Episode 56 – Innovation and Creating a Culture of Innovation

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Episode 56 – Innovation and Creating a Culture of Innovation

journal with "write ideas" on the cover | Innovation and Creating a Culture of Innovation | Sideways8

My guest on the show today is Jesse Lane. Jesse is the Chief Marketing Officer of Pure Charity in Bentonville Arkansas and is a husband and father of two girls. He has been in digital marketing for over 10 years and in the nonprofit space for the last 6 years. Jesse and the team over at Pure Charity have recently published a new report called State of Good 2018, an honest look at the health of the nonprofit sector.

Highlights from this Conversation

  • Report showed that nonprofits aren’t being innovative
    • 2.91 out of 5
  • Follow along at purecharity.org/gpgm
  • Three ways a nonprofit can create a more innovative culture
    • Define and empower innovation
      • What is it?
      • How will you do it?
      • Innovation is something that is making needed change and solving problems.
      • Everyone is invited to be innovative and creative
      • You need a structure for how you go about innovation
    • Invest in a sandbox or innovation lab
      • Time
        • Set aside time to be thoughtful and dig deep into a problem
        • 10% of all staff time be dedicated to this type of work. (every Friday afternoon for example)
      • Budget
        • Ability to fund innovative ideas.
      • Space
        • Creative space for thinking, dreaming, planning
    • Celebrate success and failures along the way
      • Tell stories of innovation
        • Look at your history
        • Origin story
        • Partner organizations

Interview Transcript

Adam: [00:09] Hi, and welcome to the Good People, Good Marketing Podcast, a podcast about digital marketing and how to make it better so that good people and good organizations can have good marketing as well. I’m your host, Adam Walker, co-founder of Sideways Eight, a digital marketing agency and 48in48, a nonprofit dedicated to hosting events that build forty-eight websites for forty-eight nonprofits in forty-eight hours.


[00:29] My guest today is Jesse Lane; I’m having Jesse back. Jesse is the chief marketing officer of Pure Charity in Bentonville, Arkansas and is a husband and father of two girls. He’s been in digital marketing for over ten years and in the nonprofit space for the last six years. Jesse and the team over at Pure Charity have recently published a new report called “State of Good 2018”: An honest look at the Health of the Nonprofit Sector and that report is going to be the basis of our conversation today. So Jesse, thanks for joining the show.


Jesse: [01:00] Thanks for having me, Adam. I’m so excited, I’m dancing to your intro music, I’m ready to go.


Adam: [01:06] Yeah, I love the intro music. It’s got that [unclear 01:08] feel. I kind of get going during it. I have to be careful not to start being loud or anything and it pumps me up for the conversation. It’s great, it’s good.


Jesse: [01:18] It’s pump up music.


Adam: [01:19] I love it. So, I’m going to let you lead this conversation. It’s a little bit of a different conversation. Part one, we talked about some of the first lessons from this report that you put together, “State of Good 2018” report. Now we’re going to talk about, I believe, innovation and creating a culture of innovation among nonprofits. So I’m gonna let you lead. I’m going to chime in with some questions here and there and try to sound intelligent and I hopefully we can have some good conversation here.


Jesse: [01:46] Awesome, I’m excited. Yeah, just feel free to jump in and interrupt because I could talk all day about this, but thanks Adam for the introduction.


Adam: [01:53] Yeah, no problem.


Jesse: [01:56] Yeah, that’s right. Okay, well so, “State of Good,”you mentioned that report and that’s why we’re talking about this because we saw in the report that nonprofit leaders and practitioners felt like the sector as a whole, nonprofits, weren’t being super innovative and so that’s concerning and we want to talk about it. Specifically, the sector scored two point nine one out of five when it comes to just rating how we’re doing in innovation altogether. And so if you want to follow along by the way, you can download the “State of Good”. I created a landing page for listeners to the podcast. It’s just at purecharity.org/gpgm, and you can download the “State of Good” there and follow along while you listen. But I’d like to share today three steps how a nonprofit — of any size really — can take to create a more innovative culture, but first before I do that, I actually like to just talk about why I think this is so important.


