The Paradox of Tools and the Innovation Culture

BY: BEN WIENLICKThe Thing in the Room

So, there’s this “thing” I’ve noticed when organizations want to bolster innovation. Whether it’s the public sector, non-profits or private businesses, when organizations set out on a path to get better at innovation, there’s this weird thing hanging around in the conversations about how to foster innovation. The “thing” is a hope that there is a secret tool for innovation or formula their employees could learn and when trained in it, innovation will automatically gush forth. I understand the “thing” and I hoped for a silver bullet as well when I started my research into what fosters relevant innovation in organizations.

This hope that there is a simple secret formula to innovation has a pattern. My experience is that when the pattern is understood a bit better we can recognize it and then build more robust approaches to fostering meaningful innovation. The pattern that keeps us hoping for simple solutions looks something like this…

  • Complexity and Overwhelm: People and organizations are overwhelmed with the pace of change and nature of challenges today. The overwhelm is marked by increased complexity, increased uncertainty and often not a lot of clarity around what the root causes of a challenge might be.
  • Humans Are Weird: Humans get weird when faced with uncertainty: As humans we’re not great at navigating uncertainty. Typically, when life gets complex and chaotic our weird response is to try to control it through power or superstitions. We can also find ourselves longing for simple answers and fixes. The dangerous thing is, the more uncertainty and complexity we experience, the more we can find ourselves insisting on oversimplified solutions and narrowly focusing just on what is familiar to us. To make things worse, it’s easy to take advantage of our human vulnerability with uncertainty and so we end up easily buying into quick fixes, oversimplified truths and tools to save us or make us better. When these short sighted solutions don’t work, we get disappointed, uncertainty increases and the search for a new silver bullet starts again. Too many of these disappointing cycles, and some really ugly stuff might arise. For instance, good people all of a sudden being open to fascist strong men with delusions that only they can fix a complex problem… But that’s a different post.

Now, I’m not trying to say that tools to foster innovative solutions are useless – they are important. I use innovation process tools, facilitate them, teach them and recognize they are an important part of the complex puzzle of fostering relevant innovation. The point I want to make is that we won’t create lasting innovation in our organizations if all we do is focus on getting our employees trained up in tools like Design Thinking, Social Lab processes, Strategic Foresight, CPS (Osborne-Parnes Creative Problem Solving), Lego Serious Play or any other tool of innovation.

If organizations are truly serious about innovation, then the leadership in it needs to recognize the importance of investing in both tools of innovation and the longer term and tougher work of building and strengthening a culture of innovation. Why? One reason is that all innovations have a shelf life and if we get too attached to sustaining one innovation that was successful in the past, we will be unable to see opportunities and stay relevant. If we strengthen our culture of innovation, we can keep adapting and innovating as our innovations rise and fall with the needs of the people we serve and the trends of the time.

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Putting the Unity in Community

BY: KAY ROBINSONCommunity Voicemail

A chronic deprivation of power and resources occurs when a person is phoneless and disconnected from society. The current system requires you to phone, fax, email or google a website for advancement of any kind. Without a phone, access to employment, training, health care and housing is denied.

The City of Prince George has found a solution to the disconnection problem that has been depriving people for so long. They have launched a program called the Community Voice Mail. This program allows people to regain their power to make positive changes in their lives by connecting to services that have a shared value in reducing poverty.

The Community Voice Mail program provides free voice mail phone numbers to people without a phone. Removing the stigma, participants personalize their voice mail by using their own voice to tell service providers to “leave a message”. 25 community service providers are all connected to this program, by distributing the free voice mail numbers, ensuring that they will never lose contact with their clients.

The program has an additional feature, pulling the community together even closer together, which is the broadcast message sent out every week to inform people that are cut off from society, a list of workshops, training events, employment fairs, free haircuts, free holiday dinners and anything else that the city has to offer to address challenges. The clients and front line workers receive this broadcast and pass on the information to others. The Community Voice Mail program is a pivotal example of community engagement, born out of a need for social innovation.

The service successfully met people’s needs allowing them to move on to a better life. As people exit the program, new clients enroll, creating a new cycle, this time with success embedded into the system. Re- organization is at work here.

The Community Voice Mail has been so successful in Vancouver BC, Prince George BC and Calgary, Alberta, that there are plans to launch the program in Winnipeg BC and Terrace BC. The opportunity remains wide open for scaling up. Let us dive in further and connect the country of Canada and witness the incredible success as community’s pull together.

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Collective Impact in Motion


A new report by The Atmospheric Fund (TAF) and Evergreen CityWorks reflects on the lessons learned by Move the GTHA, a dozen civic groups that coalesced around the need for transit investment in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA).

The report, Collective Impact in Motion, covers the period during which TAF provided funding to Evergreen to launch a collaboration aimed at accelerating transit investment, through to when Premier Wynne’s government was elected on a platform that included significant new funding for transit. 

