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Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Rob Wassel Responds

One of our speakers at the #InnovationInMission live web event (watch the video here) was Rob Wassel, Executive Director of the Seeds Global Innovation Lab and Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer for Pioneers. He shared a case study on how Pioneers navigated the process of implementing Design Thinking; which became the genesis of Seeds. While we answered a variety of questions right after his presentation, many more were left unanswered. Here are some follow-up answers from Rob to support your innovation work.

How should mission organizations change our recruitment practises (or not) to enhance innovation?
We must first acknowledge and accept that creativity and innovation can and will come from all levels of an organization. As such, we desire to tap the collective creativity and intelligence of the entire organization. When we’re able to push past a bias of “looking for innovative people,” it will allow us to see the creativity of people more fully, and in a different way. With uncountable recruitment practises in play, I can’t say which ones need to be changed. And, as such, I’m not convinced that a change in recruitment practises “enhance innovation.” Rather, I’d encourage innovation and allow what needs to emerge, including a novel manner in which we recruit. 

How do we create buy-in for innovative ideas in a global organization?
Creating buy-in for innovation is not unlike creating buy-in for any other significant change in an organization. It’s essential that we help people understand what it means to be innovative. So often, the word “innovation” is thrown around without clarifying what it means. At Seeds, we find that having a common language surrounding innovation is one of the greatest gifts we can provide for employees and executives alike. Secondly, leaving innovation as a nebulous concept will be the detriment of the company’s buy-in. Utilizing a process for innovation, whether it’s Design Thinking or another altogether, enables employees to become familiar with what it means (and just as importantly, does not mean) to be innovative. Leaders must capitalize upon our “early adopters,” helping them to evangelize the idea of deliberately pursuing innovation. From there, structuring a process for change in the organization will drive a new company culture that’s conducive to accepting innovative ideas. 

We like to say that innovation “buy-in” comes from pain or pleasure. Pleasure being the hope of a better future, (i.e. Kingdom meta-narrative). Only when the pain is so great, or the promise of a better future overwhelms us, will we be willing to leave our habitual ways of thinking and doing. Innovation is fun to talk about, as long as we’re talking about others. But when innovation rests on the doorstep of what we’ve spent years building and creating, our tendency is to anchor ourselves to the past. Innovation is threatening. Buy-in for innovation must come from a deep willingness to die to ourselves and what we’ve created in order to realize the higher good, that God want’s us to discover. 

What are some ways that those of us in developing nation contexts can practically incorporate innovation?
One of the greatest challenges that we face in the “innovation” space is the defining of the term. We find that empowering people to feel the freedom to “be innovative” only goes so far. While people may feel the freedom to create, they rarely take time from their daily tasks to make it happen. Consequently, a great gift you can give to a team in a developing nation is to carve out time specifically for you as a team to discuss ideas. The first few times that you do, it will undoubtedly be awkward, but push through it. What you’ll find is that over time, employees will recognize that you (the leader) are doing this to drive acceptance of ideas and creativity on the team. They’ll see your heart. They’ll see your passion. At the end of the day, you want them to see clearly that you’re devoted to seeing your mission complete. The best way to do that will not come from something you’ve already tried, but by something you will one day do. Because we believe that Design Thinking is a low-barrier, easy access model of innovation, the team at Seeds Global Innovation Lab have dedicated their focus on leveraging and teaching that model. Begin reading about and applying low-risk challenges through a Design paradigm and you’ll be surprised how far you get!

With the acceleration of the speed of change, what are some key resources you would recommend for us to stay informed?
While I read a great deal from magazines and periodicals, many of them are opinionated and quite secular. Nevertheless, they are helpful to better understand culture, economics and government. Some of my top magazine reads are MIT Sloan Management Review, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Entrepreneur, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and The Economist. Brett King’s book, Augmented is a great read as well. Research the idea of “Social Acceleration” to better understand how society is in a state of hyper-speed. 

Innovation is disruptive by design – what are your thoughts on creating a buffer between a highly creative design space and critical core systems where untested changes can cause ripple effects that take huge energy to recover?
Some would argue that innovation should take place in a sterilized environment in which innovation’s effect will be limited so as to protect the core business. This is not always bad, yet can often be rooted in conservatism – or even fear. In the Design Thinking process, the final stage is Testing, in which the team receives in-depth feedback around the “solution.” This ignites a process of iterative refining that gets the “solution” closer to what the end-user really needs and wants. The Testing stage provides a buffer so as to not affect critical systems while simultaneously delivering a solution that will meet the needs of the end-user. Conservatism calls for protecting the core business from disruption. Innovation pushes the boundaries, even at a risk, for greater success in the future. It is with certainty that we can say that a business will not be transformed by doing what they’ve always done; it will come by doing something they’ve, generally, never done. A wonderful trait of Design Thinking is that it allows for iterative testing of prototypes in an way that, if done well *(continually testing with one’s “end-users” to gain more insights) will create less of a ripple effect on the financial model or typical flow of business. I’m not suggesting it is easy, however, I would not recommend isolating innovation in a “lab” as a protective mechanism. There is a whole science behind your question. I would recommend further researching “the back end of innovation.”

Could you give us examples of your team's greatest innovation?
It is important to define the idea of "our team's greatest innovations." The Seeds team is not the team that creates innovations, rather our team facilitates others to do so. As such, we've facilitated several internal projects with Pioneers. In doing so, Seeds lab facilitates those teams to discover solutions to their own challenges. They create solutions through the innovation (Design Thinking) process. Seeds is the guide on that journey that provides them with the tools and resources to both innovate around a single challenge and have the capacity to apply those learnings for future challenges. Due to proprietary restrictions, we cannot speak about projects we've done with external clients; several of which were outstanding innovations. While limited in scope now, our website will be updated at the end of May to include some of the organizations we've served.

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