From Magic to Manuals: a Hard but Worthwhile Transition for Social Innovators

In their early days of ground-breaking social innovation, many of the innovators I have known worked out of their proverbial garage, without much in the way of strategy or funding or staff. What they often did have was a gut-sense, growing day by day, that they were on to something big.

They may not have been able to name the critical elements of their approach – whatever those elements were had a kind of magic to them – but they saw the resulting breakthroughs (as did I, working and watching alongside of them)…

We saw street kids who society had given up on re-enrolling in high school. We saw parents reading for the first time with their young children. And we saw once-neglected seniors being well cared for by their neighbors and children.

In their early days, when they had some anecdotes but no data, I have seen social innovators do well to rely on intuition, opportunism, and adrenalin to hone their approach and advance their ideas.

But fast-forward a few years to a day when the social innovation had hard data behind it, demonstrating its transformative impact. At that point, the demands on the innovator looked very different.

Where agility and opportunism once served the innovator well, now commitment to a well-considered growth strategy was needed to win support and ensure impact.

Where the almost magical quality of the program was once a part of its appeal, now the innovator needed to treat any magic as a liability that must be codified or “manualized” so the program could be broadly replicated.

Where financial considerations may not have driven the work initially, now the innovator had to make them a significant part of the equation if the innovation was to realize its full potential for impact.

I have seen these transitions be challenging and sometimes even painful for social innovators to embrace. But if the opportunity for scaling the impact is real, these transitions can be worth the cost.