Investing in innovation to improve current services or to envision new ones requires a great leap of faith because there is no certainty in the outcome. Yet innovation is critical to keeping programs relevant to their target audience, and viable to the organizations that produce them. I sat down with our Founder and CEO, Aaron Hurst, who has developed a strong appreciation for innovation’s importance in keeping things fresh as we reach our ten-year milestone here at Taproot. Because we have been a pioneer in the delivery of capacity building services to nonprofit organizations, the desire to expand our own capacity as an innovator is a natural one. Aaron and I had a recent conversation about thinking big, taking small steps, and making movies.
Laura Weiss: I’ve always believed that nonprofits are inherently innovative organizations by virtue of how they got formed in the first place. In what ways do you think they can embrace creativity and innovation on a more regular basis?
Aaron Hurst: If you look at the stages of evolution of an organization I think your insight is right – early stage organizations, for profit or nonprofit, they’re doing a lot of experimentation and they also don’t have a large infrastructure so changes are not that difficult to make and failure is not so devastating – you don’t have people’s jobs on the line you don’t have expectations out there, it’s just a much easier environment in which to tinker and experiment and try new things.
As you get bigger and bigger two different things happen – one is that you have more and more at stake every time you want to make a change and you have people’s livelihoods and expectations riding on your success. The other is the limits of nonprofit capitalization. They’re often staffed so thinly that not only do they not have the resources to implement a brave new wonderful innovation but their staff is working so tirelessly and so hard to keep things going that they don’t have the bandwidth to even pause and ask questions.
LW: I recently heard a Foundation director say that “innovation is not about new, it’s about better. We don’t need any more ‘new’. We need to know which of the new are ‘better’.” Would you agree?
AH: I think there’s a lot of opportunity to look beyond radical change and consider the potential for iterative change. Given their limited resources, a lot of nonprofits could be focused on refining and improving upon their core initial insight that haven’t fully realized their potential yet. So there’s tremendous opportunity there.
Another great opportunity for spurring change is that line that Dr. Phil has that great line he asks people when they’re sticking to their old patterns: “how’s that working for you?” People suddenly pause and reflect on what’s really at stake. I find this to be really powerful with nonprofits because very few feel that they are making the change they ultimately want to make and if you remove the risk of status quo, and say that status quo isn’t so critical to protect, they can start to strive for that bigger answer.
LW: Clearly innovation is about change, and change requires strong leadership. There was a really interesting article in the NYT that contrasted Apple and Google’s decision-making culture around innovation – visionary vs. by committee. While nonprofit founders get their organizations off the ground by being visionary, this singular model of leadership tends to give way over time to one that is more consensus driven. What are your insights there?
AH: There’s a challenge as a founder and innovator to know when to be directive and when to just let people do their jobs. I think a lot of times it can be incredibly disruptive to constantly be looking at change, looking at new ways of doing things and looking at new ideas when there’s so much work that just needs to get done. This is something that I’ve really wrestled with – when to bring that innovation voice to a discussion and when to just help clear the way so you can get your job done.
Ideally everyone in the organization is constantly questioning what they’re doing; thinking about how they’re doing stuff so that innovation never stops. But there’s also a realism that not all of your ideas can be executed which actually leads to frustration if expectations aren’t capped right – you build an appetite for change that’s not realistic.
LW: So getting skilled at communications and collaboration is just as important as having the vision.
AH: Right. When I was about eight or nine my grandparents got one of the first Betamax video cameras. And I had a vision for a horror movie that I wanted to film with them all acting in it. I had it all in my head, I knew how I wanted it to be, so I turned the camera on and just assumed they knew what I wanted, that they just ‘got it’, and could just act it out. I hadn’t given them a script, I just sort of said in general “this is the movie – just do it”. But they didn’t understand what I wanted so you see me on film screaming and being incredibly frustrated and angry because they didn’t understand what the vision was for the film that I was trying to create.
This has been a constant riddle for me – having a vision but continuing to learn how to articulate that vision to the teams around me who are there to help make it possible to build that quality movie, if you will. To me that’s part of what having a VP of Service Innovation is all about – being able to connect vision to reality and to do it not as a single person but as an organization and that’s part of a community.
LW: On that topic – not many nonprofits have a Vice President of Service Innovation. What were you thinking when you hired me?
AH: In general, there are a lot of sacred cows in our field; a lot of things that are assumed to have to be a certain way. As I’ve looked at other organizations and what’s caused them to plateau after their initial innovation it’s that they started drinking way too much of their own Kool-Aid and they didn’t have internal agitators that were really charged with questioning what we do and how to grow from there. And I had a great fear that we would rest on our laurels and have a fear of change, so bringing in someone who’s a proven innovator, an “innovation sherpa”, who could help us build that muscle to not accept the status quo to me was critical to the lifeblood of our organization.
LW: Talk a bit about the innovation process that Taproot’s been using to evolve its programs – in your comfort zone or out?
AH: We’ve been asking bigger questions around what impact our programs are really having and how we want to change what our role is in the pro bono marketplace. Specifically, how do we enable corporations to be innovative in the creation of pro bono programs, and how do we enable nonprofits to secure scope and manage these pro bono resources on their own?
That whole exploration has really opened up so many questions for me. I’m usually someone who likes to jump to conclusions way too quickly and what I’ve really loved about this process is that it’s slowed things down in a good way. At the end you might say “yeah, we could have come to that same conclusion in an hour” but the reality is that to get to that kind of simplicity takes patience and a methodology to allow things to bubble up.
That’s one of the things I’ve really appreciated, that we haven’t forced a quick answer. Also, being able to look at our program from the human, business, and technical side and weighing all of those perspectives instead of just being focused on one or two independently. In the past we’ve tended to let technology and our business model drive too much of what we’re doing; having the human-centered piece throughout the whole has made it much more likely that we’ll build something that will achieve breakthrough for our mission.
LW: What’s been your biggest learning from that process so far? Any surprises?
AH: One of the things that we did in that process that I loved – and I think it’s something that every nonprofit and company should do – was we looked back at our original program and we documented every assumption we thought we had made in its original design. Now, ten years later, we asked how many of these assumptions are actually still true. From an innovation point of view it’s been so liberating because it’s made us realize that it’s ok to make assumptions that don’t end up being true. There are very few sacred cows and there’s so much more room to change than you might think.
LW: We’re coming up on Taproot’s ten year anniversary. Where do you imagine Taproot will be in another ten years?
AH: What I’m really interested in is the intersection of pro bono and innovation and looking at how we can harness tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars of pro bono – not just to help individual nonprofits but to help address major social issues or enable broader sets of nonprofits be able to experience the kinds of innovation that we’ve been lucky enough to pursue. I’d like to look at challenges that have plagued nonprofits for a long time and turn them on their heads to see if we can make progress in ways we haven’t been able to in the past. So that’s what I would hope for in ten years – that we’ll have built strong muscle in how to innovate and find solutions and at the same time have really built an army of people doing pro bono that can help make that possible.