Beyond the Big and New: Innovating on Quality

The newest, biggest, shiny thing
The newest, biggest, shiny thing

Innovation is a term commonly associated with ‘new’ and sparkly products and things, but that quest for the bigger and more shiny in what we do often obscures the true innovative potential within systems. Rethinking what we mean by innovation and considering the role that quality plays might help us determine whether bigger and glossy is just that, instead of necessarily better. 

Einstein’s oft paraphrased line about new thinking and problems goes something like this:

“Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.”

In complex conditions, this quest for novel thinking is not just ideal, it’s necessary. However genuine this quest for the new idea and new thing draws heavily upon widely shared human fears of the unknown it is also framed within a context of Western values. Not all cultures revere the new over what came before it, but in the Western world the ‘new’ has become celebrated and none more so than through the word innovation.

Innovation: What’s in a word?

Innovation web
Innovation web

A look at some of the terms associated with innovation (above) finds an emphasis on discovery and design, which can imply a positive sense of wonder and control to those with Westernized sentiments. Indeed, a survey of the landscape of actors, services and products seeking to make positive change in the world finds innovation everywhere and an almost obsessive quest for ideas. What is less attended to is providing a space for these ideas to take flight and answer meaningful, not trivial, questions in an impactful way.

Going Digital Strategy by Tom Fishburne
Going Digital Strategy by Tom Fishburne

I recently attended an event with Zaid Hassan speaking on Social Labs and his new book on the subject. While there was much interest in the way a social lab engages citizens in generating new ideas I was pleased to hear Hassan emphasize that the energy of a successful lab must be directed at the implementation of ideas into practice over just generating new ideas.

Another key point of discussion was the overall challenge of going deep into something and the costs of doing that. This last point got me thinking about the way we frame innovation and what is privileged in that discussion

Innovating beyond the new

Sometimes innovation takes place not only in building new products and services, but in thinking new thoughts, and seeing new possibilities.

Thinking new thoughts requires asking new or better questions of what is happening. As for seeing new possibilities, that might mean looking at things long forgotten and past practices to inform new practice, not just coming up with something novel. Ideas are sexy and fun and generate excitement, yet it is the realization of these ideas that matter more than anything.

The ‘new’ idea might actually be an old one, rethought and re-purposed. The reality for politicians and funders is often confined to equating ‘new’ things with action and work. Yet, re-purposing knowledge and products, re-thinking, or simply developing ideas in an evolutionary manner are harder to see and less sexier to sell to donors and voters.

When new means better, not necessarily bigger

Much of the social innovation sector is consumed or obsessed with scale. The Stanford Social Innovation Review, the key journal for the burgeoning field, is filled with articles, events and blog posts that emphasize the need for scaling social innovations. Scaling, in nearly all of these contexts, means taking an idea to more places to serve more people. The idea of taking a constructive idea that, when realized, benefits as many as possible is hard to argue against, however such a goal is predicated highly upon a number of assumptions about the intervention, population of focus, context, resource allocations and political and social acceptability of what is proposed that are often not aligned.

What is bothersome is that there is nowhere near the concern for quality in these discussions. In public health we often speak of intervention fidelity, intensity, duration, reach, fit and outcome, particularly with those initiatives that have a social component. In this context, there is a real threat in some circumstances of low quality information lest someone make a poorly informed or misleading choice.  We don’t seem to see that same care and attention to other areas of social innovation. Sometimes that is because there is no absolute level of quality to judge or the benefits to greater quality are imperceptibly low.

But I suspect that this is a case of not asking the question about quality in the first place. Apple under Steve Jobs was famous for creating “insanely great” products and using a specific language to back that up. We don’t talk like that in social innovation and I wonder what would happen if we did.

Would we pay more attention to showing impact than just talking about it?

Would we design more with people than for them?

Would we be bolder in our experiments?

Would we be less quick to use knee-jerk dictums around scale and speak of depth of experience and real change?

Would we put resources into evaluation, sensemaking and knowledge translation so we could adequately share our learning with others?

Would we be less hyperbolic and sexy?

Might we be more relevant to more people, more often and (ironically, perhaps) scale social innovation beyond measure?



Marketoonist Cartoon used under license.




5 thoughts on “Beyond the Big and New: Innovating on Quality”

  1. As always, a thoughtful piece. In the university sector we are wholly obsessed with new mostly in the form of new understanding. We do quality work but fail to even care about the implementation when that new and quality understanding can have a wider benefit. In a way we are the antithesis of scale. We produce new and quality work with the expectation that only a handful of like minded colleagues will read and comment on our work.

    How do we work together when quality and impact mean such different things to different stakeholders?

  2. David, thanks so much for your comment and continuing the discussion. The issue that universities face is that they are transforming from a time when implementation wasn’t considered a concern and knowledge development was the principal focus. Now, we are seeing much more applied research, partnerships between academic researchers and policy makers, clinicians and the community who all have these different demands, needs, and concerns for quality.

    “The antithesis of scale” is a great way to put it.

    In response to your question, I would suggest a first simple step is to encourage these different stakeholders to be more inspired to ask questions about quality and outcome in light of how others might see them. For example, academic institutions often espouse ‘research excellence’ as a goal and a more empathic question around that goal might require unpacking of what that term means. That simple act of questioning things like that could provoke an interesting discussion on scale, quality, user needs and resources.

  3. I believe the problem with quality innovation is that it is hard to measure and be noticed. For other sectors, it requires substantial amount of money and marketing effort to tell the world that something is better. However, social sector doesn’t have enough resources to make quality innovation as attractive as other sectors do (at least till now).
    Nevertheless, crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding on quality innovation may solve that problem. As you mentioned about, I believe those platforms should be built with people as they are the ones who measure and spread the words.

    1. Thanks for your comments. These are some good points and it would be interesting to see how new models of examining, evaluating and funding quality initiatives could help.

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