Adam: [02:56] Yeah, sounds great, man. I’m right there with you.


Jesse: [03:02] Okay, so yeah, I mean first of all, besides just the scores of the “State of Good” that said people were concerned about innovation and didn’t feel like the sector was doing a great job. I mean, that’s one indicator that we should be thinking about this, talking about it so that was really affirmation though for me because this is something I’ve been passionate about a long time. This is something that I believe is a serious issue we need to be discussing and working on as a sector. And so first of all, working at Pure Charity here, I get to work with nonprofits of all types and sizes, helping them grow in different ways and I’ve just come to realize that this is a universal need. This is something that organizations of all sizes and all types are struggling with and need to find breakthrough, and a lot of times they struggle with innovation for different reasons and we can talk about that later, but it is a universal need and the good news is, I guess you can say, is that it’s really at the core of who we are as nonprofit leaders, marketers, we’re change-makers and we’re part of these organizations that exist to solve problems, exist to make change and innovate and usually started through innovation, and so there’s some good news there. But I would say it gets harder once the organization gets started to continue to keep that culture as it grows for a number of reasons and so I think it’s just really, really important because that’s who we are, that’s why we exist, and really the world is changing at a rapid pace and innovation allows us to keep up, allows us to stay relevant and really not just keep up. I mean, my passion is to see nonprofits leading the way, not just trying to keep up with the status quo, but defining the status quo as Seth Godin often talks about.


Adam: [04:55] Absolutely. I love that. Yeah, I think nonprofits need to pave the way in a lot of these areas and we are, but I think we could do better, right?


Jesse: [05:04] Exactly yup, it’s a good way to put it. There’s a lot to say that’s positive. There’s good examples of innovation. There’s nonprofits who are leading the way and making great change, especially when you think about the programs and field work. There’s so many good examples, but I’m not satisfied. I want to see even more, and I think the report “State of Good” seemed to indicate that others weren’t either. They didn’t feel like we were really fully living out the innovative potential as a sector and so yeah, hopefully the three steps that I want to share can help people start to take action and really feel like they’re moving forward toward a more innovative culture at their nonprofit, because innovation can be sometimes a little bit nebulous a little bit, like, “That sounds great. I want to do that, but what do I do?”


Adam: [06:05] “What does that really mean?”, right. Let’s dig into it. What are the three steps?


Jesse: [06:12] I’ll just go through them real quick. Number one is defining and empowering innovation. You really just have to make sure you and your organization as a whole understand and are on the same page about innovation and how to define that and empower that in every staff member at the organization. So that’s number one. Number two, invest in a sandbox or an innovation lab of some kind and three, celebrating the success and failures along the way. Those are the three steps. I think we probably need to unpack those a little bit though.


Adam: [06:48] Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I love that.


Jesse: [06:52] Because that just leaves you asking a lot of questions probably. We’ll jump in here. Number one is, like I said, defining and empowering innovation and in lot of ways I think it’s redefining innovation for many organizations because there’s this connotation, there’s this association with innovation that can be unhelpful at times at nonprofits especially, so I think a lot of times there’s this reaction to the word even — innovation — the idea of it and that can be negative. For a lot of people, it’s positive, they get excited, but for some, they think, “That is only expensive and crazy tech-related type of ideas and change and we can’t really afford to do that here”. And so, I think that that keeps some nonprofits from even considering this topic and really challenging themselves because they hear innovation, they think, “Creating these massive new changes in programs and products and it’s just going to cost too much. We don’t have margin for that, we can’t get into that space.”


Adam: [08:21] Well, they’re probably [inaudible 08:23] complex technology or they think about creating an app or creating a web app or something like that, but I think innovation is much more comprehensive than that, and it really can be a lot simpler than that. I even think for myself about marketing automation and how using marketing automation for Forty-Eight in Forty-Eight really helped us to alleviate a lot of pressure on some individuals that were helping respond to nonprofits, helping them through coursework and now it’s just all automated. So we’re saving hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of man-hours by just automating that process and through a pretty simple system that’s very inexpensive.


