Innovations that truly make leaps are not easy. They require that organizations reorient their work so that it focuses on their overall impact goal, not just the individual beneficiary at the center of the innovation project. As a result, design-thinking methods, such as human-centered design, are helpful but not sufficient. Organizations need to find ways to link innovation projects directly to their system change and transformative impact goals, and get everyone involved—from the executives to the front lines.
Failure to center innovation on impact can derail it. For example, the workforce development organization Year Up, where I was an innovation advisor, is focused on making its model more shareable so that other organizations could take advantage of its evidence-based, high-impact model. But our plan to run micro-trials hit some barriers. Year Up’s frontline service providers were focused on providing the best service to the program’s individual beneficiaries and were concerned about changing how they worked (for example, trying a blended learning instead of a traditional classroom approach). It required convincing of the frontline staff, because the organization had not yet made the connection between the value proposition for the direct-service programs and the value proposition for growing transformative impact across the organization. From a human-centered perspective, we were aligned in wanting to do what was best for beneficiaries, but we needed to cultivate buy-in from the frontline workers to use system change as the way to grow impact and serve more people. Organizations need to find ways to take the very powerful idea of human-centered design, and develop it into a broader “activism driven” stakeholder and impact-centric approach.
Handing over the authorship of micro-trials to the community
The need to get everyone involved doesn’t stop at the prototyping or “making” phase of design thinking. Prototyping comes out of the idea of experiments, where a researcher or designer goes in and tests something, then interprets the results. However, that process doesn’t work as well in the social sector, given the sector’s complex ecosystems, wide range of stakeholders and variables, and sensitivity to both perceived and actual “do no harm” requirements. Doing a single-variable probe (such as you would attempt in a randomized control trial) as a test to see what happens is too simplistic. The idea—the prototype—needs to live as part of the community, and requires that innovators and designers hand over control and authorship of the prototype to the community—something many of them find hard to do.
A project the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded with the Chicago Public Library to experiment with library design illustrates how community authorship can work. For one experiment, instead of spending a lot of money and time to design and build a full pilot-level teen lounge, library staff hung up a poster in an area of the library that read, "For the next four weeks, this room will be a teen lounge from this time to this time." They then staged a teen lounge with different activity prompts and equipment, and let the teens discover for themselves when and how to use the space. The teens changed things and added things. It was a living prototype, a living lab; the teen community shaped it. Chicago’s central library later implemented the lounge and has now expanded it to 11 other libraries in the Chicago system. The work also resulted in an online toolkit for libraries seeking to experiment for themselves.
Bringing civic designers inside
In the for-profit world, some companies, mostly product-based companies, expect all their employees to innovate. But that’s unrealistic for service-based organizations where time and resources are scarce. Large nonprofits might decide to hire outside help and bring the innovations inside once developed, but that approach is more difficult for small and mid-sized organizations.
For most nonprofits, the solution may be in the middle. For example, Bloomberg Philanthropies, which focuses on government innovation, funds innovation teams of three to five people who work on horizontal issues at mayor’s offices in more than 20 cities. The teams are comprised of city employees, designers, and outside researchers, and effectively work as internal incubators and accelerators for ideas on transforming city functions. Importantly, these teams never fully own the projects they tackle; they identify who owns a problem internally, and help bring those people along during the process of discovery and design. When the project goes into the pilot or trial phase, the teams make a clean handoff to the owners. Rather than train everybody in design thinking, these teams serve as catalysts and integrators, similar to Hollywood-style movie development teams.
Ultimately, design can help the social sector manage complexity and aid in problem solving, but the sector needs to be creative in how it uses the practice and its methods. Keeping a focus on impact through an activism-centered innovation approach, giving up some control to involve more people, and combining small teams of design thinkers with subject matter experts are just some of the ways organizations can use design to scale.