Queens and Kings of Coffee Filters (Or How My Kids Taught Me to Be More Innovative)

Karen's son looking tough in his paper armor. Karen's son looking tough in his paper armor.

As kids, most of us were pretty good innovators. I was reminded of this when my kids visited the Art Institute of Chicago. They spent more than an hour at a pop-up activity table making costumes out of paper, tape, ribbon, and whatever other random supplies staff had put out. Coffee filters became armor. Ribbons became wings. All the children there built on each other's ideas and traded materials to create what they were envisioning. It was a colorful, laughter-filled example of innovation in practice.

Working in the nonprofit technology space, I hear people say things like, "I wish my organization could be more innovative, but we don't have the resources to develop new technologies." This belief—that innovation requires cutting edge technologies or new inventions—is limiting. In fact, some of the most effective applications of technology involve using existing tools in new ways.

One of my favorite examples of this is the HOWA Family Center, an early adopter of text messaging in human services. The staff saw great results when they experimented with switching from email to texting for communication with teen mentors.

Notice what the museum activity and the HOWA Family Center example have in common. They both had some constraints. The kids had only a limited set of materials to work with and the HOWA Family Center had limited technology resources. However, they also had some freedom to experiment. Nobody interrupted to say "that's not allowed" or "we've always done it THIS way." Albert Camus described this complex relationship between creativity and constraint. He said, "Without freedom, no art; art lives only on the restraints it imposes on itself, and dies of all others."

Idealware's publications, such as the Unleashing Innovation research report and the new workbook we’re currently developing to help nonprofits think more innovatively, reveal some ways to find this balance between creativity and constraints. They will teach you how to break through to find innovative connections between your needs and the technology that's within your reach. I'll be talking about this research, and sharing a lot more examples, at the TechForward conference this September. My breakout session is called "Innovating Programs Through Technology" and it's on Monday September 18 at 1:15pm. If you haven't registered for TechForward yet, you can get $50 off using the Idealware discount code IDEALFF. I hope to see you there!

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