THE BLOG
01/14/2014 07:15 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2014

Capacity Building vs. Innovation Readiness

One of the key obstacles in bringing about change in communities is that many organizations, leaders and networks (among other factors) need to beef up their capacities to help create change. Oftentimes the response to this challenge is to do "capacity building" -- when it's "innovation readiness" that's needed most.

I make this distinction thinking about the scores of local United Ways, public libraries, public radio and television stations I've worked with and their own challenges in bringing about change. Or the countless number of conversations I've had with foundation presidents and program officers about their frustrations that more community change is not being produced as a result of their funding. And it's the numerous meetings I've had with leaders of faith-based institutions and organizations that worry about their very relevance.

It's not that capacity building isn't necessary. My own organization has spent the last year strengthening its internal operations, board of directors and financial systems. Without this strength, it's hard to move forward, and it's impossible to sustain good efforts. Moreover, we all recognize that it is critical for individual leaders to develop new skill sets to run meetings better, improve planning and learn to engage in an increasingly diverse world.

The problem is that too often "capacity building" helps us to do what we already do, only better. Our path forward remains largely the same. We can all name an organization or two that have undertaken new strategic plans under the banner of "change," only to end up incrementally modifying their programs, or even creating new ones, but without having shifted their approach to tackling the challenges and underlying conditions in their community.

And yet challenges in our communities call for us to think differently about the best paths forward, and to act differently. In Spokane, Wash., for example, leaders of the local United Way started to ask themselves the question, "What would having a real impact in the community look like for us?" Ultimately, it meant upending their long-held model of raising dollars and distributing them to local agencies and instead focusing more on building collaborative efforts on education concerns.

This required the United Way's leaders to organize their work differently, and to organize themselves differently. It meant changing their very notion of what constitutes a partnership -- and changing their partners. It meant dislodging themselves from basic assumptions about what was actually needed in the community and their potential role. And it required them to imagine fundamentally different strategies for creating genuine progress.

Closer to home, my own Temple Micah, where I attend synagogue, came to the realization that our religious school could do better in producing the kinds of Jewish-spirited children we all want. Many incredibly smart and dedicated people there tried to "improve" the existing school, undertaking one "reform" after another, only to conclude that what we needed was a fundamentally different approach to education -- one that integrates the congregation's different generations, emphasizes hands-on learning and helps each child develop a personal Jewish identity. That's happening now.

My own experience is that "innovation readiness" takes a certain mindset and set of practices. I've just started to write my next book on this topic. But I'm curious about what you think and about your own experiences. What does "innovation readiness" mean to you?