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Min Specs: Getting the best bang for your buck (and not the same old)

by Marilyn Struthers Principal, M. Struthers & Co.

I recently took part in a RECODE adjudication panel for a major Canadian university. Our task was to assess faculty submissions and award $10,000 grants for projects that meet RECODE’s goal of creating an ecosystem that fosters social innovation. The experience provided lots of food for thought on just how we get from here to there in change-making in Canadian higher education.
I had many years of grant-making under my belt at the
Ontario Trillium Foundation before I joined the university. Most of the $4M per year portfolio I managed was spent supporting innovation in the social service sector, so perhaps naturally, I approached my tasks on the adjudication panel as a funder. Assessing opportunity to invest in innovation is harder than you might think. Almost everything that happens in a post-secondary institution has the potential to support new and everyone can think their work is innovative – and perhaps they are right. The proof is in the pudding. Only after the work is delivered and the finished product sets in the bowl, can we know if we have bet on the right ingredients to meet granting goals.
This panel had great projects to choose from, but no prior agreement on what we would rank as innovative or on what activities build an ecosystem. Not at all unusual, the call for submissions was lightning fast, the panel assembled late in the process, and the applications were many. As with most panels of this nature, we had each read and ranked some of the submissions, but no one had read all of them, and the range of proposed activities was very wide.

There were the extremely well written applications – so well written that it wasn’t hard to see that they were recycled SSHRC applications. Funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council is, of course, the bread and butter of academic career development, but not necessarily key to the goal of RECODE. There were the exciting environmental ideas, and adjudicators quickly formed a shared opinion that environmental work could be linked to innovation. There were the intriguing, but not entirely well thought out great ideas — clearly conceptual works in progress that might be going somewhere interesting— but no one was certain of the capacity to implement. And there was a fabulous project or two where the budget lines for travel to remote conferences didn’t quite reconcile with the intent of the project. So, how to sort for the best potential—projects that meet both the university’s emerging picture of social innovation, and RECODE’s objectives?
In technical grant making terms, our adjudicating committee was engaged in a “
re-granting” process. That is, we were awarding funds that the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation had granted to the university to meet RECODE’s goal of “redesigning public institutions from the inside out – to create ecologies of social innovation and entrepreneurship”. Re-granting in the grant-making world is understood variously as a risky business to be avoided, or a developmental granting method that supports a “localized” process of creative development to seed new practice. The funder gives over control of, and accountability for, re-granted funds to allow the recipient organization to “find its own way” — in our case, to innovate on innovation. We didn’t quite know what we were aiming for, but that was the point of the exercise—for Canadian post-secondary institutions to co-discover that which transforms, to begin the journey and harvest the learning as we go. This is a wonderful opportunity for Canadian universities and colleges, but how do we get to where we do not know we want to go—and make respectful use of someone else’s money to get there?

The post-secondary sector is not the only set of big institutions reinventing themselves. Faced with both rising costs and infection rates, hospitals are also are on the journey toward innovation in practice. Using complexity theory since the late 1990’s, there have been valuable lessons from the healthcare sector on the processes of systems change. Branded as Edgeware, this material includes a very useful idea for adjudication committees navigating towards a systems shift where the path is still unclear: “min specs”.

“The principle of min specs [minimum specifications] suggests that managers should define no more than is absolutely necessary to launch a particular initiative or activity on its way. They have to avoid the role of ‘grand designer’ in favor of one that focuses on facilitation, orchestration and boundary management, creating ‘enabling conditions’ that allow a system to find its own form.” ~ Gareth Morgan

The McConnell Foundation, through RECODE has no one ‘grand design’, no one specific recipe for a more innovative post-secondary sector. Its funding enables discovery focused on the values of social finance, student engagement, incubator programs, and innovative course and lab development. Min specs could be the signposts to help guide re-granting awards committees with the selection of appropriate projects that support RECODE’s goals and create the context for discussion of the institution’s own goals. Using min specs, rather than a matrix of criteria, provides a “light hand” approach, ensuring the freedom to experiment, while perhaps reducing the tendency to use new money to support business as usual.
I have to say, this idea got me thinking. So here is a shot at what the min specs might be for RECODE re-granting to help guide university and college adjudication committees:

1. The re-granting application demonstrates a strategy that clearly supports the development of an ‘ecology’ of social innovation and social entrepreneurship on campus.

The idea of a campus as an ecology recognizes that the campus environment is a system where students and faculty find many ways to learn in addition to the formal academic mechanisms of the classroom, research, and publication. In a growing social innovation ecology, students and faculty find many opportunities to interact with new and emerging ideas and processes that create social change. There are opportunities to experiment, to learn with and from community effort, and to explore entrepreneurial approaches that produce new solutions to persistent social issues. Generating social innovation becomes part of the DNA of a campus. A lively ecology will extend beyond campus borders to engage business and nonprofit organizations in the search for social solutions.

2. The re-granting application provides opportunities for students to learn and experiment with social innovation and entrepreneurship.

Social innovation emerges from a learn-while-doing process. A campus environment that supports students and faculty in trying out their ideas on what produces social solutions can engage in a host of social innovation processes, including s-labs, crowd sourced knowledge, human centered design, collaboration with new or unusual partners, collective impact, and support through social finance mechanisms. Experimenting with social innovation process may be as important as outcome, as students gain entrepreneurial and leadership skills they will apply in further study and future work.

3. The re-granting application supports the growth of a social innovation and/or a new social enterprise.

Social innovations are new ideas, products, and services in situations and relationships that offer fresh approaches to overcoming pressing societal challenges. A social enterprise is an organization or venture that uses a business model to achieve social benefit. Innovative projects may seem less developed than others at application. Often they will include new or unusual partnerships to leverage activity or build different ways of thinking; propose trying out a new idea or approach, and/or include an exploration phase to see what new solutions may emerge. By definition the work is exploratory. Project organizers may still be determining their social impact, but they will propose work towards a social solution for public benefit, try out an approach that shifts a system, and/or engage people in changing their landscape.

So imagine a new adjudication process—one where committees meet once to review a set of three min specs, based on RECODE’s goals, and tailors them to suit their particular campus culture. The call for proposals goes out, inviting creativity on how to meet the min specs. The adjudication committee reviews proposals and ranks them against the min specs and on the feasibility of the proposed projects. This is a light touch process, where the committee as a whole only reviews feasible projects that meet the min specs. The final decision-making conversation focuses on answering this question: Which of the remaining projects offer us the best opportunities to foster an innovative environment on our campus?

Marilyn is the former John C. Eaton Chair of Social Innovation and Social Enterprise in the Faculty of Community Services at Ryerson University. She is currently the Social Innovation Practice Lead and Coach at Ryerson, engaged through her freelance company M. Struthers & Co. Marilyn has 40 years of experience as a facilitator, organizational development practitioner, researcher, writer, trainer, funder, and coach supporting people and organizations that want to change the world. Informed by complexity and network theories and community development practice, she works from a deep belief people can and should change the landscapes in which they live and work. Connect with Marilyn at

Sep 8, 2015 | Tags: , , , ,