I’ve been around innovation as an idea for most of my career, most of the time by accident. The idea of a scientist mindset and changing the “way we do things around here” seems so logical to me thanks to my history in, well, science! However, it’s especially logical to me since most of us stand around the water cooler complaining about the things we don’t have, or longing for some better way. We have, over time, created this interesting stigma of almost black magic or cheating around those who manage to innovate on a regular basis. “They can do it because they have the budget” or “I wish my board let me do things like that”. Nonprofits operate within a labyrinth of constraints that makes it even harder to constantly evolve, change, and innovate. So here I am to pose a hypothesis. One that, despite restrictions in operational and human capital expenses, states that nonprofits are in the same position as the innovation evangelists are in the for-profit sector. A position that states that, although the landscape may appear barren, with clever ideas and some reframing of definitions, any organization can stir up a creation mindset and deliver a plethora of differentiation and uniqueness.
A prevalent notion suggests that nonprofits are stifled by their operational shoestrings, making innovation a distant dream. Objectively, this is true. But it’s only true if we associate innovation with big flashy projects, rather than what it really is. A process. Just like capital allocation, program planning, and even preparing a board meeting. Innovation isn’t an outcome, it’s a way of thinking and a way of doing things. It injects experimentation, curiosity, and a love of evidence into the way we do our work. This, in turn, leads to more creative and more (dare I say it) innovative outcomes.
So, what is the number one thing that has shifted the needle on embedding innovation into an organization’s culture? The scientist mindset.
By embracing a culture of experimentation and failure, an innovative spirit is fostered. Encouraging teams to test new ideas and learn from failures, creating an environment where innovation thrives.
So, what does the scientist’s mindset feel like?
Well, it’s a realm where curiosity reigns supreme and questions are the royal inhabitants! It’s akin to being a seasoned explorer, embarking on uncharted territories with a compass of inquiry and a map drafted by hypothesis. Each day is a narrative of discovery, every experiment a tale of adventure into the vast wilderness of the unknown.
Ok, so I’m being dramatic, but it is true! The quest to understand better ways, new things, or even just why something is happening the way it is happening can bring tremendous energy to a conversation and shift us away from the feeling of defeat or acceptance. It also encourages us to test further our ideas and back them with evidence. With a scientist mindset we fall in love with evidence, not ideas.
In a professional echo chamber where certainty is often lauded, the scientist’s creed tells us it is ok to use the humble acknowledgment of ‘I don’t know’. As long as it’s followed up by “but I’ll find out.
How do I hone my Scientist Mindset?
1. Curiosity Ignition:
Cultivating a robust sense of curiosity is fundamental to adopting a scientist’s mindset. Start by questioning the ‘taken for granted’ around you. Whenever confronted with a situation or a piece of information, invite questions such as ‘Why is it so?’, ‘How does it work?’, or ‘What if it were different?’. Be careful not to fall into the trap of over-analyzing things which can slow down organizations. Ask great questions, but once the evidence is clear, it’s time for progress!
2. Hypothesis Formulation and Testing:
Get into the habit of forming hypotheses in everyday situations, even if they seem mundane. For example, if you notice a plant in your home is not thriving, hypothesize about the possible causes. Is it lack of sunlight, water, or perhaps the soil quality? Then, design small ‘experiments’ to test your hypotheses – move the plant to a sunnier spot, adjust the watering schedule, or replace the soil and observe the outcomes. This practice of hypothesis testing can be applied in professional settings as well, aiding in problem-solving and decision-making processes.
3. Embrace Failure and Learn from It:
A crucial aspect of the scientist’s mindset is the ability to see failure as a source of valuable data rather than a setback. When things don’t go as expected, instead of shying away or feeling defeated, analyze what happened, identify the learning points, and use that information to refine your hypotheses or approaches. Adopting a ‘fail forward’ mentality encourages resilience, continual learning, and iterative improvement which are pivotal for both personal and professional growth. This is scary in a world of tight margins, but by ensuring that our experiments are thoughtful and start small first (even held together with tape and string) means that early failure is a blessing as it helps us hone the idea (or kill it) before we invest time and money into it.
Mind the Gap!
It’s worth noting that an organization’s natural equilibrium is around operating efficiently. Innovation represents variation and is therefore the incorrectly perceived enemy of efficiency. Organizations will naturally revert to their natural operating rhythm when no other force is applied. That’s why starting with something like the scientist’s mindset is a good place to start. It helps underpin the changes in thinking that is required to constantly innovate.
Above all, have fun with it! The idea of each day being filled with potential experiments (instead of blockers, distractions, and annoyances) makes it more thrilling! Enjoy the energy this gives you and watch how it changes the team around you. That, in and of itself, is an experiment to observe and learn from!