something meaningful.

5. Measure to succeed
Measurement should go hand-in-hand with innovation. Data must be gathered and analysed at different stages or milestones to gain an understanding of what works and what doesn’t. If innovative thinking is intended to improve current activities, how can one know whether improvements are being made if current activities are not measured? A practical performance management approach is essential when evaluating new ideas, such as a balanced scorecard. Through this, a clear understanding can be gained of not only how the idea is performing against its targets, but overall performance can be decomposed and individual drivers can be examined to locate pressure points or elements that are working well.