Martyn Drake: Change should make you significantly better

Plenty of charities are good at making incremental tweaks, but not so adept at making fundamental change

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

In any organisation there will be lots of people who have ideas about how things could be improved, new services that could be provided, new ways to deliver outcomes. The problem is, most of those ideas won’t make a great deal of difference to your organisation or the people you serve. Not because they’re bad ideas, but because they’re not sufficiently "better" to change people’s behaviour.

Launching a new product or service can be one of the biggest investments of time and money, and one of the biggest gambles any organisation can make. So how can you make sure you're backing a winner? First, you answer one question with brutal honesty: "Is it dramatically better?"

Ten years ago, fast-casual dining was taking the restaurant market by storm. Pizza Express, Carluccio’s, Giraffe, Byron and the like were all expanding at ridiculous rates because, back then, they were dramatically better than anything else on the high street. But the world quickly moved on. Now there are plenty of better alternatives and all of those chains are shedding staff, closing stores and negotiating with landlords just to stay afloat.

All of them had more than a decade to reinvent their offers, to make them dramatically better again, but none of them did. Instead, they tweaked around the edges, going through the motions, churning out new variations that offered little or nothing that was genuinely better than what was already out there, and now they’re paying the price.

There are two levels to innovation: the low-level of continuous improvement and the higher, riskier level of fundamental change. There are plenty of organisations that do the former relatively well, but there are few, especially in the charity sector, that are adept at the latter. Can you remember the last genuinely game-changing innovation in fundraising, for example?

It’s not an either/or equation – incremental improvement is important, but it can take you only so far. Beneficiaries and funders want much simpler, cheaper access to significantly better outcomes, and if you’re not at least looking at some radical ways to bring that about, sooner or later someone else will probably come along with a solution and, like those big restaurant chains, you’ll be left with some painful decisions to make. Too many organisations, in both the commercial and the third sector, focus far too much of their energy on minor improvements and incremental tweaks, rather than looking for the "next big thing" that will transform outcomes and value for funders, users and customers.

Before you invest, then look hard at each of your potential new innovations and ask yourself: is it "dramatically better" and, if so, how can we articulate that simply and compellingly? Could it change the way these kinds of services are provided across the sector? Can we easily identify who will want it? And, of those who want it, who will pay for it?

Not only will the answers help you to evaluate and prioritise your ideas, but they will also define your strategy for launching and scaling up. But beyond that, the questions themselves, if routinely asked and answered with brutal honesty, will transform your approach to innovation.

Martyn Drake is the founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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