Jesse: [08:59] That’s a great example. Yeah, I think you’re right. I think people tend to think it’s some complex technology and maybe if they’re not a tech-minded person or maybe they like the idea of new ideas and big change, but they’re not comfortable with technology or don’t feel like they’re savvy, then again, innovation may feel out of reach for them. But like you said, innovation needs to be defined as something much broader than just tech-related or expensive types of change, and so I think that’s the redefinition that needs to happen. Maybe the person listening to this podcast doesn’t feel that way about innovation; they saw the title “Innovation” and they’re listening because they liked the idea of it, but maybe there’s someone in their organization that needs to redefine it, and so maybe there’s someone else that is concerned when you start talking about innovation. It’s important to keep that in mind. Let me help kind of think through a better definition. It’s pretty simple really. I think nonprofits should just define innovation as something that is just making needed change and solving problems. It’s really that simple. Again, it doesn’t have to be tech-related, doesn’t have to be expensive. Now, I think change-making is what we do as nonprofits, so we think, “Oh, doing that every day,” but another helpful way to think about innovation is it’s something for the future, it’s something that’s not related to the here and now typically, which requires a different type of mindset that’s not dominated by the tyranny of the urgent. We’ll talk about that a little bit more in number two, but just kind of redefining innovation that way so that we don’t think that it has to be some radical new technology, that’s the first place to start and making sure that other key stakeholders, really your entire staff, understand when you talk about it, that’s what you mean by innovation. Sometimes it’s best at some organizations that have been around a long time or are just averse to change maybe to come up with a whole new word altogether, if “innovation” has baggage.


Adam: [11:27] That’s right. Improvement, you know?


Jesse: [11:32] Yeah, exactly.


Adam: [11:33] [unclear 11:33], we all do.


Jesse: [11:38] Exactly, so that’s defining it, but the next part is probably even more important and difficult and that is really empowering innovation. I would say they’re related because definition is the first way to empower it. That has to happen to empower innovation, but there’s a lot more involved I think with allowing your teams and your staff to feel empowered. Whether you’re a leader at the organization or not, I think it’s important that you communicate a message that everyone is invited to be innovative and creative and it’s not just for certain people. For example, I think sometimes organizations can think, “Innovation, that’s like creative team or the tech team, those guys. Y’all go be innovative and then the rest of the organization, we’ll cheer you on, but that’s not really our thing.” Again, I think part of that comes from a wrong definition of innovation, which we’ve covered, but it can also just be a culture that needs to shift. Or in some organizations I’ve seen where the leaders take it on themselves behind closed doors to dream and think and be innovative, and then they come out with these ideas and try and expects really and pass down these crazy new ideas to their team to go execute on, and that’s really easy to do, but it’s a recipe for disaster because your team isn’t bought in. There’s so many reasons — we won’t go down that road. But really, the key lesson here is, invite every single person in the organization, even volunteers, even donors — a huge opportunity there — all of your stakeholders in on this idea of you can be innovative, we need to be innovative and you’re empowered to think that way and be creative.


[13:54] If you’re struggling with this idea, I love the book “Creative Confidence” by David and Tom Kelley. You can check that out; it’s a good resource when it comes to just giving everyone the freedom and confidence to be creative no matter what their background or expertise is. So you’re starting to empower it by giving people the invitation. Obviously, I think leadership must model innovation and so if you feel like they’re not or you’re not as a leader, that’s obviously going to be an issue. If you’re not modeling this type of thinking and this type of work, then you’re not going to empower it. But then the last thing I would say around empowering it is you really need to put some structure around innovation and I’ll give you some specific areas for that on number two, but some sort of way or method structure for innovation at your organization is really necessary to empower people to do it. Some examples would be, maybe there’s just a certain time and place where people are dedicating themselves to thinking outside the box and coming up with innovative, future-minded ideas. It could be a monthly meeting, it could be a quarterly “Shark Tank”-style presentation where there’s people listening and others pitching ideas to them, big ideas, every quarter. If you give that kind of dedicated space on the calendar to it, then people have something to prepare for, they have something to work toward, some accountability and really just starts to show value for it. So some sort of structure for innovation is really important, and actually another way to do that is just creating a team of people that are always thinking about it. Or maybe if you’re a really small organization, maybe it’s just one person that could be the innovation champion or if it’s a team there could be the task force or brain thrust, a group of people that are always thinking about how do we make our culture more innovative, looking for opportunities to challenge people in that way. Maybe they’re the ones that the other staff present ideas to during the “Shark Tank” presentation. They present it to the innovation task force and they get to evaluate those ideas on some way. Again, putting some structure around it makes it real. It’s not just an idea now. People start to feel empowered.


