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Fellowship perspective: What The Innovation Mission teaches us

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As the professional development consultant on The Innovation Mission, Dennis Beatrice has led the fellows in workshops on the innovative process and oversees the ongoing development of their projects. Below, Dennis offers his own reflection on how an innovative process can inspire a simple solution to a complex problem.


 

Through The Innovation Mission, the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland (SOCF) has selected, supported and guided five mid-career professionals as they grew the innovative idea they presented in their fellowship application into a concrete plan to implement a change that can provide substantial help to those facing the challenges of living in poverty.

The fellows’ innovations are wide-ranging and address fundamentally important issues faced by the materially poor.

In the 15 months we have worked with the fellows, we have learned important lessons about fostering innovation-driven social policy and working with innovative individuals to both improve and implement their ideas and strengthen their innovation skills.

What have we learned?

  • People can get better at innovating. The fellows’ progress has been exemplary. Their ideas are sharper, more focused and designed to facilitate implementation. Innovation is a tool, and as with any tool, its utility is limited by how effectively it is used. The fellows have become consistently better innovators as they studied their issues and participated in the fellowship’s professional development opportunities. They used this knowledge to proactively guide the evolution of their projects.
  • Successful innovation results from an organized, disciplined process. The fellows’ professional development occurred through a series of intensive multi-day workshops; assignments that guided development of the ideas; research into the policy area in which the innovation will operate; extensive meetings with stakeholders and experts; repeated written and oral presentations that allowed feedback to strengthen the innovation; and foundation-funded consultant resources to provide data and perspective on what has been learned elsewhere that can be applied in Cleveland.
  • Simplifying and focusing innovations is key to successful program design and implementation. A major purpose of iteration is to reduce the innovation to its essential parts. Complexity and multiple goals are the enemies of enlisting support and accomplishing the difficult task of changing an existing policy or system. As Peter Drucker, an early advocate for innovation, said, “The greatest praise an innovation can receive is for people to say, ‘This is obvious! Why didn’t I think of it? It’s so simple.’”
  • Innovation is a team sport. The idea of the lone genius in the garage is not the heart of innovation; it is the exception. Innovation happens best when people come together to share and improve ideas. Professional development activities helped the fellows advance the ideas they brought to the table. Stakeholders and experts provided input that substantially altered the idea from its initial version. Partners joined the fellows to provide organizational support, refine the concepts and bring the innovations into the world.
  • Innovation is problem focused; all possible solutions are fair game. The innovation process is a journey. One must be prepared to discard or amend the initial approach proposed as evidence presents itself and circumstances change. The key is to address a fundamentally important problem—this makes the innovation worthwhile. If you are not working on an important problem, it is unlikely you will have an important impact. The fellows’ commitment to their innovations has grown as their work has shown them in greater depth and detail how serious the problem they identified really is and how best to address it.
  • It is never a good idea to innovate blindly. Active, constant learning is at the heart of innovation. The fellows have worked for months meeting with stakeholders in their area of interest, studying relevant literature, testing ideas with experts, lining up partners, and refining their ideas by presenting in a group and receiving feedback. This learning has led to the evolution of their ideas, which in turn has led to stronger proposed innovations.
  • Until it is implemented, an innovative idea is just that—an idea. In The Innovation Mission, we aim for change to improve the lives of city residents living in poverty. Accordingly, we spent considerable time with the fellows discussing how they can increase the chances their innovations will be implemented. Have they made the innovation as simple as possible? Chosen the right partners? Pursued the path of least resistance (without compromising the initiative)? Considered limiting the scope of the innovation initially to build momentum for broader adoption? Knowing the answers to these questions will help break down barriers to implementation.

 

The fellows’ commitment, persistence, passion and hard work have been a delight. They are addressing important problems and have developed solutions that will make a difference. They have accepted guidance along the way and have changed their innovations to make them more powerful and easier to implement. The foundation has provided a supportive environment in which the fellows could incubate their ideas. The foundation, in turn, gained a better understanding of how innovation may be used as a tool to fight poverty, and encouraged community conversations about how it can be used more extensively. The foundation and the fellows have learned important lessons about innovation that should pay long-term dividends.

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Dennis F. Beatrice is an independent consultant and senior adviser at SRI International, an independent, nonprofit research center that turns bold visions into real-world products and practices. He served for 14 years as vice president of its policy division, leading a staff of 250 with $50 million in annual revenue and major practices in education, human services, health sciences, technology and learning, and economic development.

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