On Leading Change: How to Think About Innovation

Nidhi Sahni's take on innovation for social sector organisations.

September 15, 2016

Nidhi Sahni was fortunate to grow up with parents who actively worked to counter the negative gender stereotypes that often surround girls in India. Instead she and her sister were raised with two core beliefs –there is nothing they cannot accomplish and they have an obligation to help the millions who are less fortunate than themselves.

While growing up, Nidhi drew incredible inspiration from her mother who started an education nonprofit in their garage. Under her mother’s continued leadership, that nonprofit, the Study Hall Education Foundation, now serves 100,000 students from marginalized communities annually through direct initiatives and partnerships with 950 rural and urban schools across Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, India.

Nidhi ultimately found her own path, studying mathematics and entering the for-profit consulting world before reconnecting with her belief in helping the less fortunate by joining the Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit organization that works with social sector leaders focused on breaking cycles of poverty. At Bridgespan, Nidhi focuses on helping organizations maximize their impact by helping them think through their transformative scale strategies. This often leads to a need to understand the role of innovation and innovation capacity. This is where we focused the bulk of our conversation.

Unfortunately, while innovation is much needed in the social sector, it is often misunderstood and misapplied.

Nidhi clarifies that “innovation is not continuous improvement.  Continuous improvement should be essential. It is just good hygieneInnovation is a break from the norm for a given context.” That “context” could be an organization or a sector.

More importantly, before jumping into investing in innovation, Nidhi cautions that an organization should first answer these three questions:

  1. What is the impact that you are trying to achieve?
  2. What is it going to take to get there?
  3. Is innovation imperative for you to achieve that impact?

Once it is clear how innovation might contribute to your organization’s mission, you can then shift to thinking about how to build up your organization’s innovation capacity, which involves five key ingredients:

  1. Building leadership capacity, particularly the ability to communicate a compelling vision for innovation throughout the organization
  2. Aligning your decision-making structure with what you want to achieve. This is particularly important as the criteria, and often process, for assessing innovations is often different from assessing business-as-usual
  3. Being able to build and access a diverse talent pool both internally and externally that can help you think outside the traditional box, and drive the innovation forward
  4. Putting in place the processes and tools for innovation, both formal (e.g. regular learning lunches, use of innovation labs) and informal (e.g. building in the flexibility/capacity to be opportunistic)
  5. Ensuring a learning culture, which sits at the heart of everything because innovation ultimately involves failing and the humility to learn from mistakes

This is a long-term investment for any organization and one that is not to be taken lightly.  Much like with general organizational capacity, organizations and funders underestimate what it takes to build the capacity to innovate. Along the way, the pitfalls are many – leadership turnover, combatting legacy organizational processes, and perhaps trickiest of all, judging whether an innovation is working or not.

Nidhi and I dig into all this and more in our conversation, and she generously shares her clearly structured thinking on the following questions:

  • What is innovation?
  • When should a social sector organization invest in building innovation capacity?
  • What are the key ingredients for building innovation capacity, and what are the pitfalls to watch out for?
  • How do you judge if an innovation is working?
  • What mindsets do innovation leaders need?

Bridgespan has an extensive list of free resources for social sector leaders on their website. Bridgespan is also recruiting in the U.S. and in Mumbai!

+Acumen also offers a suite of innovation courses that touch on aspects described above – Design Kit: The Course for Human-Centered DesignElizabeth Gilbert's Creativity Workshop and Design Kit: Facilitator's Guide.


Our thanks to volunteer sound engineer: Wu Shan

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