Adam: [16:56] Yeah, and there’s one thing that you’ve hinted at a couple of times and several things you’ve said that I think is maybe worth noting too, which is that we have this habit —all of us in really every field, in every industry — we have this habit of working constantly and never carving out any time to actually think deeply on any one subject in any way. And I think for innovation, it really requires thoughtfulness and so there’s got to be a time where you’re not on email and you’re not in Slack and you’re not on your computer and you’re not getting blown up constantly with text messages or whatever. I mean, take a walk or do a whiteboard session or something, but I think we got to carve out time to really think.


Jesse: [17:36] That’s exactly right, and it’s like you can look at my notes or something because that is a perfect lead in to number two. Number one was defining and empowering innovation and number two I said was investing in a sandbox or this kind of lab and so let me unpack that and really there’s three ways that I’m thinking about this, and that’s in time, budget and space. And so you said time and that’s exactly right. If you don’t have time to dedicate to, like you said, thoughtfulness or innovation or activities that are really anything outside of the normal day to day work or urgency of what’s happening that day or that week, then innovation, big ideas, new things are never going to happen. It’s just not going happen, and so a good earmark for a lot of people is 10% of the time of all staff is dedicated to this type of work and innovation and so I think Google does 20% so go for that if you want to really be innovative, but I’ve been a part of teams before where we’ve said 10% of everybody’s time is dedicated to innovation, and typically what that looked like was on a Friday afternoon, after lunch, we took the next four hours — out of forty hours is 10% — we say, “Go sit somewhere different, get together or go by yourself, but in this time, you’re not working on your email, you’re not responding to urgent things. You are thinking about the future, you’re dreaming big, you’re getting creative, you’re getting inspired, and actually start doing stuff.” It’s not only a brainstorming time, although there is an aspect of that and thoughtfulness, but some of it’s actually starting to prototype and execute and plan and strategize for these ideas because that’s going to happen if any of these ideas are going to see the light of day. So, we dedicate that time to even the implementation of these ideas because they won’t happen otherwise and so that 10% was dedicated to that, and it was such a spark for people in our team and people loved it. They look forward to it, and I heard at least a couple of people tell me that all week long they thought about it, they dreamed about, it’s what got them excited to come to work, and it’s like, wow, just that 10%. And so maybe you’ve got staff that really just need that excitement again. I think there’s even added benefits besides the innovation that could come out of it.


[20:35] So that’s time, and then I mentioned budget and space. So budget is also where things become a reality. You can’t expect people to really believe that you want to be innovative if no dollars actually go toward it. I would encourage people to earmark a percentage of your annual budget for these kind of new, creative, innovative ideas and projects and then protect it. That way, if someone does have a great idea and they’re serious about it, which is what you’re hoping for, then you actually can help fund the idea. I would encourage people to think about donors in the nonprofit space. Think about donors who maybe are early adopters themselves and they think innovatively and they’re excited about these things. Go ask them to help fund this and say, “Hey, we’d like to earmark this many dollars next year for innovation. Would you help fund that?” I think a lot of donors would really get excited about that.


Adam: [21:44] I think donors love seeing nonprofits moving outside of the box, thinking outside of the traditional paradigm, and I think you’re right. I think it’s very possible that you can almost have a donors innovative fund where you say like, “Just give whatever you’re going to give and that’s going to go towards our [unclear 21:58] or whatever, and then we’re going to have this innovation fund here to go towards dreaming for the future and scaling,” and all those buzzwords that donors love. I’d be willing to bet you could really get some extra donations above and beyond doing that.


