The three powers we possess as innovators for change

This an excerpt from the first issue of a publication called Improvise by the Fellowship for Organisational Innovation. The below article is based on a talk Dr David Harrison, DGMT CEO, gave to Fellows during Immersion 1 filling them with hope and inspiration as they continued with the rest of the Fellowship activities.


As actors in civil society, the DGMT Fellows have immense power as innovators. According to Dr David Harrison, civil society is seeing an emergence of a new wave of possibility that rests on young innovators. The DGMT Fellows are a key part of this “second wave of public innovators since democracy”.

A medical doctor with a Master’s in Public Policy from the University of California Berkeley, Dr Harrison headed up loveLife, a national HIV prevention programme, before joining the DG Murray Trust in 2010. “Many of us were in our 20s in the 1990s at the time of democracy; when I think back on the work I was involved in, in the health sector, it was young people who were doing all of the thinking, planning and shaping. It was probably the same in other sectors.”

He said that his career has taught him that there are three powers that individuals in civil society possess as innovators for change: how to be, what to do, and how to think. According to Dr Harrison, these elements form the three pillars of what it takes to be a strategic leader.

When discussing how to be, he drew on the example set for him by his parents – both teachers and social activists who began a feeding scheme in KwaZulu-Natal when they realised many of the children were malnourished. His father also started a school and a technical college for the community. Dr Harrison explained, “the basic attributes I saw in my parents is that they were mission-driven; they had humility and they were fearless.”

“Having a mission is vitally important – you need a strong sense of what you want to achieve. It provides integrity and direction to your effort. Humility means that you don’t let your ego get in the way of what needs to be done. Being fearless is not foolishness – it is finding the strength to speak up and to try new things.”

Dr Harrison shared the story of his parents’ activism to demonstrate that innovation ultimately becomes an instinct; it becomes a part of who we are. His parents had a can-do attitude that was integral to their lives and their social activism.

“They constantly saw a challenge and then wondered, ‘How do we solve it? How do we make it happen? And, how do we build on what we’re doing?’ It was part of who they were.”

Essentially, identity is a core aspect of being an innovator. “For innovation to become an instinct we need to develop a strong sense of self – we need to have integrity of body, mind and spirit. That’s the platform for any innovation.”

He added that, “if you have a strong sense of self, a strong sense of mission, humility and fearlessness – then you’ll be a radical innovator.” When it comes to what to do, Dr Harrison advised the Fellows to always look, listen and learn. “Don’t come with ready-made solutions. Immerse yourself in the issue you are trying to influence – that’s what good innovation is, it emerges from observation.”

And doing requires “very deliberate and systemic action”. For this, he encouraged the Fellows “to keep beating your wings like a butterfly”.

This is one of Dr Harrison’s favourite metaphors based on the work of theoretical meteorologist Edward Lorenz, who famously stated, “a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can produce a tornado in Texas.” Dr Harrison explained, “this metaphor is useful as often we feel so small compared to the challenges we face. But what we can do is keep flapping our wings with deliberate small actions that make a difference – and constantly seek ways to make change, and then amplify that change in different ways.”

When it comes to how to think, Dr Harrison believes it’s important to think simply. “It’s a very tough skill,” he said. “If you can express the power of an idea simply, it has a greater chance of creating influence and inspiring people.”

Also, when thinking about innovation, he suggested that it is equally important to think about influence as much as ideas. “In innovation-speak, there’s such a celebration of great ideas, but not enough emphasis on looking at ideas in context to see if they can bring about change. How we understand whether ideas can work in a social space – or not – really depends on whether they can influence the power differentials in society.”

Finally, he recommended that the Fellows practice “thinking on the edge”. He shared, “this is important because it’s easy to get bogged down with everything we confront. Thinking on the edge requires asking, ‘What can I do next to make things a little bit better?’ That is the edge, the frontier.” He describes the edge as often being a bit chaotic, but it is where the zone of possibility lies.

“There is always an opportunity to be seized if your thinking is – what can I do next?”


You can read and download a digital copy of Improvise below. 

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