I’ve just watched a Bear Grylls special in which he dumps 10 celebrities on an island and they have to survive. Yawn. It did, however, strike me that a lot of what they went through in their first days on the island was very similar to the early days myself and colleagues spent embarking on a trailblazing journey of change (survival) in the social sector.

Working in the social sector you often hear people throw the following terms about: ‘disruption’, ‘innovation’, ‘acceleration’, ‘incubation’ (ad nauseum). These are nice big words – but – when the nose hits the grindstone and the reality of limited human resource, budget constraints, time limitations and increasing pressure to be ‘lean’ or ‘efficient’ and do your utmost to eliminate ‘waste’ sets in, the space for free and open thinking often disappears.

Recently I was having an informal cup of coffee with another colleague who works for a large charity. We were sharing tips and tricks on what we have found works – and what didn’t work so well. Having been through a journey of working with a number of agencies in this space and having hands on experience of seeing first-hand what might work and what not, I decided that it might be beneficial to share this with the wider world. Most of it is common sense, but the application is critical.

Here are some of the things I have learned on my journey:

  • It is imperative that any structure that is set up to disrupt or innovate within the social sector is given authority and autonomy to ‘go out and do’. There is nothing worse for stifling creativity than adding onerous processes, hoops and hierarchical governance structures.
  • Further to this, I can’t say enough for operating as a ‘flat structure’. The chain of command should be short and the span of control, wide. This allows for better communication, accountability and transparency, sharing of work, less bureaucracy and easier decision making, reduction of cost – and my personal favourite – better team spirit.
  • It should be external facing. Organisations can become so internally focused, wound up in knots by politics and relationships which don’t necessarily add any value to their work. The idea is to start off by building networks in spaces which you don’t necessarily operate in, meet with ‘gatekeepers’ who can help you to build and expand those networks and find access to people with the right frame of mind, vision, skills and expertise to help you. I have found that people are generally very giving with their time and thoughtfully open with their ideas. All you have to do is ask.
  • And on this note – social media is a powerful tool. The amount of positive responses I’ve received from people that I just tweeted or linkedin messaged to ask for help, support and a ‘picking of brains’ is incredible. Don’t be afraid to be upfront with your request. There is a genuine openness to sharing and learning in this space.
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of internal buy-in to your vision. Target influential people within your organisation, spend time building those relationships. A sense of ownership is crucial for driving change. The team tasked with innovating, accelerating, incubating etc. is merely a catalyst. You will rely on your influencers to champion your cause.
  • Very often there is no or very little money attributed to functions within an organisation trying to create major change. Why build your own digital lab, for instance, when you can be equally as effective by forming a partnership with a digital accelerator with the skills and expertise you require to meet your aims – and – who would do all of that for you at minimal cost. Collaboration and partnerships are the way forward.
  • Linked to the point above – be sure to build your networks, collaborations and partnerships with like-minded organisations, and across a variety of sectors. Don’t limit yourself to who your partners might be. ‘Shop around’ and give yourself time to be selective.
  • Be outcomes focused. And keep them as simple as possible. You’ll suffocate innovation by focusing on the interventions you’re using rather than on the outcomes you want to achieve. Numbers of bums on seats (outputs) is far less important than whether the lives of those bums were changed for the better (impact)!

One of the best learnings and the one I will conclude with, is that the journey is just as important as the goal. We learn and change so much en-route, it is important to track that, map that and ensure we have some kind of record of how, where, what, when, why there were successes and failures. This is gold dust. Others will want to follow in your footsteps. As a trailblazer, make sure you cut a trail open and wide enough for them to do so.

As one of the camermen on the celebrity island said to expedition leader Ollie Locke (of made in Chelsea fame and looking fabulous in pink): “you’ve led us with a perfect balance of risk and caution”.  Don’t be afraid to hack away at the trail, but always keep in mind that you might be 1m from a cliff edge. I think I’m ready for your island, Bear.

By Kirsten Naude