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Transforming how we "do" innovation

By: Jessica Hamer
On: 5th September 2014
Organisation name: CDI Apps for Good

Apps for Good is a charity with innovation and evaluation in its DNA. However, as we grew three-fold, experiencing a 40,000% growth rate in students, we learned that the instinctive, organic approach to innovation that worked when we were a tiny team focused on implementing a single, central innovation didn’t fit as easily as we became a larger organisation. Our growth meant we needed to ensure innovation was embedded into every workstream, without losing sight of our core mission or alienating our users and partners through initiative overload.

Like most organisations, our challenge was to achieve a balance, namely between the competing demands of delivering good results in established workstreams while reaching new audiences with fresh content and via new partnerships, all whilst keeping existing users happy and engaged, and the organisation oriented toward our core mission. We knew there can be too much of a good thing, and constant innovation can lead to breakdowns in the daily running of the organisation and in relationships with users, even as too little leads to irrelevance and fossilization.

As we moved from being a tiny startup to a growing organisation, our MD Debbie Forster’s core challenge was to put in place working principles and systems to take us to the next level. After reviewing our approach in introducing a new product innovation involving SME partnerships in the business development area, she began thinking about how to systematize innovation and build a process that the whole organisation might use, looking to the private sector for examples of best practice (See also How Product Development can support Fundraising).

Debbie spoke to our partners and advisors, particularly about their maturity and innovation lifecycles, to draft a way of conceptualising innovation within our charity. It was important to take the best thinking from industry but to put it into a charitable context. What emerged was a 4 step process that Debbie then worked collaboratively with the team to evolve, not as a rigid structure, but as a reference point for our short, medium and long term planning, and a living, breathing process, subject to regular testing and refining. (See diagram below.)

Innovation lifecycle

Succinctly, our innovation process is focused on fostering quality, sustainability and scalability in all aspects of our organisation’s work, while balancing time and investment restraints, especially as we are a small, lean charity, and can’t afford to lose sight of either our bottom line, or the core, everyday responsibilities that keep us running today. We use evaluation to enable us to make evidence based decisions in deciding what innovations work for us, making clear criteria for success the most important factor in innovating at Apps for Good.

The biggest challenge for us as we grow is continuing to manage the balance between generating and trialling new ideas to drive growth, and putting our time and energy toward tried and true techniques and products. Members of the team need to know they can introduce new thinking, to innovate within their area, but not take on so much that it negatively impacts either their own work or that of other teams.

Addressing this, the process encourages balance in work flow. Roughly 50% of the team’s time is allocated to building tried and tested innovation into our core programme delivery in what we call the “Embed & systemise” phase. In this phase we focus on delivery to increase quality and efficiency and to work toward making that process or product scalable for the whole organisation. Those more established, systemised and scalable processes should take approximately 20% of our time. With this strong foundation in place, team members are then looking at innovation. Each of our teams spends about 10% of its time working on smaller, more experimental work with key partners. This more contained work allows greater risk to be taken, again with a focus on surfacing learning from both the successes and “failures”. More successful R&D work will then flow into the Pilot and Scoping phase, with 20% of time being used to pilot and launch new products and processes, ensuring key learnings are gathered.

Once the pilot is deemed successful it will then move into our core programme offering. Throughout the whole process evaluation is woven in; driven by data and feedback from users and the team, ensuring if and when things should be stopped or moved onto the next stage or even pulled back into an earlier phase to be refined or better understood.

Finally, as well as planning, implementing and reviewing our work in each team or workflow, it is important to review our work holistically to ensure there is equal balance across the organisation, and that our new ideas help us achieve our core mission, as this is how our users and partners will experience our work. This is particularly important in our work with education partners. With so many new teachers and schools joining us, we must remember Apps for Good itself is a new and different model from the outset, requiring considerable changes to what teachers need to learn in terms of skills, knowledge and teaching methodology in a busy school environment. Too many changes, however innovative on our part, can seem overwhelming for teachers, so we work hard to ensure that work moving from R&D/pilots into our mainstream delivery is as joined up and smooth as possible for our teachers.

This process itself is an innovation for Apps for Good. Each team within the organisation has been asked to use this four stage process to plan the year’s work and to initiate and test an innovation. If we find this approach successful, we’ll embed it into our organisation and embrace it, but if not, as with all our innovations, we won’t be afraid to improve and pivot on it or even to decide to scrap it and try again. In the meantime, we’re excited about the innovations we’re testing for 2014/15, and look forward to helping even more young people in the year ahead.