Susan Wojcicki has seen Google grow from the very start … the company was once based in her garage! In 2011, Wojcicki wrote “The Eight Pillars of Innovation” about how the company pushes itself forward.
These Eight Pillars made Google one of the most useful and financially sound companies on the planet.
What would it look like if your non profit applied them?
1. Have a mission that matters
Work can be more than a job when it stands for something you care about.
This by far is the easiest one for non profits at least to start. Your mission is (or at least should be) compelling, exciting, inspiring. And your work should be closing tied to that mission. If these things are in place you will have no problem getting people to invest their lives in helping you accomplish your mission. Employees, funders, donors, partners all will be excited if you have a compelling mission and can communicate it well.
Is your mission clear, actionable and compelling? If not, what needs to change?
2. Think big but start small
No matter how ambitious the plan, you have to roll up your sleeves and start somewhere.
End Hunger. Stop Domestic Violence. Save a Species. Non profits are nothing if not ambitious. But often times these lofty and ambitious goals stand in the way of doing something today. Don’t get trapped in constant cycle of updating strategic plans but never actually doing something.
What one action can you take today to chip away at the problem you agency seeks to solve?
3. Strive for continual innovation, not instant perfection
Our iterative process often teaches us invaluable lessons.
I once worked with a non profit known for being innovative in their space. The kind of organization that others looked up to. They spent a HUGE amount of money on developing a new website with a large well known interactive firm who typically works with fortune 500 types. The firm built the site on a very developer friendly platform but this made iteration near impossible for the organization. They were locked in as they didn’t have an ASP.NET developer on site to make changes as the data came in.
This is a very technical example of course, but everyday you make decisions about all sorts of things.
Are you positioning yourself for continual innovation or are you so focused on some unrealistic standard of perfection that you are either spending years on planning or setting it and forgetting it?
Both are dangerous and will eventually cause stagnation for your non profit.
4. Look for ideas everywhere
Some of the best ideas at Google are sparked just like that – when small groups of Googlers take a break on a random afternoon and start talking about things that excite them.
My favorite book I’ve ever read is Frans Johansson’s, The Medici Effect. In fact my company’s name, Intersection, is inspired by the concepts in it. Basically he says that breakthrough ideas occur when we bring concepts from one field into a new, unfamiliar territory.
The entire field of social impact business, social enterprise, profit for purpose business, etc. is really founded on this idea of the intersection between profit and purpose. Intersections between different people, different ideas, different fields, different cultures, different socioeconomic backgrounds often yield amazing and unpredictable results.
So what can your organization learn from other non profits, especially those trying to solve different problems that yours? What can your non profit learn from businesses? How can you create an organizational culture that seeks out these opportunities?
5. Share everything
By sharing everything, you encourage the discussion, exchange and re-interpretation of ideas, which can lead to unexpected and innovative outcomes.
Non profits certainly are ahead of the curve with this, what with gov’t mandated 990’s being publicly searchable and all. But raw data isn’t enough.
Sharing your wins, losses, ideas, plans, goals, etc. is scary. But by encouraging discussion of all these things you open up lots of opportunities that we saw in the previous Pillar of Innovation.
Your annual report likely lists a lot of wins. Can you add some risks, failures, plans and ideas this next year to really jumpstart a culture of innovation among your staff and major stakeholders?
6. Spark with imagination, fuel with data
What begins with intuition is fueled by insights. If you’re lucky, these reinforce one another.
Ideas are great. Instincts are great. Gut feelings are great. The likelihood is that if you are a leader you probably got there by following these things. But sometimes they can be wrong. Or sometimes they come too early or too late as part of a bigger story. Data is what proves you right or wrong. If you are right, fantastic, refer back #3! And if you are wrong? Fantastic! Look ahead to #8!!!
What programs do you have in place that aren’t being measured with objective data? How will you fix that?
7. Be a platform
There is so much awe-inspiring innovation being driven by people all over the globe.
This is likely the toughest pillar for a nonprofit to adopt. Software companies have it easy when it comes to building a platform.
But the fact of the matter is, nonprofits that adopt this mentality last. The Red Cross is successful in part because services they offer to nonprofit hospitals and even gov’t agencies. Same with United Way. Organizations that are indispensable to their communities, stakeholders and partners are often times essentially a platform that others are building on in a sense.
What can you do to help provide opportunities for others to build on the work that you are doing? How can you work to ensure the success of your partners and in turn increase your impact and success?
8. Never fail to fail
The thing is, people remember your hits more than your misses. It’s okay to fail as long as you learn from your mistakes and correct them fast. Trust me, we’ve failed plenty of times. Knowing that it’s okay to fail can free you up to take risks.
This one is terrifying for anyone, but especially for nonprofits. Just imagine sitting down with your biggest donor telling him how you spent his donation on some crazy new idea and now it’s up in smoke. No one wants to have that conversation. That said, success often comes from failure. In the for profit world everyone gets this. Edison had hundreds of failures before the lightbulb. One thing to keep in mind though is that all these pillars of innovation are meant to work together, so small, strategic experiments that fail (in keeping with pillar #2) shouldn’t terrify anyone, especially when you fail fast and learn from your mistakes. How exciting will your annual report be when you document the journey of failed experiments leading to the awesome new program that is making huge strides in solving the problem you exist to solve? (Dan Portnoy and I cover how to do this in our Connect + Engage workshop that we run a couple times a year.)
What risks have you taken in the last year? What were the results? What risks will you take in the next year?
Putting all 8 of these pillars together won’t be easy. But if it was easy, everyone would be innovative. But if you want to truly inspire people, solve big problems and change the world you should be ready to put in the work.