Claire Rowney: How to innovate a heritage brand

Claire Rowney, executive director of fundraising at Macmillan talks about the challenges of innovating in an organisation with heritage and how to overcome them.

Everyone working at Macmillan is there because they want to make a difference and are united behind its purpose. But in an organisation with heritage - there is often fear. No one wants to break anything. This can create a ‘farming’ mentality. These are the crops we’ll sow; we’ll water them in the same way, nurture things in the same way. This means the results are going to be the same all the time. There were small innovations going on and there was some progress being made, but there weren’t big steps forwards. There was a real drive to do more, but we weren’t going to get there with a farmer mentality.

We took a centralised approach to innovation – which meant service delivery and fundraising sat together in a ‘Centre of Excellence’. But this risked devolving responsibility – and removing the responsibility and need for innovation from everyone else.

There were lots of debates about how to unlock people's creativity - vulnerability in failure came out as a key reason people were holding back. People were championed when they succeeded at Macmillan, but on the flip side, it meant people would only do the tried and tested things as they knew they would then succeed.

We needed not only to innovate - but learn how to do it. By working with %us, and using their five Bold Moves, the charity is now moving towards being an organisation that puts innovation at its centre – and feels comfortable and able to champion it. Experimentation is now rewarded; nothing is deemed a failure as we recognise that we can learn from it.

Macmillan then dipped its toe into Facebook Challenges. We had tested a few, so we asked ourselves what the ceiling might be for how many we could do before we started to cannibalise it, and what challenges could really work. We’ve gone from three challenges last year to more than 24 this year. With innovation as our North Star, we no longer have a fear of failure. Some absolutely fail gloriously, and some have been a huge success, and it was not always the ones we expected!

We’ve used Facebook Challenges as a playground, where there is a clear boundary and a clear space for us to innovate and experiment. There’s no way I could have got the team to do 24 Facebook Challenges or product challenges a year ago. Back then, innovation was a concept ‘others did’. Once people feel inspired, they feel empowered to take risks and know that it’s safe to do so.

As a result, we have witnessed a viral effect across the organisation. People are now able to approach innovation with excitement, rather than fear. By experimenting and solving problems, we are starting to become an innovative-driven organisation which allows everyone the space and time to do it.

Alongside this new way of innovative working, we are also having conversations about what sort of leaders we want to build, and servant leadership feels like the right direction of travel for us.

As a result of this revised approach and mindset, Macmillan is becoming a stronger, more resilient, and more disciplined organisation. It is more deliberate about creativity and innovation, whilst being more thoughtful about the way in which we solve problems.

Innovation doesn’t change things overnight, but we’ve got a group of people who are prepared to lean in because they know it will be valued. They know it’ll get results and, whatever is happening, they will learn through it.

How to kick start a culture of innovation - Emily Dent Partner of Coaching & Development - &us

When we think about innovation it’s easy to stay philosophical. Something we park on the list of things we’ll deal with tomorrow. But innovation isn’t and shouldn’t ever be a ‘nice to have’ - especially when it comes to safeguarding a heritage brand.

Wrongly there can sometimes be an assumption that ‘heritage’ means staying the same, that somehow, it’s sacrilege to touch it. Especially with a brand that is so well-loved that there’s a sense of public ownership. Any change within this type of organisation could elicit a strong response - so strong that it's tempting to leave it alone.

All this does is condemn the brand to a past that is no longer relevant for a thriving future. Innovation for a heritage brand is about finding ways to take the core of what makes it so well loved and push this into the future. It’s about identifying the red thread that makes a brand timeless and as relevant today as it was yesterday.

A simple way for any organisation to do this is to start by revisiting the principles that have made the organisation enduring and re-examine them through a future lens.

For Macmillan, care happens to be that guiding principle. Care is in their very DNA. But how people want to be cared for - and how they can be cared for is completely different to what it was 15 years ago because of changes to the care system, and leaps in technology. The opportunity for Macmillan to innovate how they care doesn’t risk their heritage, it just reinterprets their mission and makes it relevant for a new generation.

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