Adventures in innovation – The challenge of time

Published by Lucy Gower on

So you have been working on your attitude to innovation. You have decided that ‘just ticking along’ is not an option and you are thinking about how you can make the most difference to the cause you fundraise for. You have also set yourself some Big Hairy Audacious Goals. Now what?

Your next innovators’ priority is to consider where to focus your efforts. This should be driven by your fundraising strategy. It is vital that you make time to ensure you are focusing your efforts on the right activities; the activities that will make the most difference in achieving your fundraising and engagement targets.

We all have the same amount of time in a day: 24 hours or 1,440 minutes. You have exactly the same amount of time that was given to Thomas Edison, Helen Keller, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa and Albert Einstein. It’s how you maximise the difference you make that’s the real challenge.

“It’s not enough to be busy. Ants are busy. What are we busy about?” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Most fundraisers I know are too busy. Because they are passionate about what they do, they put in at least 110%. The key to good innovation is to spend time at the beginning of a project to ensure that you are busy doing work that matters and on projects that will make the most difference.

Often we start working on a project and get so embroiled in the detail we don’t take time out to check that we are focusing on the right activities, or even solving the right problem. For example, a fundraiser I was speaking to recently was working really hard on a supporter newsletter, the challenges of getting something printed out on time were giving them sleepless nights. I asked why they were developing a newsletter. At this point they had to really think. The original objective was to thank supporters and show them how their support had made a difference. It was also because it was ‘in plan’. The fundraiser had become so focused on the detail of a printed newsletter for a deadline according to a plan, they hadn’t considered if there were any better solutions. They had just focused on what had been done before. The fundraiser reconsidered the newsletter and with the relatively small numbers involved, tested phoning selected supporters and then creating a simple thank you letter for those supporters with no phone number. It worked well and several supporters commented that they liked receiving a personal call.

So when you are bogged down in the detail of your next project, take a step back and consider why you are doing it and if the way that’s ‘in plan’ is really the best way to achieve the outcome you want. It could be that the way you were planning is the best solution – but it’s worth taking the time to double check. Time spent getting it right at the beginning will save you time and effort in the longer term.

“If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend the first 55 minutes analysing the problem and then 5 minutes on the solutions” Einstein

There is a story about NASA developing a pen to write in space. They allegedly spent tens of millions of dollars and after several months were making no progress. So they decided to ask the Russian space team how they were writing in space. The Russians were using a pencil.

So whether you choose to believe this story or not, the point that I want you to take away is the NASA team were concerned with solving the challenge of how to push ink throough a pen when there was no gravity. They wanted to be able to write with an ink pen in space. If they had thought more broadly at the beginning of the process, perhaps about how to write in space (rather than how to write with a conventional pen) they may have come up with the solution of a pencil. If they had thought even more broadly about their challenge, they may have realised that it was actually about communication in space…. and who knows what genius solution they may have come up with.

Making time to innovate is crucial to successful innovation, Einstein also said that innovation is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, and I’d be inclined to agree.

Making time to ensure you are solving the right challenge and then doing the right activity to get the best results is really important. Organisations that are serious about innovation make earmarking time to think creatively part of their core business model. Google are a great example. They somewhat infamously have ‘Google time’ which insists that employees spend 20% of their time on projects outside of their ‘day job’. When I mention this, there is usually a lot of eye rolling, and comments like ‘We could never be like Google’, ‘that’s OK for Google, but we are a charity we can’t afford to do that’.  I would argue that if you are serious about innovation you need to create a culture of innovation and a key part of that is enabling staff to spend dedicated time on innovation. Google don’t implement Google time to be nice to their staff, they don’t do it to be perceived as edgy or cool.  They do it because they believe it helps their business develop and makes them money.

If you are serious about developing creative ways to fundraise, you have to find a way to make time to innovate. You have to find a way that works for you as an individual and for your organisation. One day a week like Google maybe too much for your organisation. So consider what could work; a day a month working from a different office, every six weeks go to a museum or gallery to get inspiration around a particular problem, half an hour each Monday with a cup of coffee and SOFII.org, an approach like 3M or other product driven organisations that have an income target for new product development to drive innovation time. I recently did some work with VSO on innovation and now some of their fundraising teams are trialing VSO time; 5% of each week on innovation. Which I think is pretty cool and very forward thinking.

We all have the same amount of time, how you use that time to make a difference is up to you. Four key things that will help you focus your innovation to make the most difference are;

  • Focus idea generation around strategy
  • Take time to consider that you are solving the right problem (a pen in space or how to communicate in space?)
  • Question activity that is ‘just in plan’ – Is it the right activity to achieve the outcome you need?
  • Find a way to make time for you and your team to innovate, on specific projects and more generally (remember the more connections and different experiences you have, the more likely you are to put those connections together in a new way)

I challenge you to give this a go and let me know how you get on.

This is the third part of a series on innovation. You can read the other parts here:
Adventures in innovation – The Prequel
Adventures in innovation – The power of four

Categories: strategy

Lucy Gower

Lucy has been a fundraiser for over 10 years and is passionate about innovation and how it can transform organisational and individual performance. Lucy is an independent trainer and consultant specializing in innovation in fundraising. Lucy also blogs for fundraising website sofii.org and is a conference speaker both in the UK and overseas.


Alyce · August 30, 2011 at 05:12

Great post. I’m a big fan of Einstein’s quote, “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend the first 55 minutes analysing the problem and then 5 minutes on the solutions.” Planning makes a world of difference in any endeavor, whether it’s fundraising or theorizing relativity. Planning in itself just *injects* efficiency into your activity. The more neatly you plan, the more time you save: not only do you carry out your tasks more quickly, things inevitably run more smoothly because fewer problems crop up. It’s a beautiful cycle.

I like your idea of questioning activities that are simply “in plan.” I find that it’s useful for a team I’m leading to meet weekly exclusively to “review” our progress — but implicit in this review is that the original plan should *always* be subject to change. Is everything in the plan still relevant? If not, then the team shouldn’t be afraid to re-evaluate. It’s always important to take a step back.

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Fadi El-Eter · February 7, 2012 at 13:41

It’s amazing when you realize that most of the more important Google projects were actually accomplished in that 20%.

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