Nonprofit organizations have been around long enough that we’ve settled into conventional wisdom. The accepted ideas for raising money, managing teams, building strategy, and implementing programs get repeated again and again. Why do we have such a hard time leaving the well-worn path?
The trouble with tribes
As humans, we’re drawn toward people who are like us—who think like us and see the world like us. Being part of a like-minded “tribe” can be great support an encouragement, but if you never interact with the broader world, you’ll end up re-hashing the same ideas and approaches over and over. Idea-inbreeding makes for shortsighted and malformed organizations.
The most creative breakthroughs come when you’re able to see a problem in a new way, and one of the best ways to do that is to bring seemingly unrelated ideas together. The secret ingredient for innovative ideas, ironically, is pretty predictable: Constantly work at exposing yourself to a bigger ecosystem of ideas and practices. You can’t innovate in a bubble.
Here are three simple ways to prospect for innovative ideas:
1. Read a book from a new genre
Try to find a book that tackles your issue from a completely new angle. Are you wrestling with your communication strategy? There are several fantastic books out there on nonprofit marketing (Kivi Leroux Miller’s Content Marketing for Nonprofits is a recent favorite). However, one of my biggest breakthroughs on this topic was from the literary world—Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, which asks the more fundamental question of why certain stories are always compelling to people. Could reading a book on human behavior change the way you think about fundraising? Can immersing yourself in Civil War history make you a better CEO? I think so.
While I’m on this topic, I’ll ask: when was the last time you picked up a novel? Research shows that people who read fiction are better at relating to people who are different, and understanding their point of view.
2. Attend a conference outside your discipline
I’ve found that people get in the habit of attending the same circuit of gatherings, where they interact with people in their own field of work. I try to attend one conference a year that’s not focused on one of my niches (Christian nonprofits, international development, WASH). I show up with a notepad, sit in the front, soak up new concepts, and meet people completely unlike me.
Attending this year’s TED Conference will cost you a pretty penny (if they accept your application), but you can find great locally-organized TEDx events all over the country. The Q conferences will get you stirred up with new ideas from all angles. Techweek is one of the top technology conferences around, and it’s coming to six cities around the US this year. The Lean Startup Conference in November will be full of entrepreneurial ideas, and offers “Bootstrapper” passes for employees of small nonprofits. Where could you go that would put you in a petrie dish of innovative ideas?
3. Talk with (or hire) a professional from a completely different field
Put yourself in the shoes of an outsider who doesn’t know the rules in your sector. What would they think about the way you do things? Would your approaches make sense? Interviewing someone with a radically different life-view is one of the best ways to get fresh perspective. What would an engineer say about your organizational processes? What would a software developer recommend for team project management? Could a tech startup entrepreneur help you think differently about managing virtual teams?
Think of the most pressing problem you’re facing right now, and consider what smart, competent people would have a radically new angle on that problem. Set up an hour to interview them—frame your problem, ask a couple of follow-up questions, and then listen deeply. And take good notes.
The same logic can work when you’re filling key staff roles; choosing an unconventional candidate can yield surprising benefits. At one point I hired a behavioral economist for a monitoring and evaluation role, which fundamentally reshaped the way my organization approaches research and impact assessment.
Fifteen years ago, I read James Sire’s Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling, which probably affected me in more ways than I know. In particular, his definition of an “intellectual” has stuck with me ever since.
An intellectual [and an innovator, I suggest] is one who loves ideas, is dedicated to clarifying the, developing them, criticizing them, turning them over and over, seeing their implications, stacking them atop one another, arranging them, sitting silent while new ideas pop up and old ones seem to rearrange themselves, playing with them, punning with their terminology, laughing at them, watching them clash, picking up the pieces, starting over, judging them, withholding judgment about them, changing them, bringing them into contact with their counterparts in other systems of thought, inviting them to dine and have a ball but also suiting them for service in workaday life. ~Habits of the Mind, p. 27-28.
You may not think of yourself as an intellectual (the term feels a little pretentious to me too), but the picture Sire paints—of stacking ideas atop one another, seeing how they relate, and bringing them into contact with their counterparts from other systems of thought—is how innovative ideas happen.
What do you do to trigger innovative ideas?