Three tips to build a culture of innovation from senior leaders of Aussie not for profits
25 February 2021 at 8:23 am
Dan Bentley shares key takeaways from a recent webinar about creating a culture of innovation within organisations.
Impacto Consulting in partnership with Pro Bono Australia, recently held a webinar discussion with a panel of CEOs and senior leaders of Australian not for profits, to understand how they have created a culture of innovation within their organisations.
The online panel was set up to help not for profit CEOs and senior managers to understand that innovation doesn’t have to be an expensive, time-consuming or complex process. It took the shape of a forum for senior leaders to share practical examples with their peers on ways they can create a more innovative culture within their organisation.
The innovation panel consisted of Felicity McMahon, head of programs at Starlight Children’s Foundation (winner of AFR’s most innovative government, education and not for profit award 2020); Nic Brown, CEO at batyr; and Dr Caitlin Barr, CEO at Soundfair.
Below are the top tips the panel provided on how to create a culture of innovation.
1. Co-designing with service users, stakeholders and people with lived experience should be the norm
A key theme of the conversation, was that including the people you serve, your key stakeholders and those with lived experience in your decision making at all levels of the organisation, is critical for effective innovation. By involving people from these groups in the design process and not leaving it to a few internal “experts” from the organisation, it provides a much better chance that your products and services will truly meet the needs of all of your stakeholders, and therefore achieve better outcomes and increase your organisation’s social impact.
Brown, CEO at batyr, a not-for-profit organisation that reduces the stigma around mental health amongst young people, has incorporated the voice of young people at multiple points in the organisation. An example of this is that batyr has created a national advisory group of young people to provide advice to the board and the executive leadership team. They provide input into the organisation’s strategy and also provide feedback on initiatives. This consultation provides the batyr team with critical insights into what is important to the people they work with. Batyr has also provided an opportunity for a young person to sit on their board as a non executive director, appointing a 21-year-old to the board, which has been really critical to make sure that at that strategic and governance level, young people have a voice.
The batyr team is in the process of building a new app for young people, which is relying on their input to make it a success.
“They were heavily involved in the branding, the name, and a lot of those elements where they can help ensure that what we’re building for young people is suitable to young people,” Brown says.
Brown talks about the importance of not only including the voice of the people you serve in the occasional project, but making it a part of how your organisation operates – which is evident in how batyr has included a way for the voice of young people to be constantly included through its board and national advisory group.
“What’s critical in involving young people in this process, is that they’re there from the start to the finish,” he says.
“It’s not about creating ideas and then going and testing it with young people. It’s about having them a part of the process, as a part of the everyday operations. And then involved in projects from start to finish. And I think if those things happen, then the results are better, you really are serving the community and we’ve seen some amazing benefits through doing that.”
2. Create a culture where it is ok to fail
If you ask most senior leaders whether or not it is ok to fail and try new things in their organisation, most would say that it is. However, do all of the team hold the same opinion? Often not, and a lot of this dynamic is built by not so much what senior leaders say, but how they act and reward success or failure. For example, in your organisation are you only sharing successes and praising people for their achievements? Or, are you saying that you want people to try new things, but then penalising people for making mistakes? Creating a culture of innovation, requires us to be congruent in our words and our actions around truly supporting people to succeed and to “learn”, rather than seeing something that didn’t succeed as failure.
Barr, CEO at Soundfair, a member-based not for profit committed to hearing equality, spoke about how she is working hard to create a culture where people feel safe to feel discomfort and take risks. She explained that often when people feel uncertain or have a lot on, their ability to be innovative disappears. On top of her role as chief executive, she is often the “chief empathy officer” for her people. As well as this support, Soundfair has created an innovation fund to support people with their big ideas.
“We have what we call an Innovation Fund, it’s made up of several $5,000 mini buckets and that money is protected to be used only for innovation projects. So that anyone on the team, or our constituency, or people with hearing conditions can come to us with an idea and sort of pitch it and we can decide to give it a go using the Innovation Fund,” Barr says.
Barr explains that this “bucket of money” allows her organisation to be risk tolerant.
“All that money might be used and you might get nothing from it, and that’s a real discomfort that in management you need to stick with,” she says.
“So you need to agree, how much money are we willing to put aside and willing to lose? I’m not a gambling person, but I guess to some extent it is [gambling]. But it’s small, [you] have low cost probes for sometimes big wins in the future of the organisation.”
Barr emphasises that it is important to be transparent, and to have a really clear decision making criteria about who can access this money and for what. It’s also important to communicate how decisions are made about whether they will say yes or no to a project, and at what point they will pull the pin. It’s also important to not only document your intentions for innovation projects, you should also document your losses and what was learnt from those losses as well.
“The reality is that sometimes your big ideas don’t work. And for us, this comfort of sitting with what some people might call failure and we will just say is learning, is basically that you acknowledge that change is inevitable and you want to as much as possible be on top of that change, creating that change,” Barr says.
She goes on to add that: “The learnings we’ve got from our failures have been arguably more valuable than the ideas that have actually become closer to our core business. And certainly, it’s positioned us in terms of the innovation culture, to continue that sort of fearlessness and courage going forward. And I’m really confident that that will reap wonderful rewards for people with ear conditions in the future.”
3. Give your people the tools to innovate
It’s important to create a culture where innovation is supported, but your people also need to have the tools to be able to solve problems.
There are many solutions out there, but McMahon says it’s important that the training provided is practical for your people to use.
“What you find is a lot of innovation training is not actually addressing their very real needs about what it is like to be a manager, when you’re juggling a budget, you’re juggling a million things and you’ve got a team member that keeps coming to you with ideas,” she says.
“How do you manage that in a way that encourages them whilst you’re juggling all of these things?”
McMahon explains that at Starlight Children’s Foundation they’ve created learning modules that have topics for managers such as “if your team member has an idea, what can you do?” This makes their innovation model and related training material practical for their people to use on a day-to-day basis.
At Starlight they have also created a network of innovation champions who are located in all areas of the organisation and can step in to help staff, for example to prototype an idea in a really cheap way before they spend lots of development money on it. This approach both provides an internal service but also builds capability through peer coaching, as the initiative they are working on progresses.
McMahon says that as well as the champions, they also have an innovation tool kit.
“We’ve got our innovation toolkit that is underpinned by our end to end innovation process, but it’s not set up about the innovation process. It’s set up in a way that answers the question that people will be dealing with,” she says.
“So you go there, and there’s a topic tile which is, ‘I’m starting a new project’, and then it will lead you through the innovation process tools that can help. Or it might be something such as, ‘I’ve got an idea’. And so again, helping the team to achieve what’s important to them and what they’re passionate about, rather than overlaying it as innovation, is the important thing here.”
Building capability to innovate at Starlight is about making tools available for their people, but in a language that is from their perspective. This makes it easier for their staff to buy-in to the process and see it as a practical rather than aspirational way of working.
So there you have it, three easy tips from some of our peers in the sector, showing that innovation doesn’t need to be expensive, time-consuming or a complex process.
If you would like to hear more about these initiatives or other things these organisations are doing, you can download the webinar pack here.