Martyn Drake: How to unlock the true potential of bright ideas

All too often, good ideas make only a marginal difference because only one piece of the puzzle has been fixed

About sixteen months ago I wrote an article in Third Sector about the pressing case for innovation in the sector: how it’s as critical a capability for devising ways to create lasting change as it is for delivering great quality services despite big funding cuts.

I might have been preaching to the converted, because many of the conversations I’ve had since then have been with charities that get it, and are actively trying to do more of it, but which say their innovations aren’t having the broader impact they’d hoped for. Or, as they describe it, some of their biggest ideas have made a marginal difference at best. Nine times out of ten, the reason is the same: they’ve only fixed one piece of the puzzle.

One charity had brought in a raft of new ways to share what was happening in its programmes – live feeds, personalised video and so forth – but it hadn’t improved supporter engagement.

It turned out that few supporters took the time to click the links in their emails.

Another charity had found new ways to dramatically improve its service key performance indicators, but that improvement hadn’t fixed its ailing fortunes because its sales and relationship management approach hadn’t changed in years.

In retrospect, the flaws might seem obvious. You can develop the fastest wifi in the world, but you’re not going to be able to stream Netflix if it’s still connected to the internet through a dial-up modem.

But these outcomes and flaws are far more common than you’d think, because the behaviours that drive them are endemic in most organisations.

In both cases I’ve mentioned, bright, passionate people with great ideas had dramatically improved "their bit" of the organisation.

But their vision, responsibility and most of their influence ended at the door of their department. Thus, most of the potential they’d unlocked remained untapped.

Good people need encouragement to work across the organisation, to fix, not just their bit, but the whole, end to end. But unless they’re superstars, encouragement alone is not enough.

To succeed, they will need three other things to be provided around them.

First, they need a place to go: a group, an executive or an experienced mentor, someone who can help them see how their ideas fit in with the organisation’s big, strategic challenges.

That conversation needs to draw out the assumptions about what else would need to happen, or would need to be true, for their idea to make a serious impact at that higher level.

Second, people from different teams will need time away from their day jobs.

Innovating inside a department is easy: there’s only one boss to get onside, one person who holds all the cards to free up a someone’s time, reallocate their work and support their efforts to innovate. Once the work spreads outside that team, things get much harder.

Innovative ideas need executive sponsorship, not just on paper, but also in meetings and conversations across the board, about aims, resources and priorities.

Otherwise, ideas that need work in other departments will just break against other managers’ plans and agendas, never realising their full potential.

Finally, there needs to be commitment at the top table. Not just for one idea, but also for the two elements above: raising an idea to the strategic level, and resourcing and championing a team to make it happen.

It’s a cultural shift, of priorities, behaviour and expectations. A chief executive’s expectations are that her executive team will think cross-functionally, bring big ideas to the table, release their best people for the greater good, and that they will push for the chance to take ownership, even when they don’t hold all the cards.

It’s a serious commitment, not just from the chief executive, but also from the executive team and all the old hands and experts dotted around the organisation.

But without that commitment, it’s a daunting, sometimes impossible challenge for someone with a brilliant idea to make anything more than a marginal difference.

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

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