I had the honored of moderating a free wheeling plenary discussion on Day #3 of NTC on “Innovation and Nonprofits.” The panelists included Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, Meg Garlinghouse, Greg Baldwin, and Brian Reich. You can find the description and bios here and if you want to the video of the whole session, you can find it here. The conversation was non-linear, insightful, and allowed for debate on different points of view from the panelists.
I kicked it off with a provactive question, “Is innovation like porn – we know it when we see it?” (a nod to the Mapplethorpe/NEA controversy from the 1990’s). As Rally noted on its blog, “Beth Kanter kicked off Day #3 of NTC with a session characteristically full of zingers and tweetable one-liners. But the session wasn’t just about soundbites; it was full of insight too.” Rally did a graphic recording of the content and summarized the takeaways as:
- Innovation doesn’t come from organizations. It comes from individuals with ideas. However, one person cannot create innovation if s/he isn’t part of a team that’s willing and ready.
- It’s hard to find funders who will fund a risky idea – they usually want case studies an proven techniques. So philanthropists have a huge responsibility to rethink and innovate around their relationship with nonprofits, no matter what their gift-size is.
- The stakes for failure in the nonprofit community are so much higher in the nonprofit community than in the for-profit community. If people fail in marketing a product, a few people lose their jobs. If people fail in an intervention model, you can destabilize a society.
- Innovation is driven by iteration.
- Sometimes great innovation comes from not knowing any better and being unaware of the status quo. It frees you to think differently and pull ideas from new places.
I’m so glad that there was a graphic recording because when I’m moderating a discussion panel, I’m processing so many different things (audience feedback, watching the clock, intensely listening to panelists to summarize and cue up the next topic or bring out different points of view, etc – that focusing on a content synthesis is difficult without having someone else take notes and do graphic recording. It is also wonderful to have other people blogging about the session, like this post from the Pew Center.
We got great feedback on the session from the audience, including many people who came up after the session to say how much they appreciated that it wasn’t a boring and polite panel. Several colleagues asked me, “How do you prepare for a conversation like that?” That got me thinking about my prep process. I spent ten years as a focus group moderator so I think that experience was invaluable to learning how to facilitate wide ranging discussions, learning to listen intensely, and bringing out different points of view. I have also been studying and practicing “unpresenting” with Heather Gold, plus improv and stand up workshops with others. But here were my specific prep steps.
1. Think about the end first
What action or new way thinking do you want your audience to embrace. If you doing a plenary discussion panel at a conference, it is a good question to ask the host. One of the first questions I asked Holly, “Why do you want a panel on this topic?” This panel was design to have a conversation that unpacked innovation for the nonprofit technology field – openly discuss barriers and share inspiring examples.
2. Scaffolding Questions and Diverse Views in the Answers
Next, it is important to think about the framing for your topic. I almost always start with a set of neutral questions that try to pinpoint the divergent perspectives related to the topic. These questions included:
- What does innovation really mean? Is it big change or small changes?
- What are some examples of innovative nonprofits and technology? Why do think they illustrate innovative ways of working?
- Why is innovation so hard for nonprofits?
- How can funders and others encourage innovation in the nonprofit sector?
- What are some of the processes and practices in the for-profit (or already exist in the nonprofit sector) that nonprofits can embrace to be more innovative?
- Prompts (transparency, failure, scaling, partnerships)
- What can people in this room put into practice in the next week or year to be more innovative?
With questions formulated, it is now time to think about who should answer them. The first obvious criteria is to pick people who have spent many years thinking, speaking, and writing about the topic. Or as I said in my introduction, “Eat innovation for breakfast.”
The question in my mind was – how can we get different points of view so could learn through the discussion. I wanted to make sure that we had diversity in gender, but also from different lens including business, a nonprofit, philanthropic, and social investment. We also had different lens on the innovation topic – from sector/systems view and within organizations or businesses. It is also great to find thinkers and who will disagree (respectfully) with other panelists.
3. Just Enough Preparation To Avoid Anxiety, But Not Too Much So It Isn’t Boring
I’ve organized a lot of discussion panels so this advice varies depending on your speakers. I usually set up a google document for the panel that includes the script, online interaction design, timings, and logistics (when to arrive for the AV check, etc). We have a preparation call and I ask panelists to add their bullet points (in different colors) to the questions in the script and suggest different ways of asking the question. Depending on the panelists, I schedule a second call to have the discussion close to the panel using the bullet points, making refinements in the questions, etc. For this panel, we didn’t do that given the caliber of speakers and I wanted to keep some spontaneity in the discussion.
I also ask the speakers to include links that would provide good background for someone who didn’t know anything about the topic as well as links that represent their point of view on innovation. I also did a quick and dirty literature search on practical information about innovation from people who write for the nonprofit audience. I used this for my own preparation as well as for resource blog posts or if I’m really prepared, I share the list of links in a google documents or delicious with live Tweeters.
We Think Differently
Innovation in the Nonprofit Sector
Daniel Pink’s FLIP Manifesto
Eric Reis, The Lean Start Up
Seth Godin on Nonprofit INnovation
Brian Reich’s Interview About the Panel
Infographic on Innovation
How To Innovate More? Practice, Practice, Practice
Innovation/Culture of Play
4. Design the Audience Interaction
I had initially designed something more complicated, but decided to keep it simple. The complicated design involved the use of text or online flash polls that could be shared on the screen and have the audience take the poll. These would have questions that allow their audience to share their experience or attitudes about the topic or a speaker’s particular point. This works well your discussion is going to be linear and ours ended up as a non-linear format, so I decided to ditch the live polling.
Instead, we used the conference hashtag and asked people to tweet their comments and questions. Holly Ross was moderating the stream and captured the questions. These were shared on a google document that was projected on the speaker screen.
I would have added some offline audience interaction. Typically, I like to incorporate some “share pairs” some reflective questions that people in the audience can share with each other. I opted to keep this simple. If this was smaller audience (we had seating for 1750), I would have requested a wireless handheld mic and wandered into the audience.
5. Knowledge Capture and Reflection
It is important to have someone capture the conversation in notes and graphic recording (I’ve been arranging my own for many years, but NTEN has Rally sponsor this at the conference). With every presentation, panel, or workshop, I do knowledge capture and reflection. I review what I learned about the topic, what new insights were shared. I also do an after-action review – even if it ends up being with myself (that’s when I get to use my many magic markers to draw out reflections). This gives me ideas and areas to improve the next time around.
6. Use Good Facilitation Practices
I practice facilitation which is listening, thinking on your feet, and allowing for discussion all the time — from small meetings to when I’m facilitating a training. Some specific techniques include: respecting diverse communication styles, paraphrasing, drawing people out, mirroring, gathering ideas, stacking, tracking, encouraging, balancing, acknowledging feelings, intentional silence, listening for common ground, listening for different points of view, and summarizing. Over the many years I’ve been doing this, I have practice each technique actively until I don’t have to think about it. It has taken dozens of years, but that’s how you master the craft.
During the final question about “What is one thing you can put into practice in the next year?” – one panelists suggested embracing failure and making sure there is a #13NTC panel on the topic. Failure and learning is a topic that I’ve been wanting to dive into a deeper way – so in preparation for that panel submission, I’m going to continue write about it and curate resources. I would love to see a plenary, interactive fail fest at NTC, perhaps not possible – so at least count on a fun panel submission on the topic next year. If you’re interested in joining me, sign up here.