Integrating Social Innovation into Organizations

By Tori D'Avella

In my time as an ABSI Connect fellow, I went around Calgary asking a broad question: What can organizations — for profit and nonprofit — do to integrate, support and practice social innovation? I spoke with organizations interested in, but struggling to do this and others who successfully integrate social innovation in the bedrock of their organization. This post reflects and honours their learning (and mine) about what it takes for an organization to embrace and integrate social innovation. 

Sit with the WHY.

Why does your organization care about social innovation? Why does your organization want to integrate social innovation? 

Does it want to use it as an approach? Turn the mission on its head? Use social innovation as a craft or lens for a certain challenge? Start something socially innovative? Affect policy? Work in the system in a new way with more partners? Get more funding? (Yes, that last one is provocative, but the reality is that some organizations do feel pressure to incorporate new trends into their grant applications).

So often, we start with how (even this article is about how). The question of how limits us. By asking how, “we risk overvaluing what is practical and doable and postpone the questions of larger purpose and collective well being” (Block, 2003, pp. 2). Instead, I invite you to ask: why? 

Why invites discovery over speculation — discovery of our own assumptions underlying our thinking, doing and decisions. Opening ourselves to this type of discovery creates an opportunity for challenging assumptions and decisions. These assumptions and decisions are part of the status quo, part of the way things are. To recognize ourselves and our organizations as part of the status quo gives us the freedom to identify and act on change that matters. 

It is not always easy to understand why, but it is always revealing. A simple, powerful exercise for discussion here could be the “Five Whys,” which can deepen understanding of intention and biases when approaching something new. It can also help uncover root cause and the symptoms surrounding it. Five Whys comes out of design thinking, from Sakichi Toyoda, who encouraged discovery over speculation (Ohno, 1978). 

Common Language

How we talk about social innovation was an important theme from our Phase 1 Fellows. As a Phase 2 Fellow, I can’t say I saw much more convergence around a definition of social innovation in Alberta, but I did notice people and organizations acknowledging that it is important to understand what each other mean when they say social innovation. 

In the Phase 1 Report, the Fellows suggested that organizations assess where their actions fit along a continuum and identify whether they want to stay where they are or shift.

H/T Cheryl Rose

H/T Cheryl Rose

Paying attention to language, scope and practice in this way is formative. Individuals define terms like innovation in completely different ways. One may be talking about transformative change, another might be talking about invention and so on and so forth. When we discuss the differences and move towards developing common language, we bind, shape and define what we are trying to achieve.

Developing collective meaning of the language we use is a scoping and defining discussion. Similar to the concept that knowledge is power, the understanding of language holds power. Language has different history and different meaning to different people. Language can exclude and include people. So, we can foster inclusion and ownership when we develop common language and meaning of that language. 

It’s so much more than semantics — establishing collective meaning around the words we use directly impacts the process of change. The stories we tell about our work influence our actions; in other words, shared meaning not only reflects collective action, it generates it. 

Need more inspiration on language? Check out alumna Northern Fellow Melissa Herman’s work below on social innovation and the Dënesųłiné and Cree languages. 

Developed by Melissa Herman
horégodhé hołé 2.jpg

Leadership and Management: Both are Required

In management writing, it sometimes feels like leadership and management are either/or. Back in 1977, Abraham Zaleznik, a scholar in organization psychodynamics, wrote on the difference between managers and leaders; managers being focused on process, stability and control and leaders being much more like artists. Similarly, Kotter, a management scholar widely known for his eight-step change management model, describes management as functions of planning, controlling and putting systems and structures in place, while leadership is about setting direction, inspiration, motivating and aligning people, anticipating and managing change (1990). 

In my conversations, I heard that, for social innovation to thrive in an organization, both leadership and management are required. Further, in my experience, management and leadership for social innovation require certain style and tactics that enable organizations to embrace social innovation practically and culturally. Leadership creates the cultural conditions for social innovation behaviour to thrive and management creates the time, space and practical integration of social innovation into existing processes.

Every organization I spoke with explained, “We were able to do it because of good leadership.” High-level, “big L” leadership in an organization needs to be informed about and advocate for social innovation to legitimize efforts around it. Yet leadership is more than just function; leaders also role-model to others how to lead and how to engage in social innovation. What does that look like? It looks empathetic. It is servant leadership. It is facilitative and cultivates shared responsibility and co-creation. 

Reflecting on the passing of Nelson Mandela in 2013, Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, & John Kania published a seminal article on system leadership (Senge et al, 2015). System leadership cultivates collective leadership, which reflects a fundamental shift in thinking from leaders as heroic individuals to leaders as responsible for each individual in their team or organization being empowered to be a leader in their own right (ibid). This does not mean that everyone is a specific archetype of a leader; it is acknowledgement that there are many types of leaders at every point in the system. Systems leadership makes space for and values all types of leadership — and collective leadership.

