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There are lots of ways to try to answer this question, but here is a great smell test.

Look around you and consider to what extent people feel comfortable taking initiative and making decisions in your organization.  Think about yourself, as well.

If it’s more common, more acceptable, and/or safer to not make decisions and rather do what you’re told, you’re in an innovation-killing organization.  Get out. Fast.


Social innovators tend to think big.  We want our organizations/companies to change the world.  Not just impact one community, but thousands; not just a million people but billions.  And we want to do it through awesome, disruptive innovations.

Here’s the catch.  Broad reach and large-scale impact don’t get along well with big-time innovation.

You probably think I’m nuts.  Every noteworthy idea in existence somehow reached scale.  I’d say you’re guilty of selection bias.  For every one idea that makes it big, there are 1,000 others that die on the vine.  When innovation and impact work together, what you’re seeing is the exception, not the rule.

Charles Leadbetter, in minutes 6:45-8:10 of this fantastic TED Talk, does a wonderful job of articulating one reason why.  

(Click here to watch only that section of the talk or watch the full talk below… WordPress doesn’t allow you to designate a starting point)

Organizations with the greatest reach and the resources to generate massive impact are also those with the most limited capacity to support disruptive innovation.  This is almost a foregone conclusion.  Some huge companies like Google, Apple, Cisco, etc. have cracked this nut.  Most others “innovate” through acquisition or simply fail to innovate and fall into the dark depths of irrelevance over time.

There are numerous lessons for social entrepreneurs here:

1. Your best bet is probably to start from scratch.  Don’t expect that a larger, existing org will be able/willing to support your big new idea.  According to Paul Light, in his recent SSIR article, you probably already know or suspect this: 

“Funders seem to prefer new organizations as platforms for change. At best, they dismiss old organizations as incapable of change. At worst, they view them as protectors of the status quo. Yet I find considerable evidence that old organizations can produce change, especially if they are able to rejuvenate themselves. In short, socially entrepreneurial organizations do not have to be new.”

While Paul is right that big, old organizations can produce change, I would challenge you to think about whether yours will. The organization and its executives have to be willing to take big risks and put significant organizational resources behind something that is relatively unproven. Then, they need to be willing to see it through despite painful resistance, failures and setbacks.  BP, with its “Beyond Petroleum” campaign is a good example of half-hearted commitment to change (listen also here). 

2. Scale is something that will have to be achieved the hard way.  Big organizations have big networks and numerous channels through which new products can often be funneled.  If the channels don’t exist, they can be created.  So reaching scale is much easier within the confines of a big company or org.  But, since your small business won’t enjoy the same privileges, scale will have to be achieved slowly, over time, through a huge amount of effort.  So… is your stomach as big as your eyes?

3. The bigger you get, the more you become one of “them.” Don’t fool yourself into thinking that your big, new idea will always be relevant.  It won’t.  And don’t assume you’ll always be on the leading edge of change.  You won’t. If you achieve scale and don’t find ways to enable innovation, you will become one of your former worst enemies.

There is one other lesson here for all of us.  That is the importance of building institutions to support ventures from start-up through to “big.”  What we’re seeing right now in the sector, it seems to me, is an abundance of orgs and structures targeted at supporting brand new ventures.  But the successful among these ventures will, at some point, need access to much larger pools of capital in order to grow.  Not thousands of dollars but millions.  If they can’t get that from traditional financial institutions, because they are generating below-market returns, for example, then we need to figure out how to provide it to them.  Is anyone working on that now?

Sober, Tipsy, Drunk by scott r hamilton by scott r hamilton.

A liquor store in my hometown used to (and still does) append all of its ads with, “please use our products in moderation.” It was a nice gesture from a social responsibility standpoint, and I was reminded of the tagline recently when pondering innovation.

I’m starting to believe, largely as a result of very-intense and self-involved introspection, that too much innovation can be a bad thing.

“Heresy!” you say (if you are of the entrepreneurial ilk, that would be the right answer). Before you get all bent out of shape, let me explain.

