Innovation: Revolution, Evolution or a Combination?

While there are many definitions of innovation depending on the thinker’s lens, more often than not, innovation falls into two categories: revolution and evolution.

Revolutionary innovation is dramatic. It is most often associated with the introduction of products that transform the market—like personal computers, digital cameras, and interactive products like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home. When we think of the entrepreneurs behind revolutionary innovation, we think of people like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos or even Marie Curie. Revolutionary innovation can often require a high-risk investment. It is often expensive and warrants investments from funders—or sponsors—willing to take a risk that the proposed product, process, or system will indeed result in transformation.

Evolutionary innovation seeks incremental changes to existing products, processes, systems, and structures. It is not usually as expensive as revolutionary innovation. The outcomes are somewhat more predictable and easy to fix if they do not work. The incremental changes, too, require some risk, but not as much as in a revolutionary innovation. Evolutionary innovation is still growth, it is still change, and it can transform the marketplace—in every industry, including social services.

Those of us in the non-profit, social services leadership must work in an arena that affords a combination of both revolutionary and evolutionary innovation. We look for new ideas every day from every sector of our stakeholders including our board, staff, funders, and our business and non-profit partners. We seek investment in ideas that promise transformative results.

Our Get Ready!™ and PrepNOW!™ web-based products that help youth in foster care and their foster parents prepare for and succeed in the journey to college are examples of evolutionary innovation.  While there was already work occurring in the field to help young people in in foster care go to college, Fedcap designed innovative content and an innovative distribution approach to addressing the issue.

Every single day at Fedcap we explore both revolutionary and evolutionary innovation. Both are needed if we are going to solve problems, eradicate poverty and create pathways to economic well-being for populations vulnerable to living a lifetime of food, housing and job insecurity.   We look at existing structures, systems, and processes, and ask targeted questions that will garner innovation and result in  transformative outcomes for those with barriers to economic well-being.

How do you seek innovation—through revolution, evolution, or a combination of both?

As always, I welcome your thoughts.


Transforming the Social Safety Net into a Trampoline

There are numerous programs offered by the government that provide a safety net for the poorest and most vulnerable. While these programs have helped millions of individuals, sometimes those served get caught up in them—never developing the skills or capacity to move past the need—enrolling in them generation after generation.

At Fedcap, we have spent a great deal of time thinking through and operationalizing a programmatic structure that seeks to bolster the social safety net in order to create a trampoline—where people when served well, in a timely manner with the right intensity of interventions, can soar. We work hard to first understand and then build on the inherent skills and aspirations of every individual we serve. We teach critical hard and soft work skills. We assist those served in building their network of support. We teach financial literacy and work in partnerships with banks to help establish savings accounts. We appropriately reduce support over time. We believe in people’s ability to work and communicate that ability through every interaction.

Across the country we are working to help people receiving government benefits to find jobs in high growth sectors where they have a very good chance of climbing the career ladder. We are helping them imagine a life where they can feed their families, buy a home, send their children to college and retire in confidence. That is the goal of our work—to move past food insecurity, home insecurity and job insecurity to a life where individuals develop the lifelong skills and attitudes to achieve long term economic well-being.

And equally important we are committed to changing the actual service systems– from the federal government down– so that there is an institutionalized approach to creating a system that promotes and expects, resilience, opportunity and upward mobility.

Corporate Week as a Strategy for Leadership Communication

Thousands of books have been written about business communication. I suspect most CEOs could write their own about what works and what doesn’t. Here at Fedcap, we have co-created an excellent model for ongoing leadership communication on a regular basis.

We are a large and complex organization with over 4,000 employees working throughout the United States. We are comprised of a growing number of “brands”, each with its own identity, and in common, a commitment to eliminate barriers to economic well-being. We do our work through four practice areas—education, workforce development, occupational health, and economic development, along with our Community Impact Institute (CII), which is the research, innovation and “think tank” arm. Corporate Services provides every practice area and company with the Financial, Technological, HR, Engagement and Facilities infrastructure required to succeed. These elements of Fedcap- practice areas, brands, CII and corporate services- augment, support, and strengthen each other to advance our mission.

Needless to say, given this organizational structure, good communication is paramount to our success. Our executive team thought long and hard about the many processes and structures that needed to be in place to facilitate effective communication. One model we designed is called Corporate Week.

Corporate Week is an in-person gathering of leaders from throughout the organization. We gather four times a year to discuss our strategy, pipeline, finances, impact, and environmental trends, ensuring we are prepared for and “ahead of the curve” on any challenges that may come our way.

