The Successfully Innovative Organization

By David Morstad

I am fresh from a Leadership Retreat within my own organization.

Its theme was innovation – how to foster it, how to more effectively create a culture in which it might flourish, and maybe just how to stay out of its way. One of the focal points of the week was a morning of conversation with representatives from two businesses with no real connection to the field of developmental disability support services:  GE Healthcare and Trek Bicycles.

What do these two companies, both high preforming and highly innovative, do when it comes to encouraging and benefiting from the innovative process? A couple of important ideas emerged from the conversation.

Talk to others

We talk to ourselves an awful lot in this field.  In fact, one could make a pretty strong argument that doing so has made us all alike. We have believed the rhetoric that our field is so unique that all the available answers to the challenges we face must certainly already lie within ourselves and our well-worn pathways of thinking. The outcomes of that pattern of thought and action are pervasive in our history.

Years ago, we aimed to provide good, sound supportive care, and we adopted a medical model because that was what we knew. We aimed for employment, and we invented the sheltered workshop because we knew how to run things institutionally. We aimed to provide a meaningful day, and we arrived at Day Services because we only knew how to think about people in groups. These days, our best ideas for public policy advocacy seem to involve shouting the same things over and over, only louder.

Why would we do otherwise when we only know dependence upon a public system that has always supported us?

We sing the virtues of a robust, diverse and integrated community for those whom we support, yet fail to operate that way ourselves. When you only talk to yourself, the answers all sound the same. If we want new answers, it will require us to engage a far more diverse group in our conversations.

Know your consumer

We hear it over and over again from people in other businesses – there is a direct and profoundly important link between being innovative and making the effort to know your consumer well. That is most certainly the case in our field. We already know that listening more closely to people with disabilities has led to remarkable improvements in the quality of our supports. But it’s time to dig deeper.

By listening more closely to their consumers, businesses have helped to reshape and transform the very cultures in which they do business. Consider not only the obvious Apple and Microsoft, but the less obvious like Proctor and Gamble and, yes, GE and Trek Bikes.

Just as we are continually transformed by others, we can – if we listen closely enough and respond purposefully enough – support people with disabilities to transform their own communities.

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