Earlier this week John Craig and colleagues, who are developing the Third Sector Innovation Exchange, invited a bunch of us along to share ideas over wine and pizza on what it takes to make collaborations work. I ended up pondering on how "thingies" might help - of which more later.
The Innovation Exchange is being funded by the UK Government to "find new ways to connect innovators in the third sector with public service commissioners and other investors and help them to work together to develop their work".
What this means, as I understand it, is that the exchange wants to find social entrepreneurs, nonprofits and others with good ideas, and then support them in working with public bodies who might buy their products and services, and funders who could invest. At the same time they have to encourage organisations who may be conventional in procurement to be more adventurous. The first two areas of activity are supporting independent living and excluded young people.
My friend Simon Berry and I were along because we led a competing team to bid for the Innovation Exchange job last year. You'll can find the back story of John's appointment here, and a case study of what we are calling our most successful failure.
The evening was a great opportunity to wish John and his team every success in a challenging task, pitch in some ideas and identify some challenges. We talked a lot around the need to mix together the processes of encouraging innovation with specific activities to find and support innovators. In order to do this the team are meeting a lot of people, developing a more sophisticated online system, and planning some events - just as a start.
I had plenty of questions - but thought other people's might be even more interesting, so I asked my friend Tim Davies to pick up my camera and do a little interviewing. He and John were happy to oblige. The change in colour balance is due to a flare up in the stove rather than any heat in the exchange.
I came away thinking that one thing John and colleagues might do, to aid their work and that of anyone else trying to promote innovation for social good, is to set up a "collaboration thingy exchange". This would be a space where we could all pitch in those "something or others" that if you do them, both help make things happen and create some ripples.
Offering people wine and pizza for the evening is definitely a well-tried thingy, because it gets you into conversational rather than document-writing mode, you strike up some new relationships, and get the feel of who you could work with. If you follow-up with blog items, calls or emails you find who is responsive. It's best to do these meet-ups regularly, and it doesn't require a fixed venue. For example, Jeremy Gould has followed up UKGovwebBarcamp with meetings in the House of Fraser coffee shop across the road from his Ministry office. Lloyd Davis has established the Social Media Tuttle Club each Friday in the Coach and Horses, Soho.
Larger-scale things on the same lines are Open Space events, Barcamps, Unconferences - all face-to-face spaces where people are encouraged to think creatively, strike up conversations, form and reform groups to take ideas forward.
Online spaces can - with more difficulty - fulfill a similar function. Simon and I opened up a multi-author blog system to develop, in the open, our failed bid for the Innovation Exchange. The new Innovation Exchange will have a much fancier system.
You can add more spice to events by designing them as games, as my colleague Drew Mackie and I have done over here. One idea I suggested to John was to run some simulations where innovators and purchasers "changed sides" so they understood each other rather better.
What doesn't succeed, in my experience, is expecting these tools to work without some facilitation. Are people thingies? If so, what's needed both online and face-to-face are collaboration co-ordinators, as Shawn Callahan calls them. The role of these co-ordinators - or whatever you may choose to call them - is:
- ferreting out good collaboration practices and tools and keeping up-to-date with the field
- finding situations in the organisation where better collaboration would make a difference to the quality of products and services, the speed of delivering these products and services to clients, and the ability to use a diversity of ideas and approaches to innovate
- helping people learn and adopt collaboration practices and tools
- collecting stories of how collaboration really works for the times you need to justify the role
- connecting people and ideas so new collaborations might flourish
The blog where Shawn and colleagues talk about the work of their company in Australia is itself a terrific innovation and collaboration exchange - with generous sharing of the methods they use, as well as insights gathered from elsewhere....
... which brings me to the best thingy of all, which is to open up. I'm sure John and colleagues feel under some pressure to "deliver" ... when of course success depends pretty much on the actions and attitudes of others (and as Dave Pollard confirms, attitude is hugely important). What's needed, in my view, is a whole lot of processes and activities that encourage innovators, investors and public bodies to co-design the improved services that we needed ... which reminds me of another set of thingies prepared by Johnnie Moore and James Cherkoff as a manifesto for co-creation.
Anyway, my best suggestion to John is to share the challenge that the Innovation Exchange faces by inventing it in public, as Simon is doing with Ruralnetonline. Keep offering the wine and pizza, and blog as you go.
After the evening I asked John for any further thoughts. He replied:
The evening was fantastically helpful for me, if challenging, so many thanks to those who attended. If I were to pick out two features of the conversation, they would be diversity and scale.
On diversity, there were some strong challenges about how the Innovation Exchange can reach different people across the system. The chasm between the people who buy services and those who use them means getting citizens' views is vitally important. Equally, different kinds of people in different roles will respond to the Innovation Exchange in different ways, and we need to cater for all of them.
On scale, there was an important question about whether we want to be encouraging the third sector to be 'innovative' or to be supporting particular innovations to grow. The conversations encouraged me to be loud and proud about the fact that we are focusing on the latter - not preaching at people about innovation but providing practical support for innovators who need it.
I hope people will continue to engage with us and challenge us.
Simon has now blogged about Why I believe in Open Innovation, putting it all very well from someone who has the much tougher task than I do of being open and innovative within a charity, with staff and trustees to convince. Seems to be working.
Update: Tim Davies has blogged some additional excellent ideas over here, and John's reflections are here