While it takes a lot to bring people together in one place, I feel strongly that it is essential. The people in these meeting rooms are some of the brightest minds working today, and just being in the room together generates amazing dialogue, offers opportunity to wrangle and disagree, and ultimately, creates an opportunity to identify potential solutions to some of society’s toughest problems. Guests are invited to enhance the discussion and ensure our thinking is cutting edge.

Once the week is over—and it is a busy week with five core meetings and many opportunities for additional small group discussions—our leaders take the learning back to their respective teams. This brings the strategy and structure closer to the frontlines—an essential building block for trust, motivation, and success. And ultimately, this success manifests itself in relevant, sustainable impact for those we serve and for the community at large.

What are some of your best practices around communication with agency leaders?

Celebrating Women’s History Month

To ignore the vital role that women’s dreams and accomplishments play in our own lives would be a great mistake. We draw strength and inspiration from those who came before us – and those remarkable women working among us today. They are part of our story, and a truly balanced and inclusive history recognizes how important women have always been in American society.                                                                                                                                                                                —National Women’s History Project

I am a big fan of history. And women’s history holds a particularly compelling place for me. Prior to 1970, women’s stories did not enter the history books nor were their accomplishments highlighted in practically any venue. We still feel vestiges of the dearth of women’s stories today, but it is getting better. Hearing and knowing the stories of people and events of our collective past helps—always—to inform our understanding of the origins of the issues that we face today—issues that we work hard every day to solve and to improve.

March is National Women’s History Month—so declared by Congress as late as 1987. It was created to underscore the contributions of women, past and present, in every facet of our lives—from medicine to arts to government to education, science, and community. Here at Fedcap, we celebrate Women’s History Month as a chance to create new opportunities for women to make history.

When I think of women’s history, I think of the much-too-long lens of women who have been faced with barriers to economic well-being.  As of March, 2018, the global unemployment rate for women is 6%–0.8% higher than their male counterparts. For many women, unemployment is a chronic issue—one that we are working hard to solve.

There are many aspects that contribute to chronic unemployment for women. For example, household demands, such as child care, transportation, procurement of meals, and education oversight fall unevenly to women. These unequal demands can intervene in consistent job search or attendance if there is a crisis of any sort. The results are manifold: women are apt to lose their jobs due to multiple demands; they are forced to take more “informal” jobs with lower wages; or they are not able to sustain training or education that might help their transition into a living-wage job. Solving this problem means sharpening awareness of the issue as well as finding the drive and the wherewithal to redistribute family responsibilities.

In addition, it is key that we continue to foster female enrollment in a variety of opportunities for learning—vocational and workforce training, entrepreneurial programming, and higher education.

At Fedcap, and among our family of agencies, lifting up the opportunities for training and education is among our key strategies for working on employment issues for women. For example, our Career Design School has a high enrollment of women learning and advancing in a variety of fields, including culinary arts, document imaging, security, custodial, and office skills. While we help women with job readiness as well as securing employment, we emphasize the skills and mechanisms needed to engage beyond short-term employment, a long-term career ladder.  We also support women veterans and we help older women find meaningful jobs through ReServe.

For us, Women’s History Month means not just recognizing the women and industries that have gone before, but it is a catalyst for recognizing the commitment and the dedication of workforce initiatives to help women create new histories for themselves and their families for generations to come.

What is one thing you might do that could raise awareness or intervene in improving the statistics for economic well-being for women?

The Butterfly Effect

The Butterfly Effect is a concept derived from the field of meteorology. It suggests that a tiny disruption—such as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings—can create a ripple effect that creates a significant and powerful shift in conditions—such as a tsunami—far away. Our work at Fedcap is not unlike the Butterfly Effect. One tiny and very precise intervention or disruption in the stream of an existing process or structure can gather momentum and ultimately create a huge shift in what appears to be a well-established and predictable system.

We approach our work—both from a strategic point of view and a tactical point of view by asking the question:  What is a precise and simple change we can make that could potentially and significantly alter the existing outcome we strive to impact?

For example, we know that:

Seventy-three percent of people of working age with significant disabilities are unemployed.

Sixty-three percent of individuals leaving prison are arrested within three years.

One in six children live in poverty.

Seventy-four percent of youth leaving foster care end up homeless, jobless, in prison, or pregnant.

We also know that to overhaul an entire system that would instantly change these statistics would require huge political, cultural, industrial, and business changes. And so we strive to pinpoint very specific interventions, that—like the Butterfly Effect—will ultimately result in a change of these bleak statistics.

