Friday, January 26, 2007

Disruptive Innovation for Social Change

Every once in awhile, an article appears that goes on to have significant impact in the nonprofit sector. In 1989, Peter Drucker wrote What Businesses Can Learn from Nonprofits, an important counterbalance to the prevailing belief that all of the answers to organizational effectiveness could be found in the for-profit sector alone. In 1996, Chait, Holland and Taylor wrote The New Work of the Nonprofit Board. This article led to a number of important efforts to improve board performance and these efforts continue. Now in December 2006, a new article in the Harvard Business Review promises to do the same. In the article, Disruptive Innovation for Social Change, Clayton M. Christensen, Heiner Baumann, Rudy Ruggles, and Thomas M. Sadler offer a challenge to the nonprofit sector:
"In the social sector, too much attention is devoted to providing more of the same to narrow populations that are already served. It's time for a fundamentally different approach. . . . it's not a lack of solutions, but rather misdirected investment. Too much of the money available to address social needs is used to maintain the status quo, because it is given to organizations that are wedded to their current solutions, delivery models, and recipients. ... While they may do a good and important job serving those people, and while there services may steadily improve, these organizations are unlikely ever to reach a far broader populations that are in need -- and that would be satisfied by simpler offerings, if only they were available.”

The authors advocate searching for “disruptive" or "catalytic” innovations that have the potential for dramatic breakthroughs in efforts to address pressing community needs and social issues. The article offers examples of disruptive innovation, qualities of catalytic innovators and advice to funders and investors who want to see their dollars lead to real change.

The relevance for strategic planning? The challenges posed by the authors of this article are ones that need to be incorporated into our strategic thinking and planning efforts. Whether we refer to it as "theory of change" or "logic model", we need to ask ourselves if we operate from an understanding of how change happens, if our programs and services reflect this understanding, and what is the evidence that our program/service approach is actually working. And as the authors of the article Making Sense: Reviewing Program Design with Theory of Change suggest, this analysis needs to take place before strategic planning -- not after. A strategic planning effort that avoids this analysis can lead -- as many strategic planning efforts do -- to the decision to continue with more of the same --ineffective programs with mediocre results.

More commentary on this important article can be found at ManyWorlds, New Profit, Community Health Edge, the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship and the Private Sector Development Blog.

Be sure to read “Disruptive Innovation for Social Change” and share it with board leaders, staff, colleagues, and friends.