Nonprofits with large visions but shrinking governmental and private funding resources can quickly tire of getting back to basics or doing more with less solutions. Yet, real innovation continues to be rare in many of these organizations. Perhaps this is so, not for lack of leadership or the willingness to risk, but because the approaches we take to innovation are themselves inconsistent with being innovative. As just one example, there is our rather automatic insistence on asking how something can be done in advance of fully developing the what, i.e. the possibility we are setting out to realize.
Why is that? When we ask how, we immediately limit ourselves to what we already know can be done. Many organizations find it difficult to sustain a conversation for whats that they or others do not have either existing or anticipated hows for.
Our reflexive demand to know how something can be done, coupled with our reliance on experts, comes from a desire to understand. Yet our best innovations are actually understood only in the aftermath of their creation; understanding is rarely present in the beforemath of innovation and, in fact, can block the creative process. Ever try to duplicate a successful program that you or another organization did indeed invent? Getting it right and understanding how it was done seem only to obscure the source of what made the original innovation shine so brightly.
Try as we might, we simply cannot conduct our search for innovation while holding to our need for predictability. We may fear that we are left with random and arbitrary; indeed, donors and boards do hold us accountable for bringing innovation into reality. Yet, those same innovations simply will not arise within the confines of reality (as we know it).
We often overlook a third path to innovation, one lying just outside this false choice between predictable and random, one clearly within reach for most nonprofits. What inspires you! This in turn shifts our thoughts away from can we do it and brings us close to the heart of the matter—can we just say it!