November 10, 2021 / News & Blog

Think Big, Act Small: Innovation Principles and Process for Organizations in Recovery

This article is part of the “Inside the Curve: Business as (Not Quite) Usual” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Krishna Kabra, San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum

Inventiveness and ingenuity are stimulated by difficulty. When the going gets tough, we are forced to think in ways we never have, stretch beyond convention and comfort, and focus on positive outcomes or, at least, solutions.

People are creatures of habit. We stick to what we know and focus on what we’ve mastered (and can be bothered to do). We regulate for rote and plan for predictability, and it is in this overall balance that we find flow. We function with familiarity. The last year, however, has thrown a royal wrench in that highly evolved and deeply conditioned human tendency. The children’s museum field, like many others, has been flung into lands unknown, inadequately sourced, staffed, and skilled. Overnight, we have become artful adaptors, from mastering digital content production to going from staff commanders to staff counselors.

Research shows that leaders believe that to advance their missions they need to imagine and create new approaches to solving social challenges — they need to innovate. But innovation isn’t easy. More often than not, innovation is an enigma — an amorphous intangible “thing” that is challenging to scope, shape, and size. Despite this, we value attempts to pursue it. No doubt there has been an unprecedented degree of innovation in our organizations over the last year. We have needed to innovate to in order to survive.

So, how have we adapted and adopted new ways of functioning so adeptly in such challenging times? Necessity is clearly one reason, but I would argue there’s more to it than that. Albeit anxiety ridden, many of us found ourselves operating in an environment where the rules of the game changed overnight. With the absence of lines within which to color, opportunities for the unstructured, unexpected, and unfamiliar were born, a perfect breeding ground for creativity. However, innovation and the creative process require structure, familiarity, and intention. It also requires a shared vision around which key stakeholders can coalesce and feel inspired.

In this piece, I have identified fundamental principles and cultural prerequisites to successful innovation. This is not a finite list by any means, rather it includes the ones that have served my organization well over the last year and a half. To accompany them, I will briefly share a very simple three step process organizations might follow to help infuse a regular heartbeat into the innovation practice.

Innovation Principles

The first principle is visionary thinking. To paraphrase the Cheshire Cat’s conversation with Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Vision-led innovation is fundamental to success. A clear North Star provides destination, inspiration, and ambition. Most visionaries are thought to have a poorly developed sense of fear or understanding of the odds against them. A blessing, if there were ever one, over the last year when we took all kinds of risks amongst pervasive fear and unknown odds.

Uncontrollable external events make vision setting on the fly very challenging, and any innovations as a result might only be reactive. It’s like trying to draft a military strategy while in the trenches and under attack. When I worked in the for-profit world, one of the executives I worked with had an incredible vision for our start-up, almost akin to Frodo being guided by the power of the ring. He knew exactly where the organization was headed. I once asked him, “How do you know where our North Star is?” “Intuition,” he said, an arresting and alluring conviction of what could be. Even with an inspired vision in place, the everyday challenge is figuring out the pathway(s) there and staying on course.

Second is the principle of diverse and curious teams. I have had the opportunity to build my own team over the last year. One of the key criteria for hiring solid talent has been looking for people who have an innate sense of curiosity, creativity, and courage. We actively lean towards professionals who exhibit critical thinking — those with a “yes and…” attitude, a “what if…” perspective, and a willingness to get creative. Collaborative, inquisitive multi-disciplinary teams, whether in nonprofit or for-profit organizations, bring distinct perspectives that present a rich and fertile ground for innovation. It may be led by a specific department, but it’s the smorgasbord of skills that brings the magic to the method.

