In early March, my executive director invited my colleagues and I to take part in our organization’s first ever professional development day. Each staff member was to follow a day-long program of their own design made up of any task they believed would help them in their staff role, even if it was not directly related to their job description.
One co-worker dove into a series of Ted Talks, articles, and books focusing on topics such as organizational growth, governance, and how to influence public policy. Another delved into learning the nuances of some new software programs before taking time to read about work-life balance and managing stress.
I spent the morning brushing up on some programming skills before sinking into an overly ambitious collection of podcasts, webinars, and online courses dealing with everything from systems thinking and behavioural economics to human-centered design and creative problem solving.
The beginnings of an idea
My executive director told me afterwards that she was actually inspired to undertake our DIY professional development day after reading an editorial I wrote for our organization’s newsletter. The piece, called A Network of Good Ideas, pondered what tangible, substantial innovation might look like or require in an underpaid, often overlooked sector with barely enough money for service delivery let alone research and development.
Harnessing the marketing power of ‘innovation’ is easy. You can stamp the word all over your annual report and website. Or put in on a brochure or the side of your company vehicle. Done and done.
My article, however, suggested that if we want to harness the real power of innovation, if we want to come up with new ideas, develop new programs, and new insights, we will have to wade past all the jargon and look at the science of innovation: the basic structures, processes and environments that foster new ideas.
In an oft-cited study from the late 90’s, a Stanford professor named Martin Ruef interviewed hundreds of graduates who had gone on to have entrepreneurial careers. He developed an elaborate system for gauging innovation based on a combination of factors and discovered that the most successful, innovative individuals consistently had large social networks that extended beyond their organization and involved a range of people with diverse areas of expertise.
In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, science writer Steven Johnson goes back even further, looking at one of the very first innovation engines: the molecular soup from which complex molecules and carbon-based life emerged. In doing so, he traces a path forward through history and explains how today’s most innovative places and spaces have some fundamental things in common with Leonardo’s workshop, ancient Egypt, and that primordial mess from which everything emerged.
One key pattern identified by both men is the capacity to make as many new connections as possible - connections with other elements, people, ideas, and processes. A second is that innovation tends to happen much more frequently in randomizing environments, ones that encourage collisions and connections between all those different elements, people, ideas, and areas of expertise.
We all use a range of metaphors to describe innovation - flashes, sparks, lightbulb moments - but on the most structural, basic level, a good idea is actually a network: a network of molecules mixing, combining and recombining to create a new life form or a network of neurons in your brain all firing in sync for the first time creating an ‘idea’ in your mind.
Putting the idea into action
What exactly did my boss take away from the article? If we want to create new ideas and new ways of doing things then we should ignore jargon and encourage the cross-pollination of ideas, enable new connections and build new networks but strive to make them as random and diverse as possible.
The other thing that Ruef learned in his Stanford study was that groups united by shared values or long-term familiarity, conformity and convention tended to dampen any potential creative sparks. The limited reach, complacency and redundancy of such groups tend to block the potential random connections from which innovation naturally emerges.
Here's a great, real-world example that my executive director included in her announcement about our new professional development day. Early in its history, Google instituted a “20-percent time” program for all of its engineers. For every four hours they spend working on official company projects, the engineers are required to spend one hour on their own pet project.
Some drift from idea to idea to idea but a large chunk of the pet projects do become new Google innovations. One person’s interest in world events randomly connected with their knowledge of search algorithms and Google News was born. In fact, Google Mail, Google Maps, Orkut, and AdSense (which combine for billions of dollars in revenue) all came out of this 20-percent time.
Takeaways for you and your organization
What can you do at your organization? Build a new network. Go meet some new people with diverse interests or areas of expertise. Have lunch with co-workers from outside your department. Take a course that doesn’t directly apply to your position or program. Learn a new, completely random skill.
In the words of Steven Johnson, the secret to organizational inspiration is to build networks that allow different ideas, knowledge and hunches to persist and disperse and recombine and connect. The oh-so-famous printing press only came about because Johannes Gutenberg was once a winemaker. What happens when you randomly decide to combine a screw press used to crush grapes with some movable type? You change history.
And while something like 20 percent time might be a stretch for many nonprofits, we can certainly try to encourage more cross-pollination of hunches, ideas, expertise and experience. Try a DIY professional development day like we did; with easy access to so many different, and often free, learning resources, it can be a simple and affordable way to pay attention to each person’s personal learning needs.
Or we can all go learn winemaking.
Marshall Watson is the research and communications manager at The Federation of Community Social Services of BC, a provincial umbrella organization representing over 140 community-serving agencies across BC.