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A World of Change: Social Innovation & Leadership

by on June 13, 2013

(a blog post written for the Leadership Calgary organization, re-published here.)

“In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists.”
Eric Hoffer

As someone who has been involved in Leadership Calgary for many years, I always knew the program had the potential to support social change – in fact, that is the explicit purpose of the program[1] – but I hadn’t consciously considered how adaptive leadership[2] and social innovation are connected and mutually supportive.   It was a recent conversation with friends about social innovation that got me thinking about the power of understanding adaptive leadership and social innovation as linked and parallel processes.

Although the term ‘social innovation’ has been around since the 1960s[3], it has recently become a huge buzz-word in the social sector.  “Social innovation” is everywhere these days.  It’s associated with social entrepreneurship, social finance, corporate social responsibility, social enterprise and a host of other tactical efforts to create social value.   Despite all of these efforts, true social innovation continues to be elusive.

The University of Waterloo defines social innovation as “Social innovation is an initiative, product, process or program that profoundly changes the basic routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of any social system. Successful social innovations have durability and broad impact.”[4]  And a definition from the Stanford Social Innovation Review defines it as “A novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.”[5]   Both definitions deal with a common theme:  Change that creates and supports a more adaptive society.

So, the question becomes:  how do we create change that creates and supports a more adaptive society?   Well, in order to understand social innovation we need to understand something about innovation generally.  Innovation happens around us all the time:  a new App, a better dog food, an improved running shoe, a medical discovery, new weapons systems, new finance & banking services, new marketing techniques, a new policy for supporting development in the developing world… the list goes on.   It seems to me that the problem isn’t that we don’t know how to innovate:  it’s that we don’t know how to innovate in ways that support sustainable, positive societal change over time.  Innovations are driven by a range of motivations with different levels of understanding, care and concern for the common good. What looks like a great advance in one specialized area of interest can have highly destructive effects on society as a whole.

This is where the notion of adaptive leadership comes in.   The curriculum for Leadership Calgary is focused on how to develop adaptive – or pioneer – leadership:  the kind of leadership required when we are at the edge of human capacity; when the challenges we face are emergent, unknown, complex and uncertain.  Adaptive leadership influences the social ecology of organizations, communities and/or societies to help them meet these types of challenges, relying on the capacity for social innovation as part of the solution space for change.

Both adaptive leadership and innovation have a common feature:  they rely on ecologies of influences and cultures to support their development.  This means that the capacity to create social innovation or adaptive leadership is dependent on the culture in which they are being developed.   All cultures have both healthy and toxic components – so adaptive leaders and social innovators must have the capacity to draw on the healthy components in order to create change that will be adaptive over time[6].  No small task, but it’s possible and we have examples in history of how this has been done.

Literature and educational programs on social innovation tend to focus on specific systems:   food production, urban design, poverty, hunger, justice, homelessness…   But true social innovation can’t be understood by focusing only on the system we want to change:  that’s like looking at a flower expecting it to give us all the answers on what is required to make it grow.   We need to look at the entire culture and concurrent, interlocking systems – how they have been constructed and how they function – in order to understand how to innovate in any specific system.   An example of this is explored in a recent article[7] which outlines how the airline industry created the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and how the development of the NTSB could lead to social innovation within the healthcare sector, with the potential to ultimately save tens of thousands of lives every year.

The structures of social innovation and adaptive leadership have several foundational components in common which support successful change:  prevention, creativity, strategic planning, ethics, resilience, critical thinking, expertise and sustainability[8].  These are all core processes of learning that are required for structuring our organizations, communities, societies in ways that support innovation.  Of course, doing this requires a level of intelligence – thinking, caring, acting and learning – that goes beyond what is required of most of us on a day-to-day basis.  As Einstein is quoted as saying “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”.  This should beg the question then, how do we design new ways of thinking?  This is the critical question of our time, and is the focus of the Leadership Calgary curriculum.

Any social innovation, and any form of adaptive leadership must include the components of empowerment and learning.    The innovation or leadership capacity must go deeper than creating a solution for a problem in a moment of time:  it must address the underlying processes required for that change to remain adaptive over time for society as a whole.    After all, that’s what life is about: our ability to adapt, in an increasingly progressive way, to the challenges and opportunities we face.  In that sense, social innovation and adaptive leadership cannot be achieved without the other – they are inexorably linked.


Leadership Calgary purpose statement:

Our purpose, to create & support a mutual learning community that will generate:


Increasing numbers of increasingly resourceful, resilient, responsible,

life ranging human beings

with diagnostic & design capabilities

for reducing ignorance & error, waste, suffering & injustice

at all levels,

individual <-> civilization


Institutions, cultural & societal resources,

leaders & ecologies of authority

that support the development & maintenance

of systemic adaptive capacities,

locally <-> globally

[1] Leadership Calgary Purpose Statement listed at the end of this document.

[2] Also known as pioneer leadership.

[3] Wikipedia listing for  “Social Innovation”

[6] Social innovators and adaptive leaders also have a responsibility to contribute back to the culture in healthy ways:  true social innovation and adaptive leadership will do this by definition.

[7] “An NTSB for Health Care – Learning From Innovation: Debate and Innovate or Capitulate.”

[8] Meta-Framework for Adaptive Thoughtscape Construction.  Map 27.08.  Ken Low, 2004.

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