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What is the relationship between strategy and innovation? Q & A with innovation specialist Christian Graham

28 March 2019

Because innovation can be used by any team, whatever their disciple or objectives, there can be clear gains by looking at innovation strategically.

To understand this further we asked innovation specialist and Friends of the Earth’s former digital transformation specialist Christian Graham to tell us his views on the relationship between strategy and innovation.

How would you define innovation? And what’s the difference between innovation and having a good, new idea?

I like George Couros’ (author of The Innovator’s Mindset) definition of innovation best:

A way of thinking that creates something new and better.”

It’s simple and it covers the key things I believe separate innovation from concepts like ideas, creativity and getting things done.

Ideas are necessary for innovation but, without execution and a process for testing and evaluation, they aren’t innovation.

In innovation, ideas don’t always have to be new or even that good as they will be tested and the assumption is that they will evolve anyhow. Sometimes the application of an old successful idea from an unrelated field to a new one can result in the best kind of innovation.

Creativity often results in something novel, but it isn’t always proved to be objectively better.

Lastly, business as usual isn’t innovation — although it may include processes to ensure a certain amount of it.

How can innovation help grow an organisation, in terms of brand, income, supporters or service users (or all of the above)?

I’d suggest that innovation is the only way an organisation can grow and thrive in the longer term. Kodak is the unfortunate poster child of what happens if you don’t innovate. In their case, they had the technology but failed to innovate their business model. We humans like new and better things. They will always get our attention — and, if they create value, our time and money too.

From a supporter or service user perspective, taking a design thinking approach to innovation where end users can be involved in the entire process (from problem definition to prototyping) should result in a much better solution that meets their needs — and hopefully higher levels of engagement.

The Kodak logo

In terms of income, some innovation tools, such as a social business model canvas, can help you consider non-traditional charity sources of revenue including affiliates, re-bundling or social franchising. Process innovation in the form of automation could enable you to capture more value from an existing source of income.

Lastly, all of these will contribute to building people’s experience of your brand. Doing some types of innovation can create a certain amount of PR — and help with testing an idea in the real world.

One example of this was our early experiments in augmented reality. Supporters could point their phone’s camera at certain adverts and see the impact manufacturing was having on communities in Southeast Asia. The app also gave supporters a series of actions they could take. It wasn’t as polished as we would have liked, but it did get significant coverage in the tech press and help apply pressure on industry giants to change.

What are some of the key responsibilities when you’re tasked with using innovation?

Question: Will this help achieve our organisational goal?For most of my career, I’ve had to balance the need to innovate in the areas I’m responsible for with managing business as usual. Each innovation I’ve introduced has usually required a degree of managing organisational change too. Figuring out how to divide my time between each of those areas was crucia

Here in the disruptive innovation team at Friends of the Earth we focus innovation on projects that fulfil three criteria: 1) mobilise grassroots support, 2) achieve our organisational goal and 3) where innovation is a just solution. The areas where they overlap can be quite small — and that’s deliberate so we don’t get pulled down interesting rabbit holes.

Personally, I am looking for at least a 10 times the impact return on investment. In 2018, I identified around a dozen problems at Friends of the Earth, which if solved could result in an equivalent impact of £1m or more — and then I tried to tackle each of them in the space of a month or so. They ranged from improving diversity in staff recruitment to reducing the costs of one of our fulfilment processes.

Related to this, another question I like to ask is: “Am I uniquely placed to progress this?” If not, then perhaps I can support someone else who is a better fit.

“Is this the right time?” is another filter. Hype and excitement around a technology can mean you are too early to get the best from it.  For example, I’ve seen at least three generations of virtual reality in my career — each offering a substantial improvement on the previous version and getting a little closer to achieving mainstream cut through. Arguably, virtual reality is still not quite there.

What are the trademarks of an organisation that is using innovation strategically?

A clear plan for how innovation will help reach the organisation’s goals. This could include:

A core innovation strand which includes testing and optimisation of your existing organisation’s process and products. This alone won’t avoid a Kodak moment. It may even enhance the risk.

A proactive approach to avoid being disrupted by competitors and new technology and tackle big challenges. One option might be a separate team (as at Friends of the Earth) or a skunkworks around a particular challenge. There are strong reasons why this should be a separate unit – not least because organisations often develop something akin to an immune response to radically new solutions and approaches and can kill them with bureaucracy.

Skunkworks –
A skunkworks project is a project developed by a small and loosely structured group of people who research and develop a project primarily for the sake of radical innovation.

A bias towards placing lots of small bets in terms of time and money on experiments rather than relying on polishing a really good but expensive and untested idea. Progression to pilots and scaling as a separate venture and integrating into business as usual only happens if a trial meets agreed upon criteria.

Drawing on trends and approaches in the commercial space and figuring out how they can be applied to the charity sector.  For example, at Friends of the Earth as part of our digital transformation work, we realised we need to understand the startup sector better, and so instigated our startup in residence programme.

Setting goals around staff building their personal networks. The size and diversity of your own personal network is a key indicator of innovation.”

The Pi symbol

An organisation that celebrates the right kind of failure. Failure when trying something new and possibly better that builds on previous learning is good failure. Repeating and failing to learn from the mistakes of the past because of poor knowledge management isn’t.

A recruitment, on-boarding process and development programme that favours the building of strong internal networks to enable cross-fertilisation of ideas and differing perspectives. That could include recruiting and developing Pi shaped staff (those who are strong and deep in at least two unrelated domains), an internal secondment programme and/or a tour of duty approach to expose staff to different parts of the organisation.

What should charities be looking for in terms of successful use of innovation?

Innovation is a numbers game. There are things you can do to improve the odds but it basically comes down to how many things you try. Success looks like clearly articulated challenges or problems and a high rate of testing ideas and rolling out what works.

Longer term, it means gaining a reputation for taking ideas through to fruition. Lastly, some of your approaches and projects should challenge the status quo and result in the change you want to see in the world.

Not all charities have the means to a discreet innovation budget, and technology can be prohibitively expensive. How can smaller charities keep on top of new developments and still benefit from them?

If you have an idea that you think might help, go out and talk to your users and communities about it as soon as possible. You will often learn more in a five-minute phone call than in an hour around a desk with colleagues or researching on the internet. Early in our solar for schools campaign, I made a point of speaking to those responsible for building and energy management in a number of local authorities. I was quickly disabused of the notion that there was anything like a standard response to the opportunity of solar.

When developing a new product, service or market what should we be looking for in terms of success and failure? As we go through the process, how do we keep on track?

Indicators of success can take many forms.

I make a point of talking to people from all walks of life about my work – and gauging their reaction and listening to suggestions. Essentially, all feedback is good – and I would prioritise feedback from external users and funders over colleagues. Energy and excitement from a variety of people or a particular audience is often a good indicator you are onto something.

Being invited to submit funding proposals for prototypes can be another great indicator.

Otherwise, any movement in the right direction using traditional metrics like email sign ups to hear more feedback  is always encouraging.

I really like the business model canvas as a tool for keeping on track. If you’re in danger of not being able to see the wood for the trees, then going back to your canvas and reminding yourself what you were trying to achieve through testing can help a lot.

Find out how Christian’s work is shaping the future of Friends of the Earth at

This case study is part of CharityComms’ Innovation guide.

Christian Graham

innovation specialist and former digital transformation manager, Friends of the Earth

Alexander Scott

brand and content consultant, freelance

Alex Scott is a strategic communications and content specialist with 18 years hands on experience with charities including Macmillan Cancer Support, Breast Cancer Care, Samaritans, NSPCC and Anthony Nolan.