Social Innovation

Defining Innovations to Foster Success

By: Jacquelyn M. Rose, MPH

One of the top recommendations we offer to changemakers is about the importance of clearly defining innovations. We find that such definition is critical to success; however, we find that changemakers often overlook this step.

A blog authored by my colleague Scott Orsey, What is Good Program Definition?, explains the process we use at Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health (the Office). In the blog, Orsey argues that good program definition must do three things: 1) be clear and easy for everyone to understand; 2) offer enough definition that people can understand what the program is and is not; and 3) be flexible enough to allow practitioners discretion in implementation. Orsey further explains the model the Office uses, which defines programs, or for the purpose of this conversation – innovations, by their core components and structural requirements. He describes core components as three to five internal conditions that are the essence of the innovation and structural requirements as the environmental or external conditions that need to be in place for successful and sustained implementation.

The Need for Clearly Defining Innovations

I encountered a great example of the need for clearly defining innovations when watching author Steven Johnson’s TED Talk “Where Good Ideas Come From” from TEDGlobal 2010. It served as a great reminder of the importance of having a strong innovation definition and here’s why.

During the TEDTalk, Johnson discusses how Timothy Prestero and his team at Design That Matters went about addressing the infant mortality rate among premature babies in developing countries.

He states, “One of the things that’s very frustrating about this is that we know by getting modern neonatal incubators into any context, we can keep premature babies warm. Basically, it is very simple. We can halve infant mortality rates in these environments. So, the technology is there. These are standard in all the industrialized worlds. The problem is, if you buy a $40,000 incubator, and you send it off to a mid-sized village in Africa, it will work great for a year or two years, and then something will go wrong and it will break, and you don’t have the on-the-ground expertise to fix this $40,000 piece of equipment. You end up having this problem where you spend all of this money getting aid and all these advanced electronics to these countries, and then it ends up being useless.”

In this scenario, Johnson described the innovation very narrowly as a $40,000 incubator. This definition does not take into account the characteristics of incubators that make them the ideal solution to the problem, the context in which the solution will be implemented, what resources those implementing the innovation have access to, or how the innovation will be sustained over time.

Instead, what if the innovation was described as a device that creates a controlled environment that allows premature babies to continue to grow and develop? What if the innovation was defined in terms of its core components and structural requirements? This is exactly what Prestero and his team set out to do.

Johnson stated, “So what Prestero and his team decided to do is to look around and see – what are the abundant resources in these developing world contexts? What they noticed was they don’t have a lot of DVRs, they don’t have a lot of microwaves, but they seem to do a pretty good job of keeping their cars on the road. There’s a Toyota 4Runner on the street in all these places. They seem to have the expertise to keep cars working. So they started to think, ‘Could we build a neonatal incubator that’s built entirely out of automobile parts?’ And this is what they ended up coming up with. It’s called a NeoNurture device. From the outside, it looks like a normal little thing you’d find in a modern Western hospital. On the inside, it’s all car parts. It’s got a fan, it’s got headlights for warmth, it’s got door chimes for an alarm. It runs off a car battery. All you need is the spare parts from your Toyota and the ability to fix a headlight, and you can repair this. Now, that’s a great idea, but what I’d like to say is that, in fact, this is a great metaphor for the way ideas happen. We like to think our breakthrough ideas are like the $40,000 brand new incubator, state-of-the-art technology, but more often than not, they’re cobbled together from whatever parts happen to be around.”

Identifying Core Components and Structural Requirements

While Prestero and his team may not have started their endeavor looking to define the core components and structural requirements of the innovation, that is exactly what they did. The team defined the innovation as a controlled environment that enables premature babies to grow and develop. They identified the core components of the innovation by identifying and describing characteristics and features of the $40,000 incubator that enabled premature babies to grow and develop in industrialized countries. To define the structural requirements, they did an environmental scan to understand what resources, both materials and human capital, were easily accessible to support ongoing implementation and utilization of the innovation.

Core Components Structural Requirements
Air circulation within the controlled environment. Access to replacement parts if something breaks or malfunctions.
Heat to help the premature baby regulate body temperature. Individuals that know how to maintain and repair the device.
Alarms to notify medical staff when the baby needs attention. Leverage existing resources to foster sustained implementation.
Steady power source.

This is a simplified description of the process Prestero’s team deployed and the device they created based on the content shared in Johnson’s TEDGlobal Talk.

The Challenge of Defining Innovations

Defining innovations and their associated core components and structural requirements so they have broad applicability is not easy work. Crafting good definition is a challenging, iterative process that requires collaboration and groups of people coming together to discuss potential solutions to problems. The difficulty in defining innovations is one of the reasons changemakers find so much value in the Childhood Prosperity Lab, which is a program of the Office. The Lab incubates and advances promising innovative strategies and nurtures changemakers in an effort to maximize impact and help children flourish, thrive, and succeed. Regardless of the innovation’s stage of development, we always spend a significant amount of time discussing the core components and structural requirements of the innovation model because it is critically important to the other pieces of the conversation.

While some say if you cannot define it, you cannot measure it. At the Office, we believe if you cannot define it, you cannot measure it, implement it, sustain it, or scale it.

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Jacquelyn M. Rose, MPH, is the program manager of the Childhood Prosperity Lab, which is a program of Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health.

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