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Funding innovation, easier said than done: Explaining the gap between theory and action

Publication date: 
Saturday, February 1, 2014
Ashley GoodCEO and Founder, Fail Forward

The words surround us: Innovate, prototype, fail fast, iterate – so why is it so hard to actually put these intentions for innovation into practice within our organizations?

Creating the change we want to see in the world requires unprecedented levels of innovation; but simply recognizing that we need to fund more innovative ideas and likely be more innovative ourselves is harder than it sounds.

After years of working with organizations to build innovative learning cultures I have found two main barriers between knowing innovation is a good thing and actually acting in a way that would allow it to thrive.

It’s a skill we’re not taught
Innovation is a skill, and one that needs to be practiced. The trouble is most of us were educated to solve linear problems that required more memorization than creativity. Thus our tendency is to be consumers of knowledge rather than producers of it .

If your education was anything like mine, you’ll know we simply didn’t get the same amount of practice producing knowledge, creating something that didn’t exist before, or seeing and creating opportunities where none seemed to exist.  You can imagine these activities require skills such as ditching ideas that don’t work out quickly, presenting many early stage ideas, and seeking out divergent perspectives and feedback regularly.

It is deceptively challenging to “be innovative,” and our human tendency to avoid risk sure doesn’t help the matter. For reasons well-studied by neuroscientists, we tend to feel the pain of losses much more than the satisfaction of gains, even when they are quantitatively equal. 

The result is when a new idea doesn’t work out (and chances are it won’t, especially on the first try), we will feel the loss disproportionately to the benefits we might rationally acknowledge, making it hard to keep funding innovation even when we have started.

Our narrative is one of success
When success is the only option, innovation becomes virtually impossible. Nothing great was ever achieved without taking a risk, and with risk comes some failures. The more innovation needed, the higher the risk: the higher the risk, the greater the chance of failure.

If we don’t choose to change the narrative of success we are simply unlikely to try the riskier solutions that are needed to create the social change we want to see. What grant holders hear from their funders is, "Be innovative. Just don't come back to me with a project and grant that didn't work," which of course means always pursuing the safer and known choice.

I know most organizations have already figured this out, but the expectation for quarterly reporting on rates of return on your investments doesn’t help matters. Expectations for quarterly results can discourage innovation as it builds impatience to tell a story of success when generally the returns on investments in innovation (and in social change work in general) tend to take a lot longer.

So what do we do?
It is unlikely you will be able to fix the barriers listed above.   The entrenched norms in the sector and our history are simply part of us. So the question becomes, how do we manage these tendencies that curtail our aspiration for innovation?

In short, managing these barriers to get beyond the rhetoric and support innovation in practice requires a more productive relationship with the failures inherent in the process of innovation.  Failures are an unfortunate, but largely inevitable, part of solving our most important challenges so it is becoming an increasingly essential skill to be able to fail intelligently.

It’s up to you to decide what intelligent failure needs to look like at your organization and in your grantmaking but here is a list of ideas to get you started:

  • Get beyond instinctively negative reactions to failure by considering it in terms of what was learned, as a recognized teachable moment;
  • Clearly define the limits for risk by articulating how much and what kind of failure is acceptable in pursuit of innovation;
  • Reward learning, effort, and smart risk-taking, not just outcomes;
  • Create an expectation that both successes and failures should be shared; and
  • Role model the innovative mindset you want to see in those you fund.

Closing questions:

  • How have you managed to put innovation and intelligent failure into practice at your organization?
  • Do you think your organization has to be innovative in order to fund innovative work?

Curious to learn more? 
Feel free to get in touch ( or attend our Intelligent Failure session ( at the 2014 GEO National Conference. 

Bio: Ashley Good is the CEO and Founder of Fail Forward (, which supports organizations to learn, innovate and build resilience. You can connect with Ashley and Fail Forward on Twitter (@FailForward) and on Facebook (

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