Leading for innovation: don’t assume too much!

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 Katherine no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site for reference.

A friend of mine was on a Gondola lift travelling up to the top of a mountain. The only other people in the lift were three ladies who were strangers to him. All the way up they had an animated conversation in Hebrew about the most intimate details of their lives. As he left he said ‘Shalom’, being a Hebrew speaker himself. They had of course assumed he could not understand them. Embarrassing but not disastrous.  But sometimes mistaken assumptions can hamper your ability to try new things, solve problems, or achieve better fundraising results.

How mistaken assumptions prevented me from solving a simple problem

My 9 year old assumed he could not do his maths homework the other day. The question was:
Draw two lines on a clock face so that there are three groups of digits and the digits in each section add up to the same number.
I determined to get him to solve this, but thought I had better solve it myself first.


The digits around clock face add up to 78.  One third of 78 is 26. 11+12+1+2=26. I assumed that the other sections would have to have consecutive numbers and that the two lines would be in a T shape, one cutting off the top bit of the clock containing 11,12,1,2 and the other coming up to join it from somewhere – try it!

I could not solve the problem. I concluded it was unsolvable. I presented it to my husband and he agreed, declaring that it was unfair to set the children unsolvable problems.
My savvy 13 year old looked at it, drew two lines, and had the answer. Maybe it is obvious to you. But it was not obvious to me because I had made a wrong assumption which I became so wedded to that I even persuaded others that it was correct and that the problem was unsolvable. As a result I could not solve the problem.

What assumptions are you making that are closing your mind off to alternative approaches?

I was talking to an Operations Director of a charity in the North West the other day. We touched on funding streams (or the lack of them). I mooted fundraising. He said that there was no point because no one had any money around there.  As a result of his assumption that there was no money to be had through fundraising and that it had to happen only in the local area he denied himself even the possibility of attempting it and risked consigning himself to grant applications alone, the last two of which had failed.

A chair of a community hub in desperate need for new trustees told me that she could not recruit new trustees because noone on the board had time to do it. She was assuming it would take a long time and that only she or the other hard pressed trustees could do it. By making these assumptions she was unable to deal with the root cause of them all being so busy.

Assuming you can’t charge your beneficiaries?  Join the debate

Assuming you cannot work with businesses? Think Again

Assuming you can’t change? Don’t get stale

Challenging Assumptions

As a consultant at NCVO one of my roles is to challenge assumptions. In doing so, new ideas and possibilities are released.

If you want to find out more about what holds innovation back and how to get the new ideas you need to move your charity forward come to Funding: How to get the Big Idea at the NCVO Annual conference.

For more on innovation visit the Innovation Pages


Answer to the problem 11,12,1,2- 3,4,10,9- 5,6,7,8 – not consecutive and lines not in a T shape!

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