Four Tips on Maintaining a Culture of Innovation as Your 4-H Program Grows

By Paul Hill April 06, 2016

No 4‑H educator strives for mediocrity. But all too often, successful proposals lead to grant funding and an increase membership. This is great! But beware of growth, it sweeps in and sets in motion a downward spiral toward mediocrity.

As a 4‑H program grows, we as leaders put systems, processes and structures in place to deal with complicated issues that arise as part of scaling. It’s at this point that we risk losing our appetite for innovation that motivated us to win that funding in the first place. We might fall back on the belief that, “This is the way it has always been done,” or else resort to tired lessons from best practices at association conferences.

Although systems and best practices are important for successful scaling, if you apply too many at once you risk razing the innovative spark inside you. 4‑H programs move from innovative to mediocre when they conform to the status quo instead of striving for innovation by moving quickly and pushing boundaries.

Now, as 4‑H leaders we must remember the systems that made our programs successful to begin with. Similarly, we need to stay wakeful, lest our programs succumb to mediocrity.

Here are four tips to maintain a culture of innovation as your program grows:

  • Think outