Carla J. Penny addresses SAWACON

How Organizations both Promote and Stifle Innovation and what a Leader Should Do

An expert in organizational development and a long-time lead volunteer for Austin Animal Center’s cat adoption team, Carla J. Penny, MSSW, presented “Eureka! Wheels on Suitcases: How Organizations Both Promote and Stifle Innovation and What a Leader Should Do.”

Penny started by busting some common innovation myths and clarifying what innovation really is: a social skill.

Organizations are just like living organisms

Both organizations and living organisms have the goal of achieving homeostasis. However, the need for stability is paradoxically matched with the need for change.

Penny believes innovation happens through:

  • Openness to the unexpected
  • Response to necessity
  • Building on the ideas of others
  • Having an enabling environment
  • Openness to failing

Roadblocks to innovation

It’s about “me”:

  • I didn’t think of it
  • I should have thought of it
  • I don’t like him or her
  • I may lose in this deal
  • It violates my values, beliefs or assumptions

It’s about “it”:

  • There are 10 other pressing things that need attention
  • It’s been tried and it doesn’t work
  • Maybe it worked for xyz, but we aren’t like them

Overcome the roadblocks to innovation

Penny laid out five intentional steps to create innovation:

  1. Idea generation using strategies common to creatives
  2. Consideration or evaluation by following a diagnostic checklist, asking questions like “how does it work now?” and “who is affected and how will they feel?”
  3. Practical development through engaging stakeholders, defining budget/funding and determining decision-making authority
  4. Implementation by putting innovations into practice
  5. Diffusion by being clear about decision-making authority

Risk aversion is natural and it can be easy to get discouraged. Penny noted that it takes about a year to change every layer of an organization, and that the complexity and size of the organization actually work against change. So what’s a leader to do?

Managers can increase idea generation by:

  • Engineering anonymity
  • Gaining diversity of experiences
  • Wearing a different hat
  • Using various brainstorming approaches
  • Ditching the best practice model – you’re trying to innovate, not practice the “tried and true”
  • Adding “sell by” dates to all rules – stop and evaluate practices on a regular basis
  • Looking for “two-fers”
  • Listening to your outliers
  • Saying “yes” 10 times for each “no”
  • Avoiding premature idea evaluation
  • Troubleshooting just enough, but not too often

The road to innovation can be bumpy–there’s always risk involved. Throughout her session, Penny reiterated that leaders should not be afraid to fail and that oftentimes, failing is the best way to learn.

A note about risk…

  • Aversion is natural, but don’t let it stand in your way
  • Evaluate the environment’s tolerance for it (Galileo)
  • Engage stakeholders – let them help you be successful
  • Have a mitigation plan – remember that “luck” doesn’t count
  • Fairly assess risks without misplacing the burden of proof

By embracing diversity and being open to change, leaders can implement innovations that will lead to improvements in their organizations.


This article was written live during the 2015 Annual Society of Animal Welfare Administrators Conference. This post reflects our bloggers’ understanding of the session and the materials shared by presenters.


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