Why We Should Think About Innovation as a Process: An Interview With Christian Seelos, Visiting Scholar at Stanford University

The social sector is overflowing with big, creative ideas these days, and thank goodness! Poverty, growing inequality, high youth unemployment, lack of access to clean water and healthy food— to solve these and other seemingly intractable problems throughout the world, we need to rethink traditional models and service systems. However, as anyone who has tried to turn an idea into an actual product or service knows, dreaming up “the next big thing” is often the easy part. Next comes the difficult work of implementation and ongoing efforts — often over a long period of time— to continually improve and adapt an organization’s model.

Unfortunately, much of the discourse in the social sector today focuses on innovation as an easy answer and risks undervaluing the benefits that come from sustaining and scaling an organization’s existing work. Christian Seelos, a visiting scholar at the Stanford University Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, and Johanna Mair, a professor of management, organization and leadership at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and the Hewlett Foundation visiting scholar at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, argue that the social sector needs to move away from viewing innovation as an ideology and instead think about innovation an organizational process. They put forward their case in “Innovation is Not the Holy Grail,” a August 2012 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and later explored the balance between innovation and scaling here.

In the interview below, you can listen to my conversation with Seelos about their work and specifically, the experience of Aravind Eye Care Hospital in India. Aravind has grown from an 11-bed hospital in Madurai in 1976 to become the world’s largest provider of eye care. It focuses on one chief intervention that addresses a major cause of preventable blindness: cataract surgery. Through dedicated focus on incremental improvements, Aravind has achieved a level of productivity that allows it to remain profitable, even as it provides many of its surgeries free of charge to India’s poorest citizens. It’s a great illustration of why we shouldn’t underestimate the value of the continual, small improvements to a model that eventually lead to better outcomes for individuals and communities.

This model of “incremental innovation” is as relevant in the developed as the developing world. In future posts, I will explore U.S. organizations that take a similar approach.

Listen below or download the interview.

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