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 Management Minute

Creating an Incubator for Innovation

“Innovation is fostered by information gathered from new connections; from insights gained by journeys into other disciplines or places; from active collegial networks and fluid, open boundaries….Information rich, ambiguous environments are the source of surprising new births.”

— Margaret J.Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science

As a manager, I find that on many days I have my nose to the grindstone, trying to get critical work accomplished on deadlines with diminishing resources. These are the days when work is, well, work. Other days remind me of my first nonprofit job at the Lincoln, Nebraska YWCA. In creating programming for the Y, I met with many people who had interesting thoughts about what we might offer. To capture all the interesting, and sometimes quirky, ideas that came my way I put a huge sheet of brown paper up in my office. This was work that was creative and fun.

A new executive came to the YWCA shortly after I arrived. She was committed to making the Y a women’s center in keeping with the times and she engaged in active outreach to bring in a whole new circle of local women who wanted to be part of an institution-wide shift. In the five years I was there, the organization grew and changed, even as it went through some difficult financial times. We never lost our collective energy  to problem solve, incorporate new ideas and programs and build a YWCA that was responsive to the holistic needs and interests of women from varying backgrounds, ages and interests.

One of the things that made that first nonprofit job so interesting, and the YWCA such a dynamic organization, was the constant flow of ideas and information into our small institutional world. All staff were encouraged to bring new ideas to the table and to test the best of them without fear of failure. A host of the ideas from my brown paper were turned into an interesting mix of programming that helped give the Y a new face. The physical education coordinator used her savvy to develop a range of programs that emphasized learning and training over pure use of facilities. We had a paltry weight room, but it was the space where I and many other women learned how to lift weights correctly. We started programs that met the needs of youth and women in crisis. We revisited our financial challenges again and again – how can we save money, how can we raise money – searching for untried solutions. In the five years I was there, we truly saw an organization reborn.

As managers we will always have those “nose to the grindstone” days (hopefully not too many), but we must find a way to keep the door open to fresh ideas, information and exchange. We need to create structures and opportunities that allow people to share ideas, bring new information in from the outside world, and interact across disciplines, departments and other boundaries. That is what will inspire the people we work with and give our efforts the dynamism needed to be able to respond to the challenges of today’s world.

Barbara Laur
Interim Chief Executive Officer