Where Good Ideas Come From
Lessons for nonprofits on data and generating ideas
“Chance favors the connected mind” — Stephen Johnson
The nonprofit organizations I’ve worked with are constantly looking for new ways to advance their mission and to better support the people they serve. But at times it can seem like the work is the same year after year, with similar results. After a while, it may seem like going to work is just about surviving the day-to-day struggles of keeping people employed, putting out crises, and raising funds for next year’s budget. And getting caught in the day-to-day leaves less room for innovation.
Stephen Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From is a great book for every nonprofit leader looking to encourage a culture of change and innovation in their organization. Johnson’s book recognizes that good ideas don’t just come to you — they are developed in a social environment that is conducive to new ideas. The book draws many examples from the natural sciences and technology, but the lessons are applicable to leaders in education, health and human services, housing and homelessness, and more.
Johnson does a great job of debunking the myth that good ideas come from the mythical intellectual sitting alone and thinking up the world’s best new ideas. Many of the world’s greatest new discoveries — from Darwin’s theory of natural selection to the advent of Twitter — are really the results of regular people engaging in collaboration and conversation with others, building upon old ideas and long-held hunches, and surrounding themselves with other intelligent people.
In other words: generating new ideas is about getting connected to as many people, information, and ideas as possible. As Johnson writes, “Chance favors the connected mind.”
Lessons for Nonprofits
So what does this mean for nonprofit leaders? Often we run around the country attending the latest conferences to stay up to speed on what the field is doing. This is important: conferences are incubators for new ideas. But we might also lose sight of a critical resource inside our own offices that functions as an idea generator: data.
“The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.”
— Stephen Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From
Every organization is sitting on a wealth of data about donors, clients, communities, stakeholders, and finances. Yet this data can be caught up in a web of Excel sheets and static files making it difficult to gather meaningful insights about how to improve and where to go next. The key is to create the kind of social environment within an organization that makes the collection and use of data easy and an everyday part of organizational culture.
Three ways this can be done:
Make data a part of the culture of your organization. Everyone — from frontline service workers to the Executive Director — should participate in the regular collection and use of data to make decisions.
Build systems to make data accessible. When your data are held in institutional silos or kept in static files accessible only to administrators, its value is lost. Try to find ways to share as much information as possible (safely and securely!) with all members of your organization.
Share your data with trusted outsiders. Sometimes your data are indicating mixed results. Be courageous — reach out to that trusted advisor outside your organization who can help you make sense of what’s missing so that you can take steps to address potential concerns.
Johnson writes that the trick to good ideas is to “get more parts on the table.” What can you do at your organization to bring your data into everyday conversation?
To learn more, read a quick review of Where Good Ideas Come From.
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