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Evoking Innovation in Nonprofits

Today a client asked me a question that I am asked a lot: “how do we engage our executive team to support this initiative?”  All of my nonprofit manager clients have creative strategies to get executive attention and support. But I started to think about WHY these strategies are necessary.  What could executive leaders do to support the creativity and initiative of their management teams without making them feel like children vying for parents’ attention? What would it look like for nonprofit organizations to maximize internal talent and resources by creating systems that evoke innovation? 

Here are 3 ways that nonprofit executive leaders can create a culture of innovation in their organizations:

1)   Create a strong and active strategic plan

I have facilitated countless strategic plans over the years and very few of them live on past the last planning session.  The organizations that do manage to embed their strategic goals into every day operations are so much more successful than those that leave the plan on a shelf.  If an organization has a strong strategic plan and EVERYONE knows and uses it, it becomes unnecessary for management to “sell” ideas to executive leaders.  Managers are able to articulate why a particular project or initiative does or does not advance the organization’s strategic goals. Executives are able to make efficient decisions about what to pursue, and maybe more importantly, what NOT to pursue.

 2)   Offer opportunities for authentic communication

We all suffer from too much inadequate communication in the workplace.  Rather than frequent, long and unproductive communication strategies, my most successful clients strive for targeted, efficient and honest communication.  I recently worked with one client that eliminated all staff and department meetings.  The organization moved instead to three new types of communication strategies. They implemented project-based “huddles” for teams to sort out issues and come to agreement on various decision points. This greatly improved the efficiency of their teams, since they were no longer waiting for whole departments to come together in order to move forward. Second, they started “afternoon tea” executive briefings so that the management team could come together and update executives on the status of various initiatives and brainstorm about new initiatives in a collaborative environment (and frame the discussions around an active strategic plan). Finally, they started a monthly all staff “lunch and learn” where one department presents something they are excited about to the rest of the group.  Their goal was to replace what they saw as the two goals of the old model staff meetings, to provide an opportunity for staff to get to know each other and to learn about what others are working on. 

3)   Provide clear expectations

We have all worked for leaders who seem fickle when making decisions.  Some of us may have been that leader.  Over the years, I have observed that executives who lay out clear expectations early and often are better equipped to execute visionary strategies.  One executive who led a large organization (and worked with several hundred stakeholder partners) always started conference calls by stating the five strategic goals of the organization.  This simple practice gave everyone time to pause and think about the bigger vision before diving into the details of the day.  Leaders who provide clear guidance to management teams are able to focus the energies and resources of their teams instead of leaving staff trying to guess at priorities and waste time pursuing dead ends.  

Yali BairComment