ABSI: Integrating Social Innovation Into Organizations


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.


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).


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.

Read the full blog here.

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