So, what do system leaders do, exactly? First, they see the system as a whole, their organization’s part in it and their individual part in it (Senge et al, 2015). This is a fundamental start to systems change, as it shifts from looking at symptoms of a problem to the challenge as a whole. They reflect and question their own biases and are open to hearing and acting differently through understanding an other’s reality. Last but not least, a system leader focuses on co-creating the future rather than reactive problem solving, similar to the approaches of Appreciative Inquiry.

Systems leadership allows social innovation to flourish by moving away from the stuckness and polarization that often characterizes the challenges that call for social innovation in the first place. Systems leadership creates collective dialogue, meaning and action, which fosters the ownership that allows many people to act and create systems changes, whether the system is an organization or a society. 

I didn’t hear, “We were able to do it because of good management.” Yet, as I dug into the comments on leadership, I also heard that management can hold and protect the space in an organization to allow for social innovation. Management in organizations is vital to keeping things lean, on time, on budget. Managers have the capacity to introduce change and run interference to allow for that change to happen, giving people time, space and permission to treat the change as centre-of-the-desk work, rather than a special project. This was an important learning from Phase 1 Fellows; social innovation needs to be more than a special project for it to flourish in Alberta and to affect real change on social, environmental and economic challenges that we face.  

The management of social innovation can incentivize practices that help social innovation succeed in the day-to-day. For example, as Fellows, we’ve learned that reflection practices are a vital part of this journey. So, our reflections are integrated into our invoicing process. Our invoices tallied up our time and work, reporting on the actions we took, and the “so what” of those actions - Why does it matter? What impact does it have? What did we learn from it? 

Invoicing might not be the answer for other organizations, but when we couple the things we have to do with a novel practice of how they are done, we are in a sense, innovating. This might be boring or mundane innovation in comparison to shifting systems, but a systems shift requires a series of small, consistent change in practice at many levels of the system. 

Engagement and Experimentation

Very few organizations talked about engagement, but those who did were very enthusiastic about it. They spoke of engaging as many people as possible to dip a toe into social innovation processes or tools to work on existing challenges that their organizations face. Often innovation or social innovation is limited to a small group of people focused on it, who then hold the great task of sharing it with the broader organization. While this is a practical approach for many organizations, there is a great risk in creating a silo of the privileged innovation folks and unintended power dynamic of who holds the knowledge and understands the language, as previously discussed. Those types of power dynamics work against collective meaning and leadership, which by this point, you’ve worked hard to establish, because individuals must feel ownership to act and create change. 

Share social innovation efforts early, often and in engaging ways that allow anyone in the organization to experience it. For example: if you have a specific space for this work (as a growing number of organizations do), keep it open and inviting for informal conversations. If you’re using lab processes, try a “networking lab”, where people go through a lab process in a day or a half day on an issue they are facing to build capacity for — or simply to experience — innovation processes. Host a lunch and learn, but be sure to show more than tell, meaning: allow people to have an experience, rather than just sit and listen to a presentation. Back to collective meaning and collective leadership, these types of experiences help everyone grasp the change that the organization is trying to make and contribute to it in their own way. 

Don’t even know where to begin? Get a Fellow!

Yes, I acknowledge my bias in saying this. That said, we have found that there is value (to the system and to organizations) in having a dedicated individual go through the process of emergent discovery and design on a key topic or challenge. It allows and empowers a person to listen deeply, fall in love with the problem, and have insights that might not otherwise be possible in their day-to-day. ABSI is currently looking towards Phase 3 and seeking new hosts for Fellows. Contact us if you’d like to explore this opportunity. 

When we think about social innovation, we’re often focused on the change we want to see in the world, the outcome. The reality of social innovation is that it requires a series of changes, some mundane innovation in management, things we don’t think of a innovation at all, and some that we do. For the system to change, the organizations within it must change. Perhaps the change in organizations, the tweaks in processes and practices, the cultural and mindset shifts that are required to integrate social innovation in organizations, are also social innovation itself.


Block, P. (2003). The Answer to How Is Yes. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Kotter, J. P. (1990). “What leaders really do.” Harvard Business Review.

Ohno, T. (1978). Toyota production system: Beyond large-scale production. NY: Productivity Press.

Senge, P., Hamilton, H. & Kania, J. (2015). "The Dawn of Systems Leadership." Stanford Social Innovation Review

Zaleznik, A. (2004). "Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?" Harvard Business Review