At Last, Someone Invented Innovation!

And it appears to be catching on. Google "innovation conferences" and 28.7 million listings come up. That's a lot of innovating...or conferencing. When I think of all the decades and millennia before innovation was discovered, as it has been now, as a distinct thing, the mind boggles at all the opportunity lost. Why, we might have had new ways of communicating, of traveling, of producing food, of caring for our neighbors in times of need! No more steamboats and almshouses for us.

I work in, and write about, the civic sector, or the social sector or the nonprofit sector, however you choose to refer to it. Like people in all sectors, we are called upon, and call upon, ourselves to innovate. It's the clarion call du jour, along with "transformation" maybe, and what I have to say applies to both innovation and transformation.

Whenever a business imperative like innovation reaches a feverish pitch, it becomes a fad, and fads tend not to have depth or staying power. Innovation is such a big deal in the civic sector (nonprofits and partners doing society's work) that the White House hosts a Social Innovation Fund. It's modest but influential and everyone in the sector wants its attention, even more so than the attention we have sought for innovation funding from foundations for over a century.

The possibilities for innovation, even in the civic sector, are so diverse and wide-ranging that the SIF has had to narrow its scope to certain kinds of innovations, just as foundations have increasingly done over the years. And the decision must be made: do we want innovation or do we want proven practices, because evidence-based practice is sometimes a countervailing wind that folks in the civic sector are also expected (and typically want) to catch? So, is it innovation if something is a proven practice but just not adopted on a very wide-scale? That's when innovation is not so much innovation as "scaling," a term that in this context has nothing to do with fish.

Innovation, it seems to me, has become diminished by its faddishness. I question whether it and transformation are things in their own right or whether they have their own purposes. Both innovation and transformation are means to ends. They may each have sequences and trajectories that can be followed. For example, the American Public Human Services Association, the organization of public human service organizations, has a framework for the progression of transformative initiatives from airing the idea to wide-scale adoption.

Social impact financing is a case in point of the difference between what has taken hold in the minds of some--a fad--and what is genuine innovation. In social impact financing, capital is loaned by the government or the private sector to an entity and then presumably paid back, perhaps with interest, as a result of savings or other income generated. Jon Pratt of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits reported at a recent conference that there is a groundswell of interest in social impact financing at business schools and among government leaders and other funding sources when the practice of social impact financing has only occurred in a couple of instances and has not yet played out to its full conclusion (i.e., where the need was met, better and/or more efficiently and initial capital was paid back).

What this observer and practitioner of the civic sector arts is railing against is the trivialization of the notion of innovation. Aside from invention, which the human race seems to need and excel at, isn't innovation in business, technology, government and the civic sector just part of the job? Every teacher, communication worker, social worker, business person, and public servant is always looking for better and more effective ways of doing his or her job or the work of their employer, aren't they? And if they're not, shouldn't they be?

The process engineers speak of continuous improvement, which is still a very good concept, albeit one that suggests incremental change. While incremental change is valuable, sometimes we need major paradigm shifts. Will that happen where we as a society need it most if the charge to all parties is: go forth and innovate in any way on anything?

Innovation to what end? Transformation to what end? Those questions are not that hard to answer. People in an industry and the consumers of its products or services know what needs to be improved, replaced or fixed. To pick a personal example, as the adult child of an aging parent, I am getting a pretty darned good sense of where innovation or improvements are needed in our collective approach to helping our loved ones live out their lives--from improvements, like acknowledging that seeing and hearing are so fundamental that Medicare should cover glasses and hearing aids, to innovation, like communities where older people can either live in familiar surroundings or otherwise interact with people of all generations and not just other old people.

So here is my simple suggestion...take innovation out of the realm of the trendy and superficial and consciously weave it into the fabric of all work and be smart about it, focusing on the things that need most to be changed--incrementally or dramatically, but lastingly.