Natural innovators vs professional innovators

Avoiding making a professional class of problem solvers

If you work in a design, research or policy capacity you’re what I call a professional innovator. You’ll have learnt a series of processes and techniques and a way of thinking to help you work through tricky problems and come up with new ways of approaching things.

It’s easy to mistake these processes and the flurry of post-it notes that comes with them as the only way to do innovation.

Obviously it’s not, and as professional innovators we have a duty to make sure we don’t mistake the good training we’ve had with the good ideas that come naturally from someone who who lives and breathes a problem every day. It’s too easy to create a professional class of problem solvers who go in and fix things. This takes agency away from the people on the ground battling that problem day and day out. It quietens their voice and denies their capability. And yes, even co-design can be guilty of this sometimes.

As professional innovators, my colleagues and I at Good Things Foundation feel it’s our job not to solve problems for people but to help them find the space and money to solve those problems themselves.

A lot of the time they already have the answers to the problem they’re trying to solve. A lot of the time they have tested different ways to solve the problem over and over. And a lot of the time they’re doing this with multiple problems all at once. They’re natural innovators: people who just get on with fixing things on a day to day basis.

In my experience, as professional innovators, we could spend a lot more time listening to the natural innovators and a lot less trying to do things for them. Designers spend a lot of time talking about constraints. One of the biggest constraints natural innovator have is time (preceded or followed by money).

We’re using the Community Challenge Prize as a first step towards addressing that constraint and held our first design workshop with our shortlisted prizewinners in Birmingham last week. My colleague Laurence writes more about the approach here.

Professional and natural innovators working together in Birmingham

The aim of these workshops isn’t to turn natural innovators into professional innovators. Rather it’s to give them the “luxury” (in the words of one participant) of a day to think about their work, the legitimacy to spend time playing with an idea and the recognition that they have the answers. It’s our job to design ways to create more power for these natural innovators and to meet them halfway — learning from how they look at problems as well as sharing some of the techniques we use.