Fevers of InnovationFevers of Innovation

Fevers of Innovation

It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Milton Friesen
3 minute read
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I've been hunting for wow-factor organizational practices since 1996. That was the year I was elected to a senior executive board tasked with mapping out a ten-year plan for 110 non-profits. Some of my fellow members thought that part of our work was a tad dull. A good bit of it was but some of it was life-altering. M.o<

It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

The challenge forced me and a small team to consider organizational models, planning processes, contingency mapping, goal-setting, KRAs, SWOT analyses, and many other complex variables within a living system—real people, real organizations, real capital, real buildings, all that. Some of what we looked at was bunk but the exploration, the process, was not. Theory and practice had to come together.

After that, I was hooked. And, I must hasten to add, infected by a feverish discontent with the status quo. The inadequacies of existing organizational thinking became increasingly obvious. I began to learn to name it, explain it, to see the nuances of mediocrity, but found that trying to change stalled systems was incredibly difficult and not a great way to win popularity contests.

In the process of framing the ten-year plan, I cooked up a model based on neural development in humans that was sparked by a Time article. Turns out, our minds are a deeply complex interaction of physiology and environment even in the womb. The most frenzied period of mapping happens before we hit the first grade. My crazy idea wasn't adopted in that setting but I felt there was something worth pursuing in this model, something about the balance between structure and change, environment and intention, rules and novelty. It would be eight years before a more formal sense of that emerged for me.


I am a HUGE fan of the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) because I feel like they are welcome travellers on a road that has, during some stretches of my life, been sparsely populated. They understand and are exploring in their own way what I had been working toward. Here are some excerpts from a great Editor's Note by Eric Nee in the Winter 2010 Design Thinking issue:

Design thinking, while admittedly new and untested, gives every indication of being an effective management tool for all types of organizations. And it seems to be a particularly useful tool for organizations engaged in social innovation, precisely because it is so good at coming up with innovative solutions that work. Traditional management processes, what one mmight call analytical thinking, are very good at creating interative improvement for existing ideas, but not as effective at generating innovative, breakthrough ideas. Design thinking, on the other hand, is a management process that was created specifially to generate innovative ideas.

He later says that:

Design thinking is also a good tool for coming up with solutions that work. That's because the ideas that design thinkers come up with are thoroughly tested and prototyped before they are implemented as solutions. Some organizations do try out programs before they roll them out. But very few undertake a rigorous trial and error process—prototyping—as an integral part of coming up with the solution. By incorporating protoyping in the design thinking process itself, people learn much more quickly what works and what doesn't.

Thanks Eric. Well said.

SSIR and its readers, the band of intrepidites who are passionate about doing good in the world through social innovation, have proven to be fine members of this circle of feverish searchers.

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