Innovation within an industry or society we generally consider a very good thing. I still believe this to be true. Technological progress, broadly defined, is the cornerstone of economic growth. Industries, cities, societies that innovate thrive. So let’s take innovation in aggregate off the table.

Innovation within an individual organization or person, however, can quickly become counter-productive.

Take gastronomy as an example. Let’s suppose that you make the sage decision to create a new and exciting dinner every single evening. No recipe will be repeated and cookbooks are only allowed if modifications are made to the written word. Now imagine the amount of planning and stress that would be associated with such an endeavor. Not only would your culinary aspirations distract from other important tasks, but you’d lose the “economies of scale” that come with cooking similar meals (or eating leftovers), and you’d also probably never get really good at any given menu item because of your reluctance to iterate and make minor tweaks.

Minor tweaks are not especially sexy or exciting. For that matter, neither are leftovers (except really good stews, which always seem to taste better the second day). However, they are the stuff of disciplined execution on great ideas, which is what big-time innovators can be absolutely terrible at.

If you’re an ideas person like me, you may very well read so much and take in so much information over the course of a day that your world is made up more of possibilities than realities. You sometimes have a difficult time settling down your mind enough to do make detailed to-do lists, set concrete goals, and prioritize your work. If that’s you or your organization, an overdone propensity for innovation may be officially kicking your ass.

As you think about this, here are two points of verification that might prove helpful.

1) Wendy Kopp’s NY Times Corner Office interview. It’s a fabulous interview – read it! Wendy is very clear that focus had to triumph over innovation early in Teach for America’s life in order for the effort to really take off.

2) Remember that the net impact of innovation is positive, but that the process of innovating is NECESSARILY wasteful. Don’t take my word for it. Jeff Bezos once compared the internet boom and bust of the early 2000’s to the Cambrian Explosion that took place 500 million years ago.  The “explosion” of diversity in animal life was a major step forward for the earth, but can’t be viewed as such without also considering the mass extinction that took place fifty million years later that allowed the fittest (and luckiest) species to really thrive.

So, to paraphrase Happy Harry’s, if you want to be successful at a personal or organizational level, “Please Use Your Innovation in Moderation.”

A classic TED Talk on making your ideas spread.

Certainly, there are no shortage of great ideas and inventions out there, but rather a shortage of great execution. That includes not only getting the right people on your bus, not only designing products and services with your customers and their needs, habits, tendencies, circumstances, etc. in mind, but also getting in front of customers, investors, and colleagues in a way that will compel them to get on board.

If you haven’t already read it, the Heath Brothers’s Made to Stick” is another fabulous “how to” along these lines.


As follow-up on my last post, I wanted to share part of Tori Hogan‘s “Beyond Good Intentions” series.

Tori is former aid-worker, filmmaker, and blogger with SocialEdge.

Episode seven of Tori’s series explores for-profit approaches to development in Madagascar with the company BushProof.

In addition to the ingenuity of the founders and employees of BushProof, what’s striking about the video is the fact that Adriann Mol, Founder and Director of BushProof, is not ashamed of the fact that he is running a bona fide for-proft business, albeit one with a very explicit social mission that guides its management principles.

To paraphrase Adriann:

“…You enter into an economic system that gives full sustainability… So it saves these people significant money… it gives us income so we can run the company and grow bigger, sell more of them – it’s a win-win.”

I recently had the pleasure of returning to my college workplace – a resort in northwestern MN – for an alumni reunion.

The work at this resort was far from being inherently satisfying or intellectually stimulating. Yet, the job brought an enormous amount of joy to my life. The people I worked with were intelligent and talented, and we were given and created opportunities to play, take risks, and put our minds together to solve all kinds of problems – large and small. Those interactions engendered levels of both enjoyment and interpersonal trust that I have yet to find in any other employer.

Play is vitally important to self-actualization in our personal and professional lives, and yet somewhere between childhood, adolescence and adulthood we seem to forget how to play.

The following three TED talks pay tribute to this idea in amazing and inspiring ways. Please watch and have fun with them!


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