What makes this detailed case study particularly unique is its effort to document the “behind the scenes” lessons that help support excellence in project implementation – ones that tend to fade from view as we complete one initiative and head into the next. The report considers how the project’s collaborative group was conceived of, why it came together, who participated and why, and how much investment of time and money it required. We included thoughts about the role of funders in supporting – and participating in – collaboration work, and the importance of “backbone” support in keeping the wheels on the collective bus. And we compare our experience with the model developed by John Kania and Mark Kramer in 2011 that expressed five elements that define the new field of “collective impact” work. 

Insights into the internal workings that kept a dozen diverse civic groups at the table for two years, educating one another and co-developing and jointly implementing strategy in a way that brought new resources and political attention to their cause are particularly valuable.  Take a look at the report if you are curious about:

  • What exactly happened during all those phone calls and meetings?
  • What did we spend our money on?
  • Who was responsible for what?
  • What did we do when we couldn’t agree?
  • What types of new relationships and insights developed and how did it affect our work? and
  • Was it all really worth the effort?

If you are curious about how the efforts of the Move the GTHA group was integrated with political decision-making around increasing funding for transit and active transportation in the GTHA, you can take a look at the project milestones. These span the announcement of The Big Move plan in 2008 to calls for new revenue tools from the Toronto Region Board of Trade, the high-profile Drummond Report, the launch of the “Your 32” campaign and a Zombie Video release!

If you are a funder or an organization interested in – or struggling with – when and how to enter into a formal cross-sectoral collaboration to make change, you will also want to see the 10 key lessons developed from this work, a distillation of experience gleaned through the keen observations of the “backbone” players. See these to find out why collaboration may be the wrong move, what new skills are needed to manage this kind of work, and why multi-stakeholder work is deemed critical for developing sustainability solutions.

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A Partnership Building Primer 


Building Bridges for Collaborative Success is a resource for organizations seeking to build sustainable partnerships through the power of collaboration.

Evidence-based and aptly named a primer, the resource is the result of 4 years of collaborative health research between the Canadian Cancer Society, BC Cancer Agency, Northern Health, University of British Columbia and Athabasca University, termed the Harmonization project.

The primer brings the collaborative experience to life with ‘living labs’ offering team member reflections. Thoughts on team dynamics, project hurdles, decision making, and communication are openly shared throughout the primer, adding to its readability and real-life authenticity.

In addition to identifying 7 phases of collaboration, embedded links to resources supplement the primer with hands-on tools for collaborative success. Community partners seeking change through collaboration will find this primer helpful, as will those groups seeking to ensure the sustainability of existing collaborative projects.

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This Holiday, Give the Gift of Learning

BY: PAUL BORNPeople_Holding_Hands_in_a_Cricle_Around_a_Light_bulb_Idea.jpg

Are you looking for a unique, meaningful way to give during the holiday season? You can give a gift to share learning and inspire positive social change.

We’ve launched a special campaign to grow our Be a Light Scholarship Fund so more people with incredible talent but limited resources can attend Tamarack learning events. We want to share new ideas, tools, and resources as broadly as possible.

Your gift to Be a Light will help someone like Marnie. She’s unemployed and involved with a local poverty reduction organization in her city. Earlier this year, she heard about an upcoming Tamarack conference on poverty reduction in Edmonton that she wanted to attend.

“I wanted to find out more about what is going on in the field of poverty reduction, and wanted to meet more people who are working and volunteering in this field,” Marnie said.

Thanks to a Be a Light Scholarship, Marnie was able to travel to Edmonton to join us. She was able to share her perspectives and be part of a conversation involving mayors and community leaders from across Canada. Her voice was heard and will impact the poverty reduction strategies put forth across the country.

You can make this kind of impact for someone else like her. In 2016, we were able to provide more than 50 people with scholarships of $500 to $1,000 each. In 2017, we want to help 100 people with lived experience and incredible talent to be part of our learning events.

Please consider giving personally or asking your organization to make a contribution. Thank you for doing your part to share the learning and light up the world!

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The Latest from the Field

Upcoming Events

Community Engagement: The Next Generation

March 7-9, 2017
Vancouver, BC

This March 7-9 we will host a three day workshop, Community Engagement: The Next Generation, in Vancouver, BC to explore the latest engagement techniques and interact with the technology that will transform how you engage your clients, customers, funders and partners.

Together, with Paul Born, Mark Holmgren and Lisa Attygalle, we will explore and learn to apply:

  • A toolkit for Community Engagement practices
  • Proven techniques that companies have been using for years to increase customer loyalty
  • Systems change theory and the role engagement plays in building movements for change
  • Engagement technologies and the amazing power these have given us to listen to and communicate effectively with large groups of people

For a closer look at the workshop agenda, please visit our Agenda or to register today click here



Can’t make it? Don’t fret.
By registering you will also receive a recording of the live session along with resources shared.

Neighbourhood-Based Strategies that Reduce Poverty: Baltimore’s Approach

Stacey B. Stephens & Ms. Brownywn Mayden | December 8, 2016 @ 1:00 - 2:00 p.m. EST

Effectively Engaging Leaders with “Lived Experience”

Celeste Licorish | December 13, 2016, 2016 @ 12:00 - 1:00 p.m. EST

IMPACT: Who You are is As Important as How

Al Etmanski, Vickie Cammack & Ted Kuntz | January 10, 2017 @ 12:00 - 1:00 p.m. EST