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Tips to Create a Culture of Collaboration and Innovation 

Love it or hate it, the real-time web is forcing nonprofits to change the way they do business. Organizations recognize that they must be more transparent with their successes, their failures, as well as their finances. They are also learning how to better handle public criticism of their brand and instead view criticism as opportunities to listen to valuable feedback from their constituents and to be responsive. Unfortunately many organizations still struggle with rigid top down management structures and teams that squash innovation and collaboration. If nonprofit’s want to meet their missions faster and attract the most talented staff, organizations are going to need to change the way they do business inside the office.

During the Campaign Tech conference earlier this month, I was asked how do you lead a team that meets tactical requests well but that also has time to learn, experiment, and grow.

If you are in a big leadership role at a nonprofit, chances are you are living in a process driven atmosphere. And while processes can be helpful you also need to strike a balance of creating an environment that encourages people to think about new ways of solving problems.

Trust Your Staff

One of the best ways to create a more collaborative environment is to stop relying on consultants so much and start listening more to your own team. Nonprofits tend to rely on consultants to either come in and save the day or to validate what their own staff already knows. You hired your team because you thought they were capable to begin with, right? Now trust them. Still feel like you need to use consultants because you don't have enough internal resources to implement great ideas? No problem, just make sure your own team gets first dibs on the pieces they want to work on.

Don't Shut People Down

So now that you are sold on trusting your team more, will your team always come up with the most brilliant ideas? No. However, it’s important that you don’t shut people down even if you secretly think it’s a crappy idea. Talk through the ideas as a team because sometimes these types of brainstorms can trigger some terrific ideas in a collaborative environment. And sometimes they won’t go anywhere and that’s ok too. 

Host Weekly Interdepartmental Meetings

Host weekly and intimate meetings with people from different departments so that you all know what each other is working on, what’s coming down the pike so you can all collaborate across multiple channels.

Seize Opportunities

It’s also important to seize opportunities when they arise, particularly when it comes to leveraging current events that relate to the issues your organization works on. Don’t get stuck in rigid processes and long approval chains, as this will derail you from being proactive. Instead focus on setting up more nimble structures and teams that can efficiently vet information, develop accurate responses, and execute creative and simple campaign ideas. Right now, too many organizations are overly reactive and frankly too late to the party.

Share Successes With The Community

One of the best parts about creating an environment that fosters collaboration and experimentation is sharing successes and failures so that everyone can learn from it. When you do something that you consider a success such as developed a new app or even a new strategy that was effective, share it. Not only can it benefit the community at large but it will make your staff feel recognized and feel that they are contributing to something bigger.

Commit to Culture Change and Failing Fast

While creating a culture of collaboration and innovation within a very traditional and rigid organizational structure can be challenging it can definitely be achieved. But, make no mistake it requires a major culture change within the entire organization that must be led from the top. Senior management must focus on breaking down the silos in the organization to have more of an open culture and leadership.

Teams must be integrated, meaning that people in fundraising, advocacy, marketing, PR, Programs, and Tech should be working together to develop campaigns that are integrated across multiple channels. 

And finally you must believe in failing fast and mean it. Don’t punish people when they do fail. Failure is one of the best ways to learn.

What are your tips for creating a culture of innovation and collaboration?


Reader Comments (8)

I love this post. Thank you, Allyson. "And finally you must believe in failing fast and mean it. Don’t punish people when they do fail. Failure is one of the best ways to learn." Amen!
November 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnn Yoders
These are great suggestions (he says, as a consultant)! I would add: don't forget that the walls (silos) between your organization and the community you serve and other organizations are also just imaginary and worthy of breaking down! Collaborate with your community to generate ideas and experiments and innovation, provide lots of opportunities to be facilitative rather than the experts in working with your community, let leadership for new initiatives arise from the community and support that experimental fail fast option with them too, build networks of innovative teams across organizations and learn to share and critique each other's work, seed ideas across places and spaces. Focus on being purpose seeking and emergent actions that enact your organizational and community values, rather than on fixed structures, for how you are organized, except for basic organizational functions.

Keep the ideas coming!
November 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Watkins
Great ideas, Allyson. I'd like to add as part of that "committing to culture change" bit the idea that organizations, particularly ones that grew out of a canvass culture, need to abandon the idea of individual/departmental credit. If something works for the good of the whole then it's good for all.

Secondly, senior managers need to realize that part of committing to culture change is understanding that they will have to give up some control. Backing "nimble structures" in theory is fine but understanding explicitly what that means for managers is another.
November 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Dougherty
While I agree it's important to trust your staff, an even more important part of creating in innovation culture is hiring for innovation. Gallup says there are three roles that people can play in the innovation process: innovators (those who generate ideas), drivers of Innovation (those who align ideas with strategies, allocate resources, and build supportive constituencies), and drivers to Market (those who commercialize and execute market-facing activities). While you should trust your staff, you should also verify that they can actually play one of these three roles.

The other thing I'd say about creating a culture of innovation is that like fundraising or marketing it needs a well defined method and process. A popular innovation method is design thinking--Tim Brown of IDEO recently wrote a blog post (http://bit.ly/sJWmTw) about why design thinking deserves to be part of the conversation among nonprofits.
November 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJono Smith
I strongly prefer collaborative environments & have taught consensus. But it's not for everyone. If your management team isn't really up for fully supporting ideas that bubble up, don't raise people's expectations falsely that their ideas will be truly considered & possibly implemented. Be honest with yourself as a leader, are you willing to give up some degree of control? Are you willing to start & follow through or at least support others in new projects? I worked in a bakery once where the VP asked for new recipe ideas from the civil service staff who got incredibly excited & baked all sorts of new pastries. When the time for tasting came & went without the arrival of the executive team. and the VP never even remembered or acknowledged that he didn't show at his own tasting after promoting it for months, he closed the door forever on asking the staff to innovate and gave morale a smack down.
November 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMartin D
Kudos Allyson! Great comments all.
I would also add, know what you don't know and be willing to listen to those team members that may know more than you in a particular subject. That's what being in a team is all about.
December 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKim Gladstone
"If you are in a big leadership role at a nonprofit, chances are you are living in a process driven atmosphere." No kidding. Process -- the enemy of action. I've found it helpful to look at some of the best business practices, and apply them to nonprofits. http://clairification.blogspot.com/2011/11/top-10-business-truisms-nonprofits_08.html Not only do we have siloes between us and our constituents; we also have siloed departments that are not working in sync. The most important culture change we need to embrace is a customer-service, constiuent-centric orientation. It involves a full positioning of our value to our customers at every point of engagement with us. When we insist on separating functions, our constituents perceive a disconnect. We confuse and confound them. http://clairification.blogspot.com/2011/10/you-say-potato-i-say-patattah_27.html Thanks for posting on this.
December 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterclaire axelrad
What a great summary of solid tips for leadership staff -- and great additional comments here. I recently came across an article on the ArtsFWD site highlighting some particularly collaborative leadership structures at a few specific arts organizations that adds some nice concrete examples to back up these ideas: http://artsfwd.org/shared-leadership-proves-successful-in-music-orgs/
January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnnaliese

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