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In our time of accelerated technological growth, it seems we’ve come to prize innovation above almost everything else, even in non-technological realms. I was recently reminded that striking a balance between bold innovation and existing wisdom is essential for organizational changes to succeed.

This helpful reminder came to me at a community meeting, where we were reflecting on a vision for a community hub. At my table, most of us were carried away in brainstorming new, innovative, and bold ways the hub could serve and transform the community, now and in the future. But after a while, a gentleman who has worked with the community for a long time stopped us and said something that probably should have been obvious: “We should be considering the needs of all the people who live here.”

Oops.

Somehow, in our excitement in crafting innovative ideas, we had neglected to consider the most essential piece of all: the people we were meant to be serving. We had forgotten to ask ourselves these questions: “What is it that people who live here want? What do they already have that they want to preserve? What would they like to get in the future? Do we need to weave an entirely new cloth, or are there rips in the existing fabric we could mend?”

What makes an innovation useful?  

I think many of us have been carried away at a meeting table or in a brainstorming session as we worked to determine a new direction for a project or organization. Perhaps we have come up with a brand-new, sparkling plan to bring back to those doing the day-to-day work. “Here,” we say, “this is where we are headed.” But the people on the ground have been, by necessity, solving problems as they go along—and we need to listen to them when they say, “Actually, we’re headed this way.”

New ideas, paradigm shifts, brilliant thoughts, disruptive discussions—all of these are indispensible to finding new ways of supporting communities or accomplishing an organization’s work. I’d never suggest otherwise! But what I was reminded of at the community meeting is that people will never engage with and implement these innovative ideas unless the ideas really work for them. An innovation is not useful unless it makes people’s lives better, and the only way to ensure it does is to have meaningful, thorough consultation. So I’m wondering, what happens if we shift away from testing new ideas on people with lived experience? What if instead we bring them in at the brainstorming phase, to ensure their wisdom is involved from the beginning?

Lived experiences can be the foundation for innovation

After the gentleman’s intervention at my table,  I sat quietly and listened to people at some of the other tables, people who had lived in the community for a long time. They understood, deeply, the numerous social problems they faced, including poverty, and they also knew, intimately, the wonderful people working to make a life for themselves and their children in that place. They spoke at length about what they needed, what they wanted, what their children had to have to succeed. I listened, listened, listened.

And, after listening, using the community members’ lived experiences as a foundation rather than an afterthought, we managed to come up with a truly innovative direction for the community hub—one that will best serve this incredible, resilient community, because it is based on their actual needs.

Changing how we approach change

When we talk about management of change and people’s resistance to change, I think we might be getting something backward. I think we often go wrong when introducing change to a community, organization, or department because we start by presenting a new idea, and then get irritated when it’s not immediately adopted.

Perhaps we need to build our innovations from the ground up with the people most affected by the change, rather than for them. All of our wonderful ideas that come from working in many places and living in diverse communities are absolutely valuable, but I suspect they’re much more useful when they’re combined with and tempered by the experiences and ideas of the people who will be living with and implementing the changes.

Perhaps together, we can work toward an inclusive, effective model of innovation and change. 

Have you ever felt like the C suite was forcing a big change without considering how it would affect you and your coworkers? Have you ever been on the other side of that problem, finding your amazing ideas met with resistance from the people on the ground? Or have you already cracked the code and engaged in a genuinely inclusive consultation process?

I look forward to hearing from you!