Here’s an example: we looked at the issue of youth aging out of foster care and asked the question—what is an intervention that would offer a stable and equitable avenue for youth to thrive after foster care rather than fall prey to homelessness or incarceration? The answer that seemed most viable was: attending college. And so we asked: Why aren’t more youth attending college? And ultimately: What does it take to inspire youth to want to go to college and to follow through with application and enrollment? After much research and consultation with child welfare experts, the answer was clear: young people need huge support at home to guide them through the application process. But: what if foster parents themselves need guidance to help support these processes? And we discovered that many foster parents did not have the tools to help their foster children navigate the transition from high school to college—let alone the transition out of the foster system.

In answer to the question: what is a precise and simple change?, we created our PrepNow! and our GetReady! programs. PrepNow! offers parents a step-by-step guide with support to help them as they help their foster children prepare for college. GetReady! is a guide for the youth themselves—helping prepare them for the challenges—and rewards—of a college education. Ultimately, it offers them a way out of the 74% chance of lifelong economic instability.

After several years’ intervention, we now see the results of our action: The Administration for Children’s Services has adopted PrepNow! and GetReady! as part of their foster parent training. And we are seeing a downward shift in the difficult statistics of youth aging out of foster care. Our intervention is working.

I would suggest that the Butterfly Effect is a viable and productive lens through which to see possibilities of societal change. These types of interventions are replicable and scalable. These are the types of interventions we work toward every day.

What essential questions might you ask to effect a simple, yet essential change to a system you care to improve?

Considering the Relationship Between Strategy and Structure

Good people fail in the absence of structure. Anyone who knows me knows that this statement reflects one of my central tenets about leadership and organizational success.  I have come to this conclusion after watching people who had great potential fail because of a lack of clarity around how what they did—everyday—advanced the mission of the agency.

It is my observation that organizations often confuse strategy and structure—or try to build the structure in the absence of strategy. Strategy is the road map for an organization—it is a forward-looking plan to accomplish the mission.  It is informed by a variety of forces including, but not limited to market pressures, government policies, and changing demographics.  It provides a clear picture of the work that the agency will do two, three, or five years out.  Structure is how we organize the work to carry out the strategy.   Building structure without strategy is like having a map but no destination.  And simply having strategy with no structure, results in unfocused and poorly sequenced processes, poor utilization of resources, and failure to effectively leverage technology. Strategy is the destination, structure is the map, and the right people, technology, equipment, and infrastructure are all necessary components that serve the structure, and ultimately serve the strategy.

I have also noticed that sometimes people confuse structure with organizational charts.  Yes, they are a type of structure, but they serve only a narrow purpose. They don’t explain anything beyond who sits where in an organization. They don’t tell you how the work is done or where to go or what to expect.  A well-defined structure organizes the “buckets” of work and further delineates the processes, technology, and resources within and across each bucket. For example, when you go to the ER, a hospital organizational chart is not helpful, it does not tell you how to get your needs met. Every ED patient goes through a 1) registration and an administrative intake process where their medical, demographic and insurance information is obtained, 2) a series of diagnostic testing encounters, 3) one or more therapeutic interventions, and finally, 4) a disposition/discharge process.   For the most part, ER work is organized around and within this structure.  In its absence, patient needs would go unmet, and good staff would flounder.

As a leader, I want to be spending my time serving my strategy. We have many challenges to solve, innovations to design, and interventions to implement if we are to solve society’s toughest problems. I invest in helping my team build the necessary structure to ensure that we are effective and efficient stewards of every dollar that comes through our door.

What are your thoughts on organizational structure? I would love your input on this fascinating topic!

Focus on Female Veterans: Finding Precise Solutions to the Transition Home

Today, there are over two million female veterans living in the U.S.—roughly 10% of the 2018 veteran population. Women serve in all areas of the military, from frontline combat to a variety of highly technical and challenging jobs, services, and posts, including service as jet fighter pilots, tank operators, and leaders of elite units like the Green Berets, the Navy SEALS, and the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment. Just like their male counterparts serving in active combat zones, female soldiers face the same tests of courage, valor, heroism, and—way too often—trauma.

For many veterans, the return home brings its own critical tests. Veterans are twice as likely to be homeless as their civilian counterparts. Many suffer from a variety of issues such as Traumatic Brain Injury, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Substance Use Disorder. Many are unable to find jobs, having learned specialized training in the military that does not necessarily translate to civilian skillsets.

For female veterans, these challenges are even more profound. Female veterans suffer double the rates of depression and PTSD than their male counterparts. One in five female veterans report sexual trauma and harassment during their military service. And these are only those who report abuse. Many are reluctant to report because there are not enough structures and processes in place that can satisfactorily mitigate past abuse or offer the much-needed support to recover from the resulting trauma.

Female veterans are also more often challenged than their male counterparts as single heads of households. Finding and affording childcare, juggling the needs of family, housing, healthcare, transportation, and education are more likely to be the domain of female veterans than their male counterparts.

