New innovation team: where do we start?

Katherine William-Powlett shares her thoughts on innovation and on leadership in the voluntary sector. Katherine no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site.

There must be something in the air other than all that pollen: twice in the last week I have been approached for advice by charities wanting to set up innovation teams and wondering where to start. I have talked to lots of people leading  innovation teams within and outside the sector and they have two things in common

  • They all experience the same barriers to innovation.
  • They admit they don’t have all the answers.

So in short – there is no manual on how to do it but there is some guidance I can give. Hard to do in an hour of free advice and perhaps even harder to do in a blog post but I’ll have a go.

  1. Get senior buy-in:  the senior team need to be visibly committed to innovation otherwise it will be an up hill struggle introducing and implementing new ideas. Stating ‘Innovation’ as a value doesn’t really cut it. They need to show commitment by who they recruit, how they act and what they support. One charity I know had a director send all staff a video clip of him with a ball bouncing off his head and asking staff to ‘bounce their ideas off him’. Obviously the teams I spoke to this week had already half won this battle as they had been recruited for the task of improving the innovative capacity of their organisation.
  2. Be clear where and why you want innovation: You need to focus on where particularly you need innovation e.g. do you want to develop services for a particular user group? Develop a new funding product that appeals to a particular age group? More and more charities are building ‘Fundraising Innovation Teams’ because they see that as the area where they are most in need of innovation. There is a very good website devoted to it – SOFII . That is one way to start but in my view, innovation should be like the air that you breathe- it should run throughout the organisation and innovation skills should then be used to solve particular challenges, meet particular opportunities.
  3. Develop an innovation strategy: one thing that unites companies that are seen as innovative is the fact that they have an innovation strategy aligned to their organisational strategy.  For example one company well known for its innovation – 3M of Post-It fame- has a strategic objective to have 30% of its income from new products.
  4. Develop an innovation process: another thing uniting innovative companies is that they have an innovation process.  Innovation is not just about having a lot of ideas- it is about making them happen.  There are many processes out there- you have to find one that works for you – have a look at a short video on how introducing a process helped one organisation get the best ideas off the ground more quickly here.
  5. Go your own way: no organisation has all the answers for what works in making them more innovative although all experience the same barriers.  You need to work out how you can overcome these barriers in a way that will work for your organisation.  Some have ideas champions trained in stimulating innovation; others have big innovation teams; others have tiny teams with lots of power to draw in the right people at the right time. You have to work out what could work for your organisation. Have a read of Everyday Innovation which includes a framework for analysing where your organisation is now and what it could do to become more innovative.
  6. Don’t get too hung up on precise measurement: one of my friends is a competition lawyer.  We all know how lawyers are expected to reach income targets. Competition law is something that comes into so many areas of law that she spends a lot of time helping out other teams perform well on their cases without being able to record any credit to herself.  I think innovation teams are a bit like that.  They have a potentially huge value to the organisation but it is very hard to measure impact.  Find some simple ways to measure whether the input of innovation staff is valued and agree with senior staff that this is enough.  Remember, the wrong type of measurement can actually stifle innovation – have a look at my page on Impact here.

Above all know that you don’t know all the answers: be prepared to adapt and change.


For more thoughts on innovation visit the NCVO Innovation Pages

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