Jesse: [22:14] I really think so. I do agree with you. So that’s time, that’s budget and then space. This is a fun part. I would say every nonprofit that wants to get serious about this and their culture needs to find and dedicate some space, either a conference room or an office, even just a corner or a tub somewhere that is dedicated to this kind of innovative thinking and creative inspiration and just fill it with inspiring stuff. So, the classic Post-it Notes and whiteboards with papers of all types and markers and magazines that are inspiring, and of course you got to have good coffee — at least I do to think at all. It doesn’t have to be a huge space, but if you have a huge space, movable furniture allows people to restructure their thinking and work together in different sizes of teams. Maybe you’ve always got music playing in that room, maybe there’s a virtual reality headset in there that helps people really go to a whole other place and think outside the box. I’ve seen some incredible innovation labs and got to be a part of designing some at a previous organization, so I’ve seen it and it really does help. During that 10% of time for people, that’s a great place for them to go hang out. It’s also good to get out of the office sometimes, but even just having that in your office is like a signal to your staff that you are taking this seriously and it’s an invitation in for them to come step outside of the norm and think this way. Even if it’s as small as like a shoebox dedicated with some stuff in there and people know that, “Hey, if I’m taking this shoe box with me, I’m going to walk away and really dream big. I’m going to write down on these Post-it Notes some big ideas. I’m going to think outside the box.” That’s really the point; it’s giving dedicated space and giving people the tools to prototype. Prototyping is one of the best ways to innovate because it allows you to test in an affordable, cheap way. They can test their ideas, whether it be drawings of an app or prototyping on a whiteboard with different screens of a new website and prototyping tools can allow people to really test ideas out there with the real world in an inexpensive way and get feedback. And that is one of the best ways to start to roll out innovative ideas. It’s actually get them out there and get real world testing. So in this space, whether it’s a conference room or a box, give them the tools they need to start prototyping ideas and make them real.


[25:18] The third and final sounds really simple, but it’s not necessarily easy. This is celebrating both the successes and the failures along the way. We talked about celebration and really affirming people, but this goes for innovation as well. A great way of doing this is telling stories of innovation, and oftentimes organizations may say, “Well, I don’t see a lot of innovation at our org, and so how can I tell a story about that?” And what I encourage them to do is look at their history, look at their origin story, look at maybe even not their exact organization, but those around them and start to tell these stories of innovative ideas of nonprofits or their own team and staff getting out there and doing big things and dreaming big, and that’s just a wonderful way to celebrate it and inspire it within your team. That’s the way to start it, by celebrating. There’s lots of other things you can do. Obviously, you can provide a forum of some sort to tell these stories, to share, to celebrate, to recognize people, whether that be your email newsletter, a bulletin board of some kind where you’re highlighting these people in stories. But I think going to the next step of really getting serious about celebrating success whether that be financial rewards of some kind, a bonus, maybe a day off, getting some serious kind of incentive for people to think this way is when you might actually move a lot of your staff to action. And again, if you’re serious about this, if you agree with me that innovation is an urgent, important need then it might require that to get people to say, “I’m going to have to abandon what’s really important to me, my day-to-day work for 10% of my time. I can’t afford to do that.” But all of a sudden you’re saying, “Look, there’s some motivation here, there’s some incentive. I’m serious about this.” Then you might just get people’s attention that way and so that’s required. Your failures too, you can’t forget to do that because if you’re not recognizing and even celebrating those, then people won’t feel the permission to fail. They won’t feel the freedom to take risks, and obviously that’s important in this idea of innovation. I love this. John Maxwell says, “If you’re succeeding in everything you’re doing, then you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough and that means they’re not taking enough risks. You risk because you have something of value that you want to achieve.” I love that quote and it’s so true, so we need to be even highlighting where people went for it and maybe fell short and just not necessarily call them a failure. Maybe that’s not the right word to use in those context, but just saying, “Look, this is a part of innovation and so we gotta go for it.”


