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The social sector’s collective quest for innovation might actually be misinformed and counter-productive. Christian Seelos and Johanna Mair argue why it is time to move from innovation as an ideology to innovation as a process.

Every year, hundreds of new innovation books are published with well-meaning and intriguing recommendations for managers and organizations. They tout such innovation success factors as a risk-taking culture, inspired leadership and openness to outside ideas.

An increasingly impatient social sector sees innovation as the holy grail of progress. This impatience stems in part from the perception that decades of traditional global development efforts are lost years, with billions of dollars spent and too little to show for them. The scale of poverty-related challenges and the growing levels of global inequality drive a sense of urgency and a frustration with old development recipes. These challenges–this crisis, if you will–have legitimized a collective quest for new solutions–innovations!

With the focus on innovation has come a tendency to adopt the language of markets and business, such as social ventures, hybrid business models, and impact investing. But while the innovation language has been adopted, the existing organizational and managerial knowledge base on innovation has remained largely unengaged. Applied studies tend to treat innovation primarily as an outcome and therefore imply that social innovation occurs when desired outcomes such as positive social change can be observed.

Innovation Lightbulb in a village
Photo courtesy: Shri Ayyangar Photography

Meanwhile, organizations that are the main locus of innovation activities are mostly treated as a black box and we know little about how social innovation develops within these organizations.

Moreover, although much social innovation research has explored the entrepreneurial establishment of new social organizations, much less is known about the ability of already established organizations to innovate continuously. This is an important white space–because significant funds have become available for innovation, but the ability of smaller, younger organizations to absorb large funds is limited. Generating impact also depends on the ability of organizations to operate and innovate at the scale of the underlying social problems. The capacity of established organizations to keep innovating, therefore, is central to understanding the link between innovation and social progress.

In a recent project with the Rockefeller Foundation* we explored what enables organizational capacity for continuous innovation in established social sector organizations that operate at an efficient scale delivering products and services. We undertook a literature review of the mainstream organizational and management literature on this topic, and we were amazed by both the magnitude of this research stream and the insights we gained.

First, we found that both long-term evidence from studies of social sector organizations and recent empirical evidence challenge the mantra that more innovation is better. Second, we found that many of the assumptions about innovations in the social sector may be misleading. And third, we discovered that pushing innovation can stifle progress just as much as it can enable it.

This is an excerpt from the full article, which can be found here.

*Christian Seelos and Johanna Mair, “What Determines the Capacity for Continuous Innovation in Social Sector Organizations?” Stanford PACS Report to the Rockefeller Foundation, January 2012.
Stanford Social Innovation Review

Stanford Social Innovation Review

Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) is published by the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University. It seeks to advance, educate, and inspire the field of social innovation by seeking out, cultivating, and disseminating the best in research- and practice-based knowledge. SSIR informs and inspires millions of social change leaders from around the world and from all sectors of society—nonprofits, business, and government. With webinars, conferences, magazines, online articles, podcasts, and more, SSIR bridges research, theory, and practice on a wide range of topics, including human rights, impact investing, and nonprofit business models.

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