Social Innovation

People mean a lot of different things by “social innovation.” But some of the greatest social innovators I’ve met have never used the term, and plenty of people who say it all the time have never really done it.

In my role teaching and facilitating social innovation with GreenHouse, I’ve developed a point of view on this field that is pretty different from most of what’s out there. Here’s a quick summary from our video curriculum, which we use as part of the Start Social Innovation workshop we developed with Foossa:

There’s nothing noble about social innovation.

Social innovation is just a series of steps – like doing arithmetic or assembling furniture – that you can learn, practice and master over time. But for a whole bunch of reasons, social innovation has gotten mixed up with subjective values, like good and bad or just and unjust.

And so, rather than learn the steps, most people just wrap themselves up the supposed nobility of social innovation and forge ahead. The result is a whole bunch of badly-constructed social innovations. …

A social innovation is a people innovation. More precisely, a social innovation is a change in the way people behave.

It might be triggered by a new product, a new service, a new program or a new app, but social innovation always results in the same thing: a whole lot of people behaving differently. If people aren’t behaving differently, it wasn’t a social innovation.

The key to people behaving differently – therefore the magic element in social innovation – is called a social norm. A norm is an informal rule that dictates how you behave in any social situation – with your friends, with your co-workers, with your family or with a bunch of strangers in an elevator.

If you want to change how people behave, change the social norms that bind them. Or in technical speak: Social innovation is the systematic disruption of a social norm to effect social change.

At GreenHouse, my work has been to lead people and institutions toward this kind of innovation as a teacher, facilitator, collaborator, and consultant. Our work takes many forms, but at its heart is always people — thinking about how they behave, why they behave that way, and how they might behave differently.