Published: 19 March 2019

How to nurture a culture of innovation within your organisation

Innovation is an urgent and rapidly emerging priority for charities, appearing against a backdrop of both significant instability and opportunity caused by numerous highly significant external factors. Factors such as a fast changing world facing austerity and Brexit, and a sector that is increasingly under pressure from different angles.

Clearly the need to do things differently – to innovate – is greater than ever before.

There’s no need to panic though, creating a culture of innovation within your organisation is not an impossible task. In fact – there are many practical steps you can take to either start, build on existing platforms, optimise or excel – depending on where you are on your innovation journey. It all starts and ends with the biggest asset any organisation has – your people. Free them, equip them and empower them within welldefined frameworks – and you will begin to see great results.

Here are some questions you should be asking, and how to deal with them:

1. How do you define what you want from a specific innovation project and why do it?

This is a very important starting point – innovation without a clear, agreed direction is unlikely to succeed. In fact, at Flying Cars we encourage organisations to delve deep under the skin of what kind of innovation they want – process, product, market mirror or disruptive – before they start anything.

Any innovation project must start with a clear and well understood articulation of the problem you are trying to solve – and crucially – who the audience, or major stakeholders are for that problem.

A good example of this is the startup Rice Inc who are attempting to tackle rice wastage in Southeast Asia. Due to inadequate post-harvest rice drying practices, spoilage rates can reach 30% causing some farmers to live in poverty.

Four UCL students from Malaysia, Laos and Hong Kong are developing a solution that will be co-created with farmers. The social enterprise will build leading-edge drying technology on farmers’ land, enabling farmers to dry their rice for a service fee.

If we break this down to define what is wanted from this project we can say that the problem articulation here is clear – rice wastage – and we can use this to establish why we are doing the project. The audience is also clear – farmers living in poverty.

If there isn’t a clear definition of the problem and the audience is poorly defined – you need to go back to the drawing board. It’s worth putting in maximum effort upfront to increase your chances of success on any project.

2. How do you foster an innovative mindset?

There are some qualities that you need to be an effective innovation practitioner.

Being able to pull great ideas out of thin air – is not one of them! No one can do this! Innovation is a rigorous and well-defined process you need to go through – but having the right mindset initially will help.

In my experience the top qualities to nurture or unlock within your colleagues and organisation are:

Be curious – curiosity in how to do something differently will help you pinpoint problems. Most innovation will tackle an issue from a different perspective to the status quo.

Be persistent – the solution you arrive at first may not be the best execution for the audience once you have done some initial lean testing – be prepared to take a knock back or two. Dubsmash – a very popular lip syncing app was the third iteration of the product  in the market.

Be networked – to make your ideas come to life you will need allies, cheerleaders, collaborators and dissenters. Relentlessly build your internal and external networks and be open minded about where these relationships might lead.

Be audience-led – innovation must start with insight from your audience. So if you’re trying to create a new supporter-engagement proposition for your supporters – find out about their lives first. You can’t design a winning proposition if you don’t understand the lives of your audience.

3. What barriers are you likely to encounter when innovating?

Introducing new ideas to an organisation means you will undoubtedly encounter barriers to execution. The reasons for this are multi-faceted and worthy of a paper in themselves.

It’s advisable if you are working in innovation or want to introduce more innovative working practices to your current organisation to consider how you can pre-empt some of these issues. I have personally encountered nearly all of them and they can all be resolved. Deciding what kind of innovation and risk levels are right for your organisation first is key and then working on building a supportive culture internally is the most important work you can do. That culture needs to be open to questions being asked about established practices and products, open to failure and managed risk, have good communication between teams and needs to be prepared to work at speed in crucial moments. There are some fantastic tips in this article from the Harvard Business Review.

4. How should we view failures?

This is a very simple question. Failures are an essential part of the innovation process. There can be no progress without them and anyone that has created anything big, worthwhile, life-changing and life-saving has experienced failure. It should not be hidden away, dressed up as something else or viewed as career damaging. And you don’t have to be a comedian that has died on stage to have experienced it. Without failure it’s unlikely you are doing anything radically different. You are simply optimising your current portfolio. Many people that are now classified as successful have experienced failure – the key element to working well with failure is to learn from it and bake in the learnings to your next iteration or project.

Henry will be speaking at the upcoming CharityComms ‘Innovation mindset’ seminar, details of which are here. 

Photo by Rawpixel.com.


Henry Rowling, co-founder, Flying Cars

Henry Rowling is co-founder of Flying Cars - an innovation, insight and strategy collective for charities and cause-driven brands. Henry has over a decade of experience working in house for some of the UK’s leading charities in strategy, innovation, product development and digital.