Stanford Social Innovation Review: When Innovation Fails

Efforts by social enterprises to develop novel interventions receive a great deal of attention. Yet these organizations often stumble when it comes to turning innovation into impact. As a result, they fail to achieve their full potential. Here’s a guide to diagnosing and preventing several “pathologies” that underlie this failure.

A pervasive myth holds that the impact generated by social enterprises is the result of innovation. Indeed, prevailing models of social innovation lead people to ask the wrong question about achieving impact in the social sector. They ask: What are the ingredients of successful innovation? They seek to discover “a magic innovation formula” or to define a set of “innovation success factors.” We find it useful to turn this question inside out. Instead of focusing on how innovation succeeds, we look at the dynamics of failure within the innovation process. We ask, in particular: What are the factors that undermine the impact potential of an innovation effort?


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