Meghan McCormick

There Is No A-Ha Moment: Social and entrepreneurial ‘innovation’ myths must first fall to build something new

The short version of the founding of Dare to Innovate goes like this: One Sunday morning, I laced up my sneakers and headed-out for a run through the vibrant fields and mountains surrounding my hut in rural Guinea.

While running and appreciating the landscape, I let my mind wander until…bang! Suddenly I was struck with the idea to integrate training, ideation processes, funding, and mentorship to launch a social entrepreneurship movement in Guinea. I immediately turned around and headed for home as fast as my legs would carry me. As soon as I made it through the door, I grabbed my notebook and crayons and drew out the web of connected activities that would grow into the Dare to Innovate program. As soon as I was done collecting my thoughts on paper, I phoned my most trusted colleagues and brought them onboard. Now, just over 18 months later we have trained 21 social entrepreneurs, launched seven businesses, created awareness for social entrepreneurship in towns across the country, and are getting ready for our second class of fellows. Slowly, but surely, we are having an impact on the economic landscape of Guinea.

Now there is truth to that story, but if I were only to tell you that small part of it, I would be perpetuating the myth of innovation. Innovation is not only the purview of creative people; it is not born in a warm shower stall, or even on explorations into nature. Anyone can be an innovator and as the world becomes more complicated, it is imperative that everyone does. Anyone can be an innovator because innovation is not a gift from the gods bestowed on a select few; it comes from immersion, remixing, processes and feedback. These four steps guided us through the founding of Dare to Innovate and inform the program that all of our fellows go through to create their social businesses.

Before that fateful run through the countryside, I had spent months working at a local business-development NGO teaching entrepreneurship, running community forums, and supporting micro-entrepreneurs. Through this immersion, I was able to discover two critical roadblocks young entrepreneurs were facing—a lack of creativity and access to funding.

The school system in Guinea rewards rote memorization. The youngest children build ingenious toys out of found objects, but once they are in their twenties, this creativity retreats deep inside. As a result, you see entrepreneur after entrepreneur opening the same businesses – you’ll see man after man selling lukewarm Coca-Cola on the side of countless Guinean roads. What is the best way to help these youth find ideas for differentiated enterprises? It is not through a broad brainstorming activity, as the myth might perpetuate, but rather through constraints. There were not social businesses in Guinea, at least not ones that identified as such. By shepherding our participants into the field of social entrepreneurship, it was a given that they would be bringing something new to market. We used an ideation process, not pure brainstorming, to build out ideas within this constraint. Through this structure, all of our fellows were capable of innovating.

On to the next hurdle: financing. As much as we like to share stories of entrepreneurs who started empires with nothing but the shirt on their back, the reality is that this is yet another myth. For young Africans (and frankly people the world round) you can’t start something with nothing, especially if you don’t have access to banking. We saw promising ideas die on the vine and promising young business leaders give up hope. It was clear that our solution would involve a financing mechanism.

(Participants, aided by facilitators Emma Schaberg O’Brien, Mariama Camara, and Amadou Cissoko, complete a market research learning activity.)

By the time I hit that proverbial trail on that fateful morning, the foundations for two of our four pillars had already been understood and articulated, they just hadn’t yet been connected into a system. It is in the system that the true value is created. We are big believers of remixing—taking bits from here, pieces from there, and combining them in a new and meaningful way. If you take a quick look at our curriculum, you’ll find it highly original. On further study, you can see the influences of Future Search, Open Space, Human Centered Design, Outward Bound Experiential Learning, Design Thinking, The Business Model Canvas and even some classes I took in undergrad. The men who invented the car didn’t need to reinvent the wheel; they just combined it with other existing technologies to change the world. Likewise, our entrepreneurs didn’t build any “new to the world” businesses, but by bringing them to Guinea and adapting them to their context, they have created economic and social value.

To realize a program or business from an idea involves not only immersion and remixing, but processes and feedback as well. We created diverse teams and clear work streams. From naming the movement to selecting our first class of fellows, everything followed a structured process. In the months leading up to the conference, different modules were tested and revised based on the feedback of participants at various training sessions (also known as the process of prototyping, one of our favorite processes). And it’s not only our participants who rely on mentors as their compass, but our core team as well. One of our early mentors, Gulay Ozkan, an expert in design thinking and entrepreneurship in emerging economies, helped us see that we were not giving our participants enough business and analytic skills. It took a lot of work to reshape the curriculum, but the revisions have better prepared our participants for the wide world of business.

The culture of process and feedback is continuing to this day as we are revising not only the curriculum, but our operating model as well as we move into our second year. We have succeeded in applying it to create the core of our project and now our task is to adapt and apply it to supporting structures such as monitoring and evaluation to truly measure our impact and take feedback from the anecdotal to quantitative level.

The trail ahead of us is long and full of unknown hurdles, but understanding that innovation is not luck, but a muscle to be trained and flexed at will means we will be able to adapt and achieve under most any circumstance. If your organization wants to be innovative, follow the four steps—immerse yourself in the problem, remix existing solutions, follow structured processes and thrive on feedback. Help us dismiss the myths around creativity by proving that your organization be it big or small, old or new, local or international is a full of innovators. Welcome to our non-exclusive club.

Meghan McCormick is a founder of Dare to Innovate, a movement promoting social entrepreneurship in Guinea through the creation of social businesses.