One of the indicators that I use when evaluating innovation in organisations is the degree to which the organisation is open to change or serendipity.  Is it keeping a look out for those opportunities or circumstances that it might not have planned for, but which, when they come along, are too good to pass up?

© alexsl / iStock

© alexsl / iStock

I was recently having a lovely evening catching up with a good friend when he suddenly asked me how he could get more nonprofits involved in his work.  I said I’d go away and think about that.  I don’t know whether he expected me to come back with a response at all, but two weeks later I said that I had had some thoughts and that I wanted to talk through some ideas with him.  As I write we’ve agreed a plan to develop his business and broaden the groups and stakeholders that he works with.

Why is this an important story? Well my friend runs a private company, and I work with NGOs and nonprofits.  I could have easily responded to the enquiry along the lines of “sorry, but I don’t work with private companies.”  Instead I looked at this as an opportunity to use my very extensive knowledge of social impact to think about where the synergies between the private, public and third sectors lay and how to get different organisations in different sectors to work together better, with longer term impacts for both the environment and wellbeing.

In another example an NGO that distributes condoms in support of family planning and sexual health aims saw an opportunity during the last football world cup hosted in Brazil to design and sell a two-toned condom celebrating the world cup.  This organisation had an innovation fund and sufficient unrestricted funds that it could do this alongside its other condom distribution activities.  The world cup condom flew off the shelves and was hugely successful at raising the NGO’s profile, increasing its sexual health and family planning activities and deepening its impact into the communities that it was helping.  The condom itself wasn’t the point.  The NGO managed to improve its relationship with its beneficiaries, which matters as it tries to have the best possible impact in their lives.

It is true that you never know where the next opportunity is going to come from, and you have to remain open to serendipitous conversations, events, circumstances.  If you’re too fixed on a strategy designed five years ago, or too constrained because you’ve got too much restricted funding, you will miss opportunities that might have made your organisation more effective, more impactful.  Be open to serendipity and you and your organisation will become more effective, more innovative and deliver better impact.

What do you think? Have you ever seen an opportunity pass you by because you haven’t been sufficiently flexible in your thinking or organisational design? Have you taken just such an opportunity that has gone on to transform your organisation or indeed your life?

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