Kick-Starting Innovation

The really big problems we face exist at the systemic level. They require innovators from across multiple sectors to come together to solve them. But most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking systemically. During co-creation events like the recent PYXERA Global Engagement Forum: Live, when people do start thinking systemically, we often see them get stuck on two extremes. They either start advocating for an existing solution that they know and love or they spin out contemplating systems of systems of systems. They can’t seem to get going.

After listening to the keynote speakers at the Forum and listening in on the working groups, I came away with a few rules of thumb anyone can use when first designing a collective impact program they want to replicate and bring to scale:

  1. No new legislation or regulation. The new idea must not require any new legislation or regulation for it to work. When I would listen in on the working groups at the Forum, I’d often hear them say, “Governments just need to pass XYZ law, or enact ABC regulation.” This defers responsibility and keeps the innovators stuck. To break the cycle, your idea should not need the city, state, or federal governments to change any existing laws or regulations.
  2. No additional cost. The new idea must not cost the target population (the people you intend to help) any more money than the status quo. Again, the working groups would stumble because they would come up with ideas that need a lot of new money. Instead, start with the assumption that your innovation must cost the same as the status quo.
  3. Same demographics/psychographics. No cherry-picking. The new idea must be offered to the same population as any existing approaches. Charter school critics often complain that charters only do better because they hand-picked better students. Sidestep this criticism by offering your innovation to the same population as the existing approach (if there is one).
  4. Plan to test in at least three different geographies/populations. While we recommend starting with the same population as the status quo, assume from the beginning you’ll want to scale. Many single-population pilots fail because they don’t take into account differences in geography, demographics, or psychographics. Therefore, plan to conduct tests in at least three different and varied populations.
  5. Build in progress measures that can later be used to demonstrate success and/or the need for new legislation or regulation. Regulation and legislation should follow success, not lead it. Therefore, agree on a set of progress measures useful to the multiple stakeholders involved, e.g., program administrators, people in the target population, governments, and donors. Then build in a plan for gathering and reporting data and using it to improve the legal and regulatory framework.

Let’s unpack those a bit. As I mentioned, we often see co-creators get stopped by either thinking too broadly or too narrowly. They spin off into outer space and get caught up in the inter-relatedness of it all. “This is connected to that is connected to the other,” on ad infinitum. Or they focus too minutely – usually on something they’ve already tried.

People spinning out on the interconnectedness of it all often also fall in to the “them trap” – “they need to do this” or “they need to do that,” deferring responsibility and action, usually onto legislators or regulators, and failing to see what action we can take now. Co-creators caught in these traps should refocus their efforts using the phrase, “How might we…?” This magical phrase, often used by successful entrepreneurs and innovators, invokes possibility (the word “might” takes the pressure off having to have everything all figured out right now) and keeps us grounded in what “we” might do. It’s cheating, though, if you ask, “How might we get them to…?” At the same time, you also don’t have to restrict the action to only the people at the table at the moment. “We” can include others, as long as you can identify them with some specificity. Saying, “Joe at Company XYZ” is OK. Saying, “the private sector” is not.

People spinning out on the interconnectedness of it all often also fall in to the “them trap” – “they need to do this” or “they need to do that,” deferring responsibility and action, usually onto legislators or regulators, and failing to see what action we can take now.

On the other end of the spectrum, when co-creators go too narrow they revert to only advocating for their existing solutions and start down the doomed path of cut-and-paste. “We did it over here so we must be able to do exactly the same thing over there” – mistaking initial success with systemic success. This can also lead to falling back into old patterns of advocating for your own existing solution instead of looking for true collective action. To break this cycle, really focus on why the problem exists. Why does it exist for this population but not that one? Why do certain mindsets, beliefs, or behaviors prevent people from taking action? Especially for “solvable problems” – where a technical solution already exists and is just trapped – why have we solved it for one group but not for all?

To break this cycle, really focus on why the problem exists. Why does it exist for this population but not that one? Why do certain mindsets, beliefs, or behaviors prevent people from taking action?

These rules of thumb offer a path out of both these conundrums. By taking new legislation or regulation off the table, co-creators have to focus on what they can do today. By not allowing any new cost or requiring any new funding, co-creators have to think about what they can do with what they’ve got. Together, these criteria help avoid the “them trap” by taking legislators, regulators, and new donors out of the picture. These criteria also build in replicability by freeing the solution from a particular regulatory, legal, or funding context. Because the new approach doesn’t require new legislation, regulation, or funding, it increases the probability that it will work in any legislative, regulatory, or funding environment.

Planning to test it in three different geographies or populations from the beginning also increases the probability of scalability and replicability. Freezing demographics and psychographics prevents critics from claiming selection bias: that it only worked because you cherry-picked the people you tried it on. Lastly, by agreeing up-front on a common set of progress measures useful to multiple stakeholders, you build ongoing political will and sustainability into the program.

These criteria – especially in the current political and fundraising climate – will help co-creators focus, develop plans that will work from the get-go, and increase the probability of scaling and sustaining long-term success.

A version of this blog first appeared on PYXERA Global's website here.

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