Innovation. A term that’s become widely used across the third sector.
Social enterprises throw it around to show they are at the cutting edge. Large charities employ Chief Innovation officers. Smaller charities talk about their innovation in the hope that it will help them win funding.
But there is a way to escape the world of pseudo and wannabe innovation.
It’s called disruption.
It’s like innovation on red bull.
If you work for a charity or social business this article will challenge you to go beyond your definition of innovation and embrace the idea of disruption.
What is Disruption?
In commercial terms, disruption redefines the market. Here’s some examples.
In third sector terms it redefines solutions to social problems. In doing so it creates waves of change to how people think and behave, not just the incremental ripples of innovation.
Disruptive innovations don’t have to rule the market. They just have to change the market and force others to follow suit.
While opinions vary on how genuinely innovative the Third Sector is, it is unusual to find examples of disruptive thinking being used to fundamentally change services and how they solve problems.
Its more usual to find services that keep on doing what they’ve always done, however much they may want to innovate.
How much appetite do you or your organisation have for disruption? Here’s five questions to stimulate your disruptive juices.
1. Are You Ready to ‘Speculate Like Google?’
Google has fundamentally changed the way that people find information and do business. One of the reasons for its success is its readiness to speculate, or take moonshots. To try experimental projects that will become either industry-changing success stories or total failures.
Google’s culture supports this. But what about yours? How much does your charity support you to get outside of your well-intentioned box and experiment with ideas that might turn out to be complete game changers for the people you support?
This doesn’t mean investing money in pilot projects, but it does mean finding ways around lack of reserves or unrestricted income and using lo-fi ways to test and iterate radical ideas for services and products. It means having the guts to see see see if you can make a disruptive landing on the moon.
2. Are You Ready to Fight Risk Aversion?
It’s a big deal. Your charity’s constitution probably states that your raison d’être is to further the advancement of certain kinds of vulnerable people (or something similar). However, this is often interpreted as ‘better not risk doing anything that might not be 100% safe’.
There is a sound ethical argument here. If you’re helping people with mental health issues then you probably shouldn’t be taking them to see horror movies or telling them that you think it’s ok if they stop taking their medication. But what about when mental health patients start communicating with services via social media? When does playing it safe and ignoring new possibilities become a stifling default that stops your services improving?
There are plenty of good arguments about how a fear-based language of risk is stifling creativity and innovation in the third sector workplace. Are you ready to challenge convention on what is a risk and what isn’t? Are you ready to push the boundaries so far that you disrupt and redefine them?
3. Are You Prepared to Charge Your Service Users?
If you had a service that you were unable to sustain through grants or donations would you consider charging your users for it? What if they would rather pay money than have the service withdrawn? What if its value to them made it worth paying for?
In some ways there is nothing new in this. It’s what’s happened under the personalisation agenda where users are allocated a personal budget by their Council and then choose the services they want to spend it on.
But what if your users were ineligible for personal budgets and were willing to spend their own money on your service because it made enough of a difference to their quality of life?
What if you ran a digital service that your users were happy to pay, say £20/month for, and you could reach 500 users a month? That’s £10,000 income per month.
If you’re delivering personalised services then you’re already doing this.
If the user is willing and can afford it, and you’re delivering good value, then why not provide pay-for services or products? Isn’t this a win-win?
How do you know your users won’t pay? Have you considered it as a business would? Do you understand your market? Have you actually tested out what your users would choose?
Charging service users may be the last third sector cultural no-no to be disrupted. But what if…?
4. Are You Ready to Let The Techies Lead?
You have a great idea for an app or website that will help your service users.
So you raise some funds, hire a tech team and tell them what to build. They dutifully do it and the app/website flops.
This is what happens most of the time in the third sector. Perhaps even more worryingly, this is still the default way of doing digital for many charities.
How about doing it differently? How about defining the problem to your tech team’s designers and asking them to lead the solution finding process. How about asking them to use you and your knowledge to help them recommend a technically informed solution?
This might sound radical but it is starting to happen. Doc Ready was led by the business and tech guys. Mark Brown led the research and user insight but it was Enabled by Design and FutureGov who led the decision making, with Mark’s insight.
Other organisations are starting to offer disruptive services that work on this basis too.
5. Are You Ready to Embrace Design Thinking?
It’s been around the commercial sector for years. But design thinking – how to design better services and products – is filtering its way into the third sector through public and digital service channels, and resources like this and this.
As design thinking arrives it’s capturing the imagination of some of the sector’s everyday designers, those workers who usually lead incremental service development. It’s giving them the methods they need to design more powerful and genuinely effective services. These methods include lo-fi tools and techniques like personas, cool walls, paper prototyping and customer journey mapping that shape a structured design process.
We all have potential to use design thinking, we just need to learn it and try applying it in disruptive ways.
The Final Word
I hope you’ve now got some ideas to stimulate your appetite for disruption. This article is a starting point for showing you ways you can feed it.
But please don’t feed it for the sake of feeding it. Disruption is not a right. See where services are failing or where a radical idea could significantly improve people’s lives and direct your disruption there. Be smart, then take a big bite.