The third principle is identifying pathways towards the vision. Innovation can be non-linear and nebulous but establishing pathways and processes can help achieve meaningful outcomes. As an example, one of our museum’s strategic imperatives is to create a welcoming and inclusive environment where every family feels they belong. We want to engage visitors from rural communities in San Diego County, who can be difficult to reach directly due to financial and/or geographic barriers. We have identified three possible pathways: The first is to leverage partnerships, such as with school systems, other nonprofits, or even retail outlets. For example, we drew on our existing relationship with county libraries to deploy them as distribution partners for our hands-on STEM education kits.  The second pathway is to reach these communities ourselves with our mobile museum or pop-up museum experiences in high traffic areas within those communities. The third is to franchise a micro version of our museum experience to local education partners and parent communities/groups, packaging the best of what we do as a ‘plug and play’ off the shelf experience with educators and parents guiding children through specific hands-on (and digital) educational and enrichment experiences.

Given that the most obvious pathway is not always the only one, creative solutions can lead to alternate pathways. It’s worth the time and effort to come up with smarter, leaner, and more impactful approaches. Our museum recently talked about the idea of having an ‘R&D fund,’ a pot of money that allows us to explore new ideas. In today’s climate, this may sound nonessential, but it’s worth it if the resulting innovation could lead to greater efficiencies and/or even systemic change.

Creating an Innovation Culture

Have you ever heard the phrase, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”? It’s real. Culture determines the success of any endeavor, no matter how well briefed, organized, or executed. Innovation is not simply a practice or a singular strategy, it defines a culture and a philosophy kept alive by leadership. I have worked with many for-profit corporate clients that have the most brilliant and bountiful new product pipelines or the most well-honed processes in place. However, when an organization’s culture does not embrace a healthy innovation culture (which includes failure), there is very little, if any, progress or growth.

A key part of an empathic organization’s culture is understanding who you are innovating for and what their needs are. For our museum, that means understanding the families we serve, including their concerns, motivations, and both reasons for and barriers to visiting. Before joining the museum, I once worked with a medical device company that manufactures pioneering heart health products, and despite their cutting-edge technology, success was stifled. Sales agents were equipped to describe the superiority of their devices to doctors, but their talk track lacked any patient needs narrative. They consistently failed to capture the voice of their end patient and, therefore, had a limited understanding of the emotional needs of a typical heart patient. They were disconnected in a way that mattered and, pun intended, their approach lacked heart.

Below are three aspects of an organization’s culture that are key to successful innovation.

  1. 1. Adopt a beginner’s mindset where all ideas are open to vetting and consideration.

    If you had to build your organization today from the ground up with exceptionally limited resources, what would you do? How would you make it happen? The flip side: if you had to build your organization today from the ground up but with plentiful resources, what would you do? These hypothetical questions allow you to flex an entrepreneurial mindset, feeding creative thinking, curiosity, bravery, and resilience. They challenge established ways of thinking and force you to consider how you could do things differently and better.

    One of our strategic plan’s organizational imperatives is to create insight-informed and needs-based programming by understanding the lives of the families we serve and using those insights as a basis for innovation. Empathy is everything. Our museum recently formed a “community circle,” a diverse focus group of patrons that represents our visitor base (members, non-members, sensory needs families, educators etc.). Through quarterly in-person meetings, we are gaining a better understanding of our audiences and, in that context, exploring meaningful ways we can add value to their museum experience.

  1. 2. Embrace the ambiguity that is inherently part of a process that is plagued with unknowns.

    Typically, innovation starts at an uncomfortable and sometimes frightening place where you have some ideas, but few (if any) answers. You might experience internal contention, asking, “Why are we dedicating resources to this while we’re trying to recuperate from last year? Is it really a priority?” I often hear the phrase, “nonprofits do not have the luxury to spend time innovating.” However, as resource-challenged organizations, we must be more innovative. We will never have all the answers, but if we don’t try, we’ll never have any.

