Getting Unstuck and Driving Innovation, with Meaghan Kennedy

Cassi Lowe
Jul 8, 2019 · 7 min read
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What’s the secret behind pushing innovation forward and helping people get “unstuck?” That’s the mission behind Meaghan Kennedy’s organizations: Orange Sparkle Ball and Spark Corps.

It’s easy to get stuck and feel paralyzed when you’re starting something new. It’s a feeling most entrepreneurs encounter at some point in their journey. But how can you move past that and continue to innovate? Is there a reliable system to move past the feeling of “stuck?”

Our interview below with Meaghan goes into these topics, and how she’s working towards a framework to keep people moving forward.

Tell me about your business and the work that you do.

I’m probably a little bit different because I have two businesses. Well, I have a business and an associated nonprofit.

For profit, I like to say it’s sort of an innovation company. We work with people who are trying to do something new. So that something new could be a start-up, or it could be a corporate intra-preneur who’s trying to put a new function together inside of a bigger company.

Then, we have a sister nonprofit that works hand in hand with the for profit on impact projects. Sometimes, based on the complexity of the project, the impact project will be based in the for profit and sometimes it’s based in the nonprofit if it’s a simpler project.

The nonprofit’s mission is around design thinking education. It takes people who are in design school, and it puts them through, I like to call it, a boot camp. It’s kind of a hard core experience where you’re basically tasked with running an organization and projects in it as well.

You get an idea of what makes a design organization truly successful. All the while working on impact projects.

How did you kind of come up with this idea of the for profit and nonprofit side, and how did it come about?

That’s a good question. The for profit has existed for a really long time. But before I started the for profit, I worked in public health and did HIV research. I wasn’t even a designer, a long time ago.

It was really impactful and I worked at CDC and I ran studies both domestically and internationally.

Then I went back to design school and started the for profit. As I was working on the for profit and what it takes to run a design company, I wasn’t able to really focus and connect the dots back to my impact background. I was looking for a way to do that, and I also knew that people coming out of design school typically go into jobs where they do repetitive tasks over and over. There’s very little thinking. It’s more about like getting your design chops down.

I always use this example because it’s the most extreme and kind of funny example of this, but one of the people that just went through the Spark Core program, her first job was at a door handle company. So she drew 100 door handles a day.

So that’s like what typically you go into, whether it’s making banner ads, or doing Photoshop mock-ups, whatever. There’s not a lot of thinking involved. So, I decided that I wanted to experiment with the idea of putting a program together where you would be able to work on those design tasks, but you’d also work on all these other tasks related to critical thinking. Like how do you manage clients? How do you have communications with clients around money? How do you put pressure on clients when things are really hard to figure out, and also what does it take to run a sustainable organization?

You’re tasked with this kind of holding in balance all the time, a project, the organization and then what’s good for you. It’s this pretty challenging version of how do I weigh all of these things in one, keep them all in balance.

That’s why I call it a boot camp, because it’s a pretty challenging year long program where people are constantly doing things that they don’t think they can do, and then they get past them and they’re like, “I can’t believe we did that.” So, that’s the goal.

It also allowed us to do impact work. So we can focus entirely on impact both internal projects, and also impact work for clients.

Everyone in the program is also tasked with running their own budget. It’s challenging. It’s a year of tears every once in a while. Definitely knowing that it’s going to push people to the edge of their comfort zone and that what it’s supposed to do. It’s just then we need to make sure we have a safety net where we can pull them back when it gets too teetering.

What made you decide to go into this path, being in the public health sector and then making that transition?

That’s a complex question. From a professional point of view, everything moves so slowly in public health, and in particular working for a government agency is really challenging sometimes because of the lack of speed of anything.

And that was juxtaposition to what was happening in HIV at the time, which was, it was in the 90s and so HIV was really rampant. The epidemic was increasing quickly, and we were methodically plodding through doing work.

It was super challenging. So that was on a professional level, I knew I needed to figure out a different way that I could control more of my work and move faster, just for my personality.

I’m really interested in solving problems, and that was great about public health because it’s all about solving population based health problems. So, I needed to figure out something that I could do that was problem solving. I went back to industrial design school, and that’s all about design thinking, like a specific process to solve problems. It was this beautiful version of problem solving that I had far more control over and you could focus it on anything. You could focus it on a product. You could focus it on a process. You could focus it on a community engagement initiative.

That was something that solved for me all of the emotional need I had to solve problems and feel good about the work I was doing.

What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learned just throughout this whole journey in your career?

The thing that I’m fascinated with is this idea of what helps people be unstuck. What creates momentum wherever you are. In Spark Core, people who are going through that program, I like push them enough but then don’t let them go over. Provide enough safety net and that’s always a little bit of a balance. What is the right amount of push that you can help people become unstuck? So you give them maybe hard nudge, but you also give them a, “You can totally do this, I’m completely confident because I wouldn’t put you in a position of something I thought you couldn’t do.”

What is that sweet spot of getting unstuck? And so that truly has become analyzing that moment of unstuck-ness.

It has become the focus of my career. What we do is helping people do new things. Mostly they have all the skills they need. They’re just kind of immobilized by the idea of, “I don’t know what this thing is.”

All you need to do is put a little bit of framework around it, and just give them a gentle nudge, whether they’re a client, a co-worker, me, anyone. That’s really all it takes to keep people moving forward or projects moving forward.

What advice would you give to social entrepreneurs?

That ones easy. There has to be a clear value proposition and that’s kind of a business term, but it means there has to be a value for everyone involved. So the dilemma with a typical nonprofit is that it has their head around this idea of donation-based sustainability. I don’t think that works.

Even Spark Corps, even though it’s a nonprofit, is run as if it’s a for profit. We have to bring in enough money to sustain the organization by selling something. Whether it’s selling these products, or it’s selling design services. Those are our two income streams. In any case, we’ve got to sell something to sustain the organization.

There has to be a clear value proposition to drive it, because that idea of, I’m going to put something together and people are going to donate money to it just because it’s the right thing to do, or a good thing, is a very hard thing to sustain.

What is your vision for the future, for the business or for the world or both?

I want to figure out what the process is on a personal level that mirrors the growth process at an organizational level.

Could you use it on a start-up founder who’s stuck personally? Could you put a group of people together who think they want to start something but don’t really know what to do and put them through a cohort? Kind of in the same way that young designers are going through a boot camp.

Once you define that process, how do you use it to help a bunch of people, how do you scale the idea of putting somebody through a year boot camp? And how do you test that and then iterate on that?

What action do you want readers to take?

A lot of people come to me and say, “I really want to do this thing, but I don’t know how.” What I always say to them is, “Just start with something. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be defined. It’s probably going to fail, but you will learn something and you’ll try another thing.”

As long as you continue with movement, you’ll end up somewhere. Being immobilized at first prevents people from being successful, truly I believe.

So, start. That is my advice for everyone. Start.

Find Meaghan Online

Orange Sparkle Ball:

Spark Corps:


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