Most of us have seen the recent reminders on social media: Isaac Newton discovered calculus while isolated during the Great Plague in 1665. That singular example of brilliance—one young man working through ideas alone—is offered as inspiration. That’s an extraordinary feat, but not necessarily instructive for those of us with significantly more modest capacities. For us, innovation happens best in teams.
However, the Newton story reminds us that innovation happens during—and, often enough, because of—constraints. We know about important innovations that happened during the Great Depression. Medical innovations have always occurred on the battlefield. On a personal scale, I also know it to be true. When I was a silversmith, I was taught to view pieces I’d fouled up as an opportunity to create something entirely different. True enough, starting from an ugly tangle of sterling silver freed me to think more creatively than staring at a pristine sheet of metal.
This is clearly a moment of constraint, one in which the status quo is wholly inadequate to the task. Those who lead and raise money for universities, museums, schools, and hospitals can look ahead and see that the future will require something very different from them. Already, many of our clients are discovering new ways to operate and accomplish their missions.
As the current crisis stretches from days to weeks, it’s critical that nonprofits innovate with intention. They have an opportunity to think beyond accomplishing their typical work through virtual means.
We offer the following five ideas to help guide deeper, and potentially lasting, innovation.
1. Define the challenge
Innovating with intention—in ways that enable you to bring knowledge, hope, healing, and enrichment to more people—starts with defining a specific challenge. For a community orchestra, the challenge might be to keep subscribers engaged and committed when traditional performances are impossible. For a college or university, it may be how to properly celebrate graduation—without a collective ceremony in the May sunshine—for young people launching into an uncertain job market and world. Whatever you’re solving for, define it in one crisp sentence.
2. Mobilize unlikely teams
The research is clear: Diverse teams are more innovative. As you assemble groups to solve a discrete challenge, think about diversity across every dimension: life experience, age, professional skills, and roles in the organization. Consider those with passions outside of work; musicians, artists, amateur historians, and others likely will bring invaluable creativity and problem-solving skills. Keeping project teams relatively small will facilitate this moment’s all-digital requirements. What worked with 40 people in a room will not necessarily be effective on Zoom. If the challenge is large, it may help to break it down into a few smaller, well-defined issues and teams.
3. Brainstorm in the digital world
There’s a reason that innovation projects typically start with brainstorm sessions: they’re a useful way to generate an array of fresh ideas. With virtual brainstorms, the usual ground rules—no hitting, spitting, or cussing—are more important than ever. Sharing new ideas is risky business, and it’s harder to read the room on a Webex call.
Send pre-session work—articles, early musings, websites to review—to ground the team in common understanding. Begin each session with an exercise meant to upend expectations and to challenge and pull the group together. For example, try a fast “roll call” of the group in alpha order, using the last letter of each person’s last name.
Think about tactics that likely translate well from conference room to Zoom. For example, there’s the “empty the vessel” exercise in which team members write out their initial ideas for addressing the challenge. Consider daily, shorter sessions that are no longer than 90 minutes to develop and refine solutions to test.
4. Take it to the people
It’s “voice of the customer” time, which can be essential to accurately defining and solving any innovation challenge. The approach helps you check your assumptions and test potential solutions against underlying customer needs and behaviors. At best, the approach helps you identify needs your customers don’t yet know they have because of the status quo they’re accustomed to. You can gather insights of target audiences using tightly calibrated surveys, convening small virtual focus groups, or by conducting in-depth individual conversations. In times such as these, it’s more important than ever to fail quickly and inexpensively. Let your key audiences guide your direction.
5. Test ideas with volunteers
They’ve raised their hands, pledged their time, and they’re waiting to help. All too often, we only show boards and campaign committees the most polished plans and drafts. That’s understandable because we want others to see our best thinking. But engaging volunteers in real problem-solving is the definition of deep engagement. Now is the time to ask key volunteers to help you reason through challenges. Use standing groups or create ad hoc task forces with the skills and experiences to suit your purpose. Put two or three potential solutions in front of them—each defined with rigor and clarity: objectives, audiences, frequency, key partners, costs, measures of success, and so on.
Be clear with volunteers about the challenge you’re solving, the stage of ideation, what you’re asking of them, and any financial, technical, or time constraints for implementation. Finally, keep them involved as you move through implementation, shine success back on them as true partners, and ask for help again.