Here’s a dirty little secret about the food business: An apple you pick up at your local supermarket is, on average, 14 months old. By the time you sink your teeth into it, it has lost most of its nutritional value. The thing is, most consumers are not aware of this. “People think they’re buying a healthy snack,” says Greg Shewmaker, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Target who is helping the retail giant reposition itself amid quickly evolving consumer mores around healthy food. “But year-old apples are the nutritional equivalent of a sugary ball of fiber; all the nutrients have already leached out.”
I had the great misfortune of reading this paragraph while eating an apple. I didn’t even feel like eating the apple, but I’m trying to eat healthier and figured the giant Honeycrisp apple was just the thing.
(As an aside, my friend Douglas criticizes Honeycrisp apples as “too contrived.” Ha! I actually kind of know what he means, but they taste great, so ‘feh’ to such fruit snobbery…)
So, back to the apple, I was pretty bummed to learn that, rather than eating something healthy, I was likely consuming “a sugary ball of fiber.”
Fast Company carries this fascinating story of how Target has brought in MIT Lab and IDEO to develop a better apple-shopping experience for consumers through its innovation project coLab. And not just apples, but potentially many different foods. Among the elements of the story are huge data sets, a Food Computer that can grow anything, and infrared spectroscopes to understand how fresh some foods really are.
But beyond the head-spinning, industry-specific technology, we see some innovation best practices that 21st century non-profits should employ:
1. Comfort with Ambiguity
Target is investing a great deal of energy into understanding something new, even as it is unsure of the business application. As non-profits mature, they tend to shift from courageous risk-takers (“I bet this will work…let’s find out…”) to cautious bureaucracies (“We can’t afford to try something that isn’t already proven!”). They reject the very strategy that caused their rise — a willingness to take risks to lead the market. And that’s why they decline.
No one is saying that non-profits should throw caution to the wind. But if you aren’t placing some risky constituent-facing bets in the marketplace, you’re playing it too safe. And you’re thereby sailing toward decline.
2. Focus on the Constituent Experience
Volunteers participate and donors give, because they are receiving, or believe they will receive, a rewarding constituent experience (CX). Sure, there are other factors as well, but the CX is an undeniably huge element of the decision and affirmation mental processes. Too few non-profits are trying to understand their constituents’ experiences, much less design improved CX and execute accordingly.
We’ve all heard Wonderful Non-profit Old Timer tell us about how he or she was involved in rapidly growing their organization in the 80s and 90s through basic direct marketing and major donor fundamentals. Thanks to the amazing 20-year growth of new non-profits entering the marketplace, not to mention enormous declines in responsiveness to advertising, GenX and Millennial non-profit leaders have a far greater challenge. If you’re not highly focused on CX, you’re playing the growth game with one hand tied behind your back.
3. Collaborating with an Innovation Partner
I have never seen or heard of a successful innovation effort wholly developed from within an organization. Ever. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? Organizations are designed for efficiency, for annual cycles, for operations, for predictable occurrences. Cultures and bureaucracies form within those organizations that work directly against innovation. Not because there are necessarily bad actors working against innovation, but rather, that the staff has been hired for something else, and — while they definitely can and absolutely should contribute to innovation — it takes an external innovation partner to help them get there.
Target partners with IDEO for their “process, speed and culture.” Forward-leaning non-profits similarly need external innovation partners to help them install and run an innovation system that can fly.
4. Counter Bureaucracy with Fast Track Pilot Authority
This is so hard for any organization, whether a business or non-profit. Anything innovative feels too risky to core operations staff, who typically have goals associated with the efficient accomplishment of program or financial tasks. Injecting something new and unproven runs the risk of them missing these important goals. There’s no “easy fix”, necessarily, because the core problem is one of trust. Can core ops staff trust leadership to be okay with them missing some goals due to collaborating with innovation? It’s the job of executive leadership to create the environment needed for such multiparty trust. Early in an innovation cycle, smart innovation evangelists within organizations will seek such guarantees and facilitate such discussions.
5. Eyes on the Prize
Make no mistake — innovation isn’t about “doing cool things.” It’s about growth. In particular, innovation is your main strategy for big growth. And it’s most organizations’ answer to the question “Why aren’t we growing anymore?”
Answer: Because you didn’t innovate.
Target opened its first store in 1962. They didn’t start selling food until 1995. Now, food makes up $20 billion of Target’s $72 billion in annual sales. In other words, their innovation into food sales provides almost 30% of their current sales. Had they not taken this risk to innovate, they’d be 30% smaller than they presently are. Who knows how much farther their latest generation of food innovation will take them?
Who knows how much your non-profit could grow with intentional innovation?