Innovation involves bringing something new into the world and that often means a lot of uncertainty with respect to outcomes. Learning is the one outcome that any innovation initiative can promise if the right conditions are put into place.
Innovation — the act of doing something new to produce value — in human systems is wrought with complications from the standpoint of evaluation given that the outcomes are not always certain, the processes aren’t standardized (or even set), and the relationship between the two are often in an ongoing state of flux. And yet, evaluation is of enormous importance to innovators looking to maximize benefit, minimize harm, and seek solutions that can potentially scale beyond their local implementation.
Non-profits and social innovators are particularly vexed by evaluation because there is an often unfair expectation that their products, services, and programs make a substantial change to social issues such as poverty, hunger, employment, chronic disease, and the environment (to name a few). These are issues that are large, complex, and for which no actor has complete ownership or control over, yet require some form of action, individually and collectively.
What is an organization to do or expect? What can they promise to funders, partners, and their stakeholders? Apart from what might be behavioural or organizational outcomes, the one outcome that an innovator can guarantee — if they manage themselves right — is learning.
Learning as an Outcome
For learning to take place, there need to be a few things included in any innovation plan. The first is that there needs to be some form of data capture of the activities that are undertaken in the design of the innovation. This is often the first hurdle that many organizations face because designers are notoriously bad at showing their work. Innovators (designers) need to capture what they do and what they produce along the way. This might include false starts, stops, ‘failures’, and half-successes, which are all part of the innovation process. Documenting what happens between idea and creation is critical.
Secondly, there needs to be some mechanism to attribute activities and actions to indicators of progress. Change only can be detected in relation to something else so, in the process of innovation, we need to be able to compare events, processes, activities, and products at different stages. Some of the selection of these indicators might be arbitrary at first, but as time moves along it becomes easier to know whether things like a stop or start are really just ‘pauses’ or whether they really are pivots or changes in direction.
Learning as organization
Andrew Taylor and Ben Liadsky from Taylor Newberry Consulting recently wrote a great piece on the American Evaluation Association’s AEA 365 blog outlining a simple approach to asking questions about learning outcomes. Writing about their experience working with non-profits and grantmakers, they comment on how evaluation and learning require creating a culture that supports the two in tandem:
Given that organizational culture is the soil into which evaluators hope to plant seeds, it may be important for us to develop a deeper understanding of how learning culture works and what can be done to cultivate it.
What Andrew and Ben speak of is the need to create the environment for which learning can occur at the start. Some of that is stirred by asking some critical questions as they point out in their article. These include identifying whether there are goals for learning in the organization and what kind of time and resources are invested to regularly gathering people together to talk about the work that is done. This is the third big part of evaluating for learning: create the culture for it to thrive.
It’s often said that learning is a natural as breathing, but if that were true much more would be gained from innovation than there is. Just like breathing, learning can take place passively and can be manipulated or controlled. In both cases, there is a need to create a consciousness around what ‘lessons’ abound.
Evaluation serves to make the unconscious, conscious. By paying attention — being mindful — of what is taking place and linking that to innovation at the level of the organization (not just the individual) evaluation can be a powerful tool to aid the process of taking new ideas forward. While we cannot always guarantee that a new idea will transform a problem into a solution, we can ensure that we learn in our effort to make change happen.
The benefit of learning is that it can scale. Many innovations can’t, but learning is something that can readily be added to, built on, and transforms the learner. In many ways, learning is the ultimate outcome. So next time you look to undertake an innovation, make sure to evaluate it and build in the kind of questions that help ensure that, no matter what the risks are, you can assure yourself a positive outcome.