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SXSW: Embracing Social Media Failure, Innovation

By Amy Sample Ward - March 12, 2013

SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas this week is, inevitably, packed with people launching new applications, cool mobile tools, and big brand campaigns. With thousands of people all in one place, it can actually be difficult to find your peers.

This weekend, nonprofit tech guru Beth Kanter organized a workshop for social media managers to hear from a handful of practitioners, as well as to learn from each other.

Brian Reich, managing director at little m media in New York City, addressed the challenges in changing an organization. They have “a self-esteem problem that they are at a disadvantage because they are nonprofits,” he said. “You are not mediocre; you really shouldn’t settle for anything that isn’t the best.” From Reich’s perspective, innovation is about three things:

  • The ability to change everything and to do it in big ways: Incremental change is valuable, but Reich urges nonprofits to think about big changes, too;
  • Creating change not just reacting to it: ‘Oh, a new tool is out there. How can we use it?’ is a reaction. This requires behavior change in organizations as we can’t be satisfied with changing our organizations unless we really change, Reich explained. We can’t slide back into old habits; and,
  • Happens in places: Reich said to create collisions, “Let people across the organization run into each other.” Put the information out there as well, for example with dashboards or other real-time data visible throughout the office.

Reich said that innovation is about process. Organizations need to “embrace failure and make mistakes by taking risks so that you can learn from them.” Focus on the tiny things so you can read between the lines. Look at body language or the way people answer questions. Innovation is human and driven by people, Reich said. “It isn’t driven by systems or incentives; it’s driven by commitment at the human level and understanding of what you’re doing.”

“You have to break the rules. Breaking the rules is scary. We think our job is going to be at risk, but when we look at organizations that are successful, they break the rules and rewrite them later. Start early! Even if you don’t know where a change is going to lead, start early so that you can learn and grow.” Reich offered the example or those adopting text message donations years ago when it was expensive and not tried and now those organizations are light years ahead of others.

“Doing it all by ourselves doesn’t work,” said Rachel Weidinger at Upwell, a marine conservation organization in San Francisco, Calif. “If you act alone, you are going to fail at your social goals.”

“Abundance is your frame,” said Weidinger. “It’s easy to think you are the only one at the organization and you don’t have the money or the resources. But if you can open up your lens and say you have big problems to solve that don’t actually have to have a budget. Your budget is all of the people on the Internet.”

Weidinger suggested, “making a basket for passion: many people at your organization are there because they have a passion for the mission.” She said organizations should funnel those passions together to get ideas from all different staff and identify many ways to focus energy that comes from personal passion towards your mission.

Laura Fitton, CEO and founder of OneForty in Cambridge. Mass., took the leadership angle on the conversation. “Some C-suite people are still ‘see/speak/hear no evil.’ Some are overwhelmed. And some are big public beacons that don’t know how to accept failure.” To get your C-suite into a frame of mind that is open to innovation and failure, Fitton said, you get them to start listening. “this could mean watching a Radian6 stream or for you to curate people and content that would resonate well with what that leadership staff person is interested in.”

Fitton made four key points about bringing a culture of innovation to your leadership staff:

  • Listen: to the community
  • Learn: observe and see what others are doing
  • Care: really earnestly try to do better
  • Serve: be useful

Fitton said, “Influence was being the loudest, and now it’s about being valuable.”


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