In today’s world there is even more pressure on local communities to creatively tackle their own problems. While successes have been highlighted including social innovations like microfinance, we need to look at addressing the operational challenges of bringing about meaningful change in ways that community-based organizations can increasingly create more valuable social innovations with greater frequency. While much can be said about the challenges of resource-constrained organizations working in this space, we know that with constraint there is creativity as well as a need for a new ‘open’ approach to social innovation. By ‘opening up’ the social innovation process with new thinking, the efficacy of a local approach will increase and barriers will be overcome with collective action. However, we need to know the barriers that we will face. Challenges are found at both the organization and city level and they are as likely to be analytical and administrative in nature as they could be political and social.
Here we speak to some of the barriers to social innovation and some ways to address those challenges and open up more possibilities.
Social challenges are difficult because they are multifaceted in nature. As a result, it is hard to define and isolate problems and symptoms as the factors interrelate and often leave a “chicken and egg” problem about the causality of the current state.
Solution: Grow Diverse Networks
Expertise and resources are needed to effectively tackle any social challenge. Multifaceted issues will require cooperation across multi-stakeholder environments. This will necessitate effective network management as part of the social innovation process and the strategic deployment of your personal and organizational social capital to support change in a complex environment. These networks will buoy you through the valleys and troughs of change. Spanning boundaries will always be needed as a social innovation doesn’t fit in a single silo.
Problem: Risk Aversion
Funders, governments, and highly accountable local organizations have very low appetites for failure and yet innovation involves failure. Adding further strain is that in social challenges peoples’ lives will depend on the reliability of the social innovation you create. Some things that work, won’t scale adding to the challenges and risk aversion.
Solution: Bring Failure to Bare
Failure is an acceptable way to learn and must be brought to the forefront as you innovate. Acknowledge failure as a likely outcome. At the same time, it is important to notify your networks of the need for failure to access financial and other support needed for the measured learning of social innovation. In this way failure becomes a measured outcome instead of “vanity” metrics that may or may not address the issue.
While there is a common desire to develop the most effective solutions to societal problems leaders and managers are encouraged to keep projects in their own domains and silos. Further, they are encouraged to hide solutions and tout success, while at the same time hiding failure for self-preservation. With hidden failures the opportunities for others to learn from the failures is non-existent.
Solution: Encourage Competition and Cooperation with Abundance and Conveners
Scarcity thinking will encourage people to get into their silos and reduce learning. Encourage abundance thinking as surely the challenges that are being addressed are larger than anyone organization could solve at scale. Government has an important role to be a convener, but should follow the lead of the innovators. Government can broaden thinking and data and encourage competition and cooperation to increase the quality of solutions. At the same time, acknowledge that buying may be easier than making; so once a solution is found, encouraging adoption can bring scale faster and free up other resources for other challenges.
Problem: Lack of Awareness and Clinging to Professionalism
The largest form of competition in change is the status quo. Most professionals are unaware of the on the ground challenges that the current delivery of service face. Many in the community are unaware of new thinking and strategies that come from direct daily interaction with a problem. Doing things the way they have always been done carries the day.
Solution: Build the Community and Political Will for Innovation
We encourage all social innovators to take the first risk to demonstrate they have skin in the game and are co-risking in both creating successes and failures. These financial resources for “social” R & D can prime the pump for others to follow who may sit in more professional realms away from the problem. At the same time, find vocal advocates for public and private conversations to face opposition and overcome risk aversion in the community with knowledge and reason. With primary and secondary research identify and then publicize barriers for change. To create abundance and a ground swell of change, invite outside players to review your work and provide you “cover-fire” for change.
With new ways, new talent will be needed. To scale up and meet the challenges “positive deviants” aka change makers will be needed in increasing supply. New expertise will be needed certainly as well. But we know that talent is scarce.
Solution: Invite the Exceptional
A local strategy of identifying and incubating local exceptional actors will be a needed course of action for social innovation to take root in your community. Even supporting these change makers in taking small risks to succeed and fail will help cultivate and develop talent. Further, with the open approach and new thinking you invite the possibility of importing new expertise into the organization or community. Invite the exceptional in both local and imported talent with cultural norms and values for excellence, inclusion, and diversity of background and thought. Further, with importing talent you can encourage new cooperation. .
Most people can identify a challenge. Some can address it with a solution and a business model. But few can scale a solution in a repeatable way for exponential impact. Money, regulation, standardization, prior successes, risk shifting and more get in the way of scaling social innovations.
Solution: Build Capacity
Encourage smaller providers with growing funding pools and changing access to procurement streams. Change the thinking of providers on where risks should lie including helping providers by publicly owning the risk of scaling solutions. For existing providers require performance measurement to begin making space, while at the same time sunsetting performance measurement for new solutions to further shift risks. Even invite new providers to compete by removing unnecessary rules that prevent small providers from entering the system as they are the more nimble innovators.
There is no single barrier to be overcome when bringing social innovation to address challenges in your local community. By acknowledging the barriers upfront, building networks, communicating failure, inviting competition, and inviting the exceptional we can start to melt barriers, span them, or even break them down to open up space for new social innovations to take root and scale.