Pull Up A Chair, And Let’s Talk Innovation

In User Experience by Allen Thornburgh

Look down. What are you sitting on? An Aeron chair? If so, you are hardly alone. Herman Miller’s Aeron chair is, far and away, the best-selling office chair of all time.

Here is a picture of its predecessor:

Sarah’s chair

Yep, that’s the Sarah. The Sarah became the Aeron. The Aeron is one of the grandest innovations in office furniture anywhere in the world. The Sarah appears to be worlds apart from the Aeron.

But that’s the thing about innovation. It’s never linear.

Our dear unpredictable friend Innovation

Or at least innovation isn’t linear, when looking ahead. It’s often linear looking in the rear view mirror.

And so it is with the Aeron. The Sarah did not, in any way, anticipate the Aeron. But without the Sarah? No Aeron. Not then, and possibly not ever.

Slate‘s Cliff Kuang does an excellent job telling the story of the Aeron. In short, the Aeron came out of a project to develop a more comfortable chair for America’s aging population. The designers at Herman Miller saw that elderly people gravitated toward the La-Z-Boy, which was bad for their health in a number of ways.

The prototype solution? The aforementioned Sarah. It solved all the problems of the La-Z-Boy, including better ergonomics, gentler position controls, and plastic fabric stretched across a plastic frame for breathability and support. But Herman Miller eventually decided that the elderly wasn’t their market and — to much internal angst — killed the Sarah chair project.

Several years later, they revived the plastic fabric and frame design in a futuristic office chair: the Aeron. They were exceptionally nervous about this drastically unconventional chair. Until it started selling like no other chair had ever sold.

Innovating is Inconvenient. Not innovating is deadly.

What does this have to do with your nonprofit?

A ton.

Most nonprofits are really bad at innovation. Why? Because they tell themselves — in strategic planning sessions, in hallway conversations, at meet and greets at the scads of nonprofit conventions across the country — “We can’t afford to be innovative.” “We’re not like those consumer businesses who can throw money at new ideas.”

Thus the many nonprofits that have gone from Start-up (when they were innovative), to Growth phase (when they started understanding how to scale their starting innovation), to Maturity (when they started playing “not to lose”), to Stagnation (when “not to lose” inevitably turns to “losing”).

My colleague Kn Moy has been thinking about this organizational life cycle lately, and he got me really fired up about more intentionally coming alongside these many organizations who are headed for, or knee-deep in, Stagnation. Most organizations get tight in Maturity. Safe. Low risk. Their revenue portfolios are out of balance, with no or few potential home runs in the hopper.

Where can you find the best new ideas?

That’s the thing about potential home runs. Like the Aeron, they rarely come up ready-made in a brainstorming session or “shower thought” by the CEO. They come from the people you least expect, by way of the “failed” project, in a way no one dreamed. Nonlinear. They come because you included your entire organization in brainstorming, because you turned your innovators loose to narrow down the best ideas and launch pilot projects, and then when those pilot projects failed, you had the institutional patience to think “but…if we think about this a bit differently…is there still something here?”

You can afford to innovate. Really, you don’t have a choice. Because if you don’t innovate, Stagnation awaits. And if you don’t innovate your way out of Stagnation? The last organizational life stage: Death.

Want to talk more about innovation for your organization? Contact me at athornburgh@masterworks.com.