Adam: [28:31] Yeah, I totally agree with you on that. I feel like innovation is largely about trying something small and seeing if it flies or fails and then learning from that and then trying the next thing and then trying the next thing and trying the next thing and by default if you’re doing that you’re going to fail a lot and that’s fine because you learn from it and you move onto the next thing and the next, next, next.


Jesse: [28:56] Yup, that’s right. It’s a process of iteration and failing fast and forward and even if all those ten failures are on the same idea, each time you’re getting closer and closer to the win because you’re iterating, you’re changing, and if you can make those failures really small and inexpensive by prototyping, by getting feedback early, asking for people, really understanding how people are going to respond before you go invest a lot of money or time in it, that way your failures don’t hurt so bad.


Adam: [29:33] Yeah, totally agree. Let me see if I can just recap what we’ve talked about so far here. I’m taking some notes as we’re going and then maybe you can see if you can add any icing on the cake here. So your report showed that nonprofits are not really perceived as being very innovative, got a two point nine one out of five. We’ve been talking about three ways a nonprofit can create a more innovative culture. The first is to define and empower innovation, determine what it is, how you’re going to do it, and you defined innovation as something that is making needed change and solving problems. So it’s not necessarily the technology, it’s not necessarily expensive, but it is something that’s moving the ball forward to make needed change and solve a problem and everyone in an organization needs to be invited to be innovative and creative, so it’s not just the job of a creative team or technologists, but everybody in the organization needs to be involved as well.


[30:28] The next thing we talked about is investing in a sandbox or an innovative lab and the ways and the places in which to do that are time so first of all, set aside time to be thoughtful and to dig deep into a problem. You suggested 10% of all staff time could be that type of work so for example, every Friday afternoon, could be geared towards innovation. Also budgets are the ability to fund innovative ideas is important. If a team member comes up with an innovative idea, but there’s no money to fund that idea, then it’s going to fall flat and it’s going to stagger innovation within the organization. So there’s got to be money behind it even if it’s just a little bit. And then space, creating a space for thinking, dreaming, planning, collaborating, in a space that just helps people to be more creative.


[31:10] And then lastly, was to celebrate successes and failures along the way. So tell stories of innovation, either the history of your organization, your origin story, or even possibly partner organizations that are doing interesting things that are innovative and that will inspire your team to move forward and push forward as well. And then lastly making sure to celebrate failures because innovation really is about learning in small steps and baby steps and iterations, and so if we do that, we’re going to fail, we’re going to learn from those failures and then we’re going to have a good starting point to move forward into the next round of innovation to help grow the organization. So does that sound about right?


Jesse: [31:47] Yeah, that’s really good. Yeah, I think I would just add one thing to sum it up this way just to remind people this is really just the beginning of what I’ve talked about here building a foundation within your culture that allows for innovation to happen, but really executing on innovation is really the harder part, not just creating these ideas and this culture and that requires a lot of discipline. It requires discipline over a long period of time because innovation is a long term play for the future and so, I would invite people to continue to dialogue about this. You can download the “State of Good” report and read more of what we’ve said about this and get back to me and let me know what they think, how they’re seeing innovation in their organization, in others. I love to hear the stories out there from nonprofit leaders.


Adam: [32:41] Yeah, me too. Well Jesse, this has been really, really great. I appreciate your input on this. Talking about innovation’s always fun and I look forward to having you back on the show again soon.


Jesse: [32:50] Awesome. Thanks Adam, thanks for all that you’re doing.


Adam: [32:52] Yeah man, thank you buddy.


[32:58] Thanks for listening to the Good People, Good Marketing Podcast. To get more resources about digital marketing, make sure to go to goodpeoplegoodmarketing.com where you can find more podcasts, blogs, and other fun resources.


Also, if you want to find me, your host, you can find me on Twitter at @AJWalker and on my blog at adamjwalker.com where I blog about leadership, productivity, habit-building and the craziness of having five kids. Thanks and tune in next time.

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