    The paradox of success is that you need to fail to achieve it. We must embrace failure as part of the innovation process. Employees need the freedom to try new things, to smartly, fail fast, learn from their mistakes, and continue to refine the process and keep trying as they move along. Again, this might seem like a luxury after the past eighteen months we have had, but our missions are driven by highly passionate and purpose-driven employees. In Daniel Pink’s book Drive, autonomy, mastery, and purpose are identified as motivation factors for most people. Autonomy is the feeling of being self-directed; mastery is the feeling of getting better at things that matter by getting feedback; and purpose is knowing you are doing something meaningful.

  1. 3. Settle into the churn.

    German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said an important idea must “endure a hostile reception before it is accepted… At first the idea is ridiculed, second, it is violently opposed, third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Innovation requires breaking ranks and challenging convention. Responses may be accompanied by a degree of “Are you nuts?” Be prepared for it and hold on to your vision, intuition, optimism, and passion. Historically, most innovators were ridiculed for their ideas at some point. The rebuttal and resistance are part of the process.

A Brief Overview of the Innovation Process

The innovation process is deliberately simple. Inspired by global design company IDEO’s human-centered design thinking model, it is a non-linear process where each stage has contours and character, with the person you are innovating for at the center.

The three stages of innovation are inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Here’s what each one looks like:

Inspiration includes opening yourself up to creative possibilities while immersing yourself in the lives of your core (or design) audience. During this first stage, frame challenges to be simple and vision-aligned and, with your team, create a project plan that includes critical milestones. Throughout the process, identify natural points of divergent and convergent thinking. A team that is diverse in skills and expertise will focus on harnessing insights from their audience and perhaps even other secondary sources. For example, what do we need to understand about this group of kids? Which experts might we talk to for additional insights? At the outset, your primary purpose is to scope the project and capture insights in advance of any generative ideation work. The goal is to ensure that all your team members are on the same page — informed, inspired, and aligned with the task at hand.

All the insights gleaned in the process described above are leveraged to spark the second stage, ideation, where lots of ideas (good or bad, big or small, incremental or disruptive) are generated. Insights from your core audience become platforms for new ideas; some human truths as present challenges that require creative solutions. As an example: “Some kids in the digital divide, who might benefit from STEM education, are not able to physically visit our museum, how might we solve for that?” From there, the ideas begin to emerge — mobile programs, pop-ups, partnerships, expanded and more accessible online programs, etc.

Finally, the implementation stage is a time for prioritization, prototypes, and pilots. Essentially, you must rank the ideas generated, build first run versions of them to see if they have legs, and identify metrics for success. You must consider which metrics might be important to various audiences and how you might want to share your story with different stakeholders. Not every prototype will work. For those that do, you ultimately want to know why so you can build a roadmap for future success.

The entire innovation process lives at the intersection of empathy and creativity. Each stage can be simple or complex depending on the tasks and resources at hand and your level of experience.

Innovation as a New Way of Life

We all know that we live in a world of increasing uncertainty, which isn’t likely to change any time soon. The need to adapt is essential — in fact, it is the new way of life — so we might as well develop the skills to help us get good at it. Right now, many of us are focused on just keeping going, continuing what we have been doing over the last year while at the same time pausing to reflect on what can be done better going forward. What have we learned from limitations? Are there any new processes or approaches to consider? Where and how can we be leaner and more impactful? Which philosophical or operational fundamentals do we need to reconsider or redefine?

Evolutionary steps achieve revolutionary goals. Successful innovation is not an event, but a continuous process embraced by all. It need not be cumbersome. By starting with small novel ideas, piloting, experimenting/testing, learning, and refining, we can achieve our basic objective of maximizing social impact. The needs of our respective communities have never been greater, and we have all shown we can indeed navigate unchartered waters. Now is the time to examine lessons learned over the last year and consider where disruption has empowered and accelerated our museums to better serve our missions.

Krishna Kabra has served first as executive director and later CEO of the San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum since September 2020. Previously, she was executive vice president of The Value Engineers, an innovation and brand strategy organization serving Fortune 500 companies. As a certified Positive Parenting educator and child mediator, she was also previously founder/owner of Atlanta-based Squeeze My Soul.