Social Enterprise Innovation

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October 17, 2011

Congratulations to the Columbia Business School for hosting the 2011 Social Enterprise Conference. Six hundred enlightened attendees witnessed a unique lineup of keynote speakers and breakout sessions. Social enterprises are challenged to create new business models to capture social, economic and environmental value. The conference focused on supporting innovation, promoting sustainability, advancing technology, and building communities. Key Takeaways from my breakout session, “Designing a Better Social Enterprise,” were:

Congratulations to the Columbia Business School for hosting the 2011 Social Enterprise Conference.  Six hundred enlightened attendees witnessed a unique lineup of keynote speakers and breakout sessions. Social enterprises are challenged to create new business models to capture social, economic and environmental value.  The conference focused on supporting innovation, promoting sustainability, advancing technology, and building communities.

Key takeaways from my breakout session, “Designing a Better Social Enterprise,” (download slides here):

  • Creating a social enterprise is more daunting than creating a non-profit or a for-profit firm.  The hurdle is higher.  Earning money in a capitalistic way with a mechanism that also generates social benefits takes special skills.  Social enterprises need systematic innovation even more than the others.
  • Innovation has a tainted image thanks to many myths such as “outside the box” thinking.  Social Enterprises need to embrace methods with documented results.  Check the data!
  • One such method is Systematic Inventive Thinking.  For thousands of years, innovators have been using five simple patterns in their inventions, usually without knowing it.  These patterns are coded into products and services like DNA that can be extracted and reapplied to other products and services.  Professor Jacob Goldenberg identified these patterns in his research: Subtraction, Task Unification, Multiplication, Attribute Dependency, and Division. You can use these to create new Social Enterprise models.
  • Learning how to innovate means retraining your brain to work in a new way.  Good innovators are two way innovators.  They can flex between PROBLEM-TO-SOLUTION and SOLUTION-TO-PROBLEM creative thinking.  The key is to activate what humans already do well: going from the configuration to the market benefit.  It is called Function Follows Form.
  • Social and non-profit enterprises need to build competencies around innovation just as multinationals do.  Innovation starts at the bottom, not at the top.  It is a skill, not a gift.  Train it at the grassroots level and work its way up the organization.  Keep the CEO out of it!
  • Creativity methods based wildly divergent thinking where participants must “defer judgment” tend to inhibit ideas, not promote them as previously thought.  Better approaches use small teams, usually pairs or triads, to apply structured approaches.
  • Organizations without resources will not have the same market impact as organizations with resources. Small firms need a vital pipeline of new ideas and the ongoing ability to keep it full if they want a higher share of philanthropic support.
  • Involve your constituents in innovation workshops.  Invite diverse, multi-disciplined teams.  Make sure the participants are motivated and committed.

I want to recognize and give special thanks to Sandra Navalli, Senior Director of the Social Enterprise Program, for inviting me to speak at this dynamic event.