Innovation Story: Finding the right idea

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 Katherine no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site for reference.

The story of Cultivate London and how they worked out what to do

All innovation starts with an idea. For Leah McPherson, Managing Director of Cultivate London, an urban farm based across multiple sites in West London that generates jobs and training opportunities for unemployed 16-25 year olds, that was the first challenge.

McPherson was employed by Ealing and Brentford Consolidated Charity to develop ideas for a new social enterprise. The charity wanted the social enterprise to provide job and training opportunities for young people in West London. For McPherson, it was a case of finding an idea that would offer young people something different from the opportunities that were already available: “From what I knew there was quite a lot of retail, hospitality and office admin jobs and apprenticeships for young people. So I didn’t want to do anything like that.”

The initial idea was to make use of disused land in the local area to grow food. This approach would make better use of both environmental and economic resources by using limited available space, while helping unemployed young people – whose energy and skills were not being used within the mainstream economy – to take the initial step into sustainable employment.

In order to move the idea from theory to practice, one of the first tasks McPherson faced was to see if there was any land that could be used. She explains: “I spread the word: I thought ‘local people know where the land is that’s vacant’ and they did. It took up a lot of time and following up a lot of leads but it paid off.”


One potential problem when you have a good idea is that nobody likes it. A less obvious but equally problematic situation is that lots of people like your idea and they all want to make suggestions about how you develop it. McPherson explains: “Everyone who I spoke to had an opinion about whether it would work or not and what elements of it needed to be added in order for it to work. So in the end, about 6 months into the development process I had this totally bloated concept, that I felt was likely to fail because it was unfocused and it just felt really overwhelming.”

Starting with initial concept of training unemployed young people to grow food on disused land, the idea had evolved in a wide range of apparently logical directions: “It had developed from ‘we’ll grow food on disused land’ to ‘we’ll grow a range of everything so that we can provide veggie-boxes’ then ‘we’ll have a mobile food van that will go on to some of most deprived estates in West London and sell cost price fruit and veg to residents and ‘after that we’ll also try and engage people with cookery’.  It was basically ‘we’ll do everything’” Exploring your idea is vitally important but it’s equally important to have a cut off point for that initial research, as McPherson explains: “It had got to the point where I said okay, I’ve been talking people for about six months about every element of food growing and urban food, and I’ve got a fairly clear idea of what’s out there, so now’s the time to stop asking for suggestions and start letting people know what we’re going to do.”

At this point McPherson began to use her market research to develop a business plan for Cultivate London that had a clear focus on a specific achievable activity:  “Just growing a range of herbs won through: we knew that we could grow them on the bits of land that we had, that they were relatively high value, that we could get multiple harvests and that there was a definite market for them.” The challenge then was to actually get the business off the ground. Initially the plan had been to get a Lottery grant but when that route was unsuccessful. Ealing and Brentford Consolidated Charity took the decision to put in a loan to finance the start-up cost for Cultivate London. The new social enterprise began operating in March 2011 and is now successfully training young people, growing herbs and selling them to local businesses.

Commentary from Katherine William-Powlett ‘The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas, and throw the bad ones away’ Linus Pauling. It is often said that to have a good idea you need to have lots of ideas.  Many charities are very good at having ideas but complain that none of them ever happen. What Cultivate London did so successfully was open out the net to multiple ideas and then narrow down and focus on what was really needed.  They had  clear idea of why they needed to innovate: this is vital for successful innovation.  You must know what problem you are needing to solve; generate lots of ideas with an open mind that aim at solving the problem AND THEN choose one keeping sight of your original objective. Many innovation projects fail though getting one of other of these stages wrong: they choose the wrong problem to solve; they do not explore enough of a range of possible solutions; or they do not focus back in to the best idea. For more information and guidance on innovation with practical advice on how to overcome these challenges visit

Top tips from Cultivate London:

  1. Make use of local knowledge.
  2. Do your market research.
  3. Don’t over-complicate things.

Duration: Incubated within charity, independent organisation set up in March 2011 Business model: Trading with some grants to support training Funding: Start up funding from parent charity aiming to be sustainable through training Staff: 5 Thank you to David Floyd of Social Spider for researching and writing this story and to Cultivate London

This entry was posted in Case study, Practical support and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Like this? Read more

Posts written by guests who have contributed to NCVO projects and events.

Comments are closed.