More and more women are joining the military. The projected numbers are that in the next 10-20 years, the female veteran population will be upwards of 18% of all veterans. Stigma about women veterans not counted as “real” veterans, a lack of proportional services for returning female vets, and not enough support for issues around sexual abuse all add up to both the cultural and practical necessity to improve and make widespread the urgency of increased awareness and solutions for female veterans.

On March 27th,we are launching our 15th Solution Series forum: Women Veterans Transitioning to Civilian Life. This event, held at the Mutual of America building on Park Avenue in Manhattan will feature a panel of experts on the issues facing women veterans. Together they will explore the challenges and generate a dialogue on what and how we in business and social services can do to offer precise solutions to the issues facing women vets. We will learn what mechanisms currently exist and how we can create scalable and replicable solutions for our returning heroes. We can be part of the solution.

I urge you to join us for this profound discussion. Click here to register.

Creating a Legacy of Sustainable, Relevant Impact

I wanted to begin this week by sharing how much the Fedcap family, along with the rest of the nation—and the world—mourn the deaths of the 17 people who were killed at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day. The ripple effect of these—and too many other—tragic shootings will echo throughout our country and the world and will impact generations to come. These heartbreaking stories of lives cut short and the reverberations of the trauma and tragedy become part of a family and a community’s legacy. Like so many, my hope is that by working together, we as a nation can come together to solve the problems that lead to this sort of trauma and tragedy.

Solving seemingly intractable societal problems is difficult and important work.

For the Fedcap family of agencies, we actively pursue precise interventions to eliminate barriers to economic well-being. Doing this work day in and day out demands persistence, vision and a belief in what is possible.  We are striving to halt legacies that affect not only an individual, but a family, a community, and a generation.

In our work we have learned that there is no “one size fits all” solution to eliminating barriers to economic well-being. That said, we have learned that there ARE consistent mechanisms that help. One of the most essential keys is having one or more champions who offer support, and who inspire the belief that a life can change for the better. Another factor is the access to new skills that provide a tactical and practical toolkit for growth.

One great example of interventions that made a difference is the story of Leslie Fields. Leslie had a long history of drug abuse and incarceration and a lot of bad luck around her. She was lonely, afraid and thought her life’s course was cast. But then, while in rehab, Leslie was referred to our Facilities Management Program to learn new skills. She joined our Wildcat Neighborhood Improvement Project, did well, and then went to work at Governor’s Island. She continued to do well and was then transferred to our corporate offices in Manhattan. She says of her success, “The work was great, but it was the positive energy at Fedcap that helped me to finally feel better about my life. The truth is, Fedcap gave me hope when I had none. It was like suddenly I had a friend who would back me up, no matter the situation.”

Sustaining relationships, practical skills, and hope propelled Leslie Fields to a better life.  Each of these problem-solving tools can be systematized and intentionally driven. With them we are working every day to solve problems, creating a legacy of sustainable, relevant impact.

Becoming a Smart Disrupter

I spend a lot of time thinking about the general comfort people find in living with status quo. It is all around us. In my mind, maintaining the status quo is relatively easy. It is familiar. In most workplaces, maintaining the status quo allows us to carve a relatively secure place in our day to day work. For the most part, we know what is anticipated and what is expected. That said, in my experience, maintaining the status quo can also be a recipe for atrophy and, ultimately, a withering of the “edge” we need if we are to solve societal problems.

Changing the status quo means facing the often uncomfortable unknown—or even, quoting the famous Donald Rumsfeld soundbite, “the unknown unknowns.” It most often means intentionally moving into an environment where we are willing to challenge our current competency or understanding of the world. It means being willing to be a force for disruption.

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 9.33.35 AMDisrupting the status quo propels us forward –creating an environment where we can innovate and design new products and interventions – untethered by what was. Smart disrupters—in any field improve their products and drive the market demand. The recipe for challenging the status quo and becoming a smart disrupter is to first, recognize the orthodoxies, the patterns, the processes that drive current system design and service delivery and the accompanying outcomes. And then to be willing to ask where, within these current processes, can we introduce new ways of thinking, acting and delivering products and services? Or—be willing to create entirely new approaches, processes—driving an entirely different kind of interface between the customer and the service. (Think Uber or Airbnb)

The field of Human Services is ripe for disruption. We have used similar strategies for decades and we all know, in most cases, the needle has not moved. People served are not experiencing profoundly improved outcomes. Effective leveraging of technology, rethinking system design, re-imagining where and how we connect with the consumer—must be part of our future.

By learning how to project market trends through use of data, and effectively leverage emerging technologies and cloud platforms, we can leave status quo behind and effectively take on the role of disrupter.

I welcome your thoughts on this discussion.