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Experimentation: A Shortcut to Innovation

April 1, 2014

As featured on Stanford Social Innovation Review’s blog. For the full article click here.

“Van Jones [a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former special advisor to President Obama] once told me that what’s needed is for funders to stop giving grants and instead to fund experiments,” says Linda Wood, senior director for leadership and grantmaking at the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund. (See “The Re-Emerging Art of Funding Innovation.”)

We often think of experimentation as testing a single theory to gain a data point. But we are seeing an exciting trend of using experimentation to source innovative ideas, diverse connections, and game-changing solutions. This is happening across sectors and industries; in local, regional, and global arenas; via in-person and digital interactions; and with participants ranging from novices to PhDs.

Experimentation may seem unpredictable or risky given the serious issues that social organizations are tackling, but the world is changing faster than we can create impact using known methods. By experimenting to source new ideas, organizations can take advantage of multiple opportunities for learning, including crowdsourcing information, testing a process or tool, and empowering the community to contribute to the solution. While there is no single replicable model for experimentation, there are templates organizations can adopt to ensure the highest possible gains.

Put aside expertise
Given the depth of experience, degree of practice, and unique perspective that many of us have, it can be easy to have a “been there, done that” attitude. To intentionally listen in a new way to a new community, the Packard Foundation collaborated with Context Partners to design and host a portfolio of experiments to source new ideas. This resulted in a Starter Kit for Experimentation.

One experiment, The Squawkathon (a hackathon for designing better ways to track marine bird bycatch) proved fruitful. Even with their intense passion and deep understanding of the issue, Packard’s team approached every aspect of this experiment through a lens of inquiry rather than expertise. The result was a crowdsourced event with more than 30 participants, including marine biologists, technology developers, and design thinkers. Blurring the lines between experts and laymen, teachers and students, enabled attendees to explore ideas and recombine solutions from a broad range of experiences and industries. This generated sector-changing ideas not previously surfaced through traditional grantmaking. Most importantly, it connected Packard’s team to a pool of new potential grantees for future innovation.

Click for the full feature on SSIReview.org to read about two additional templates for experimentation.

Experimentation: A Shortcut to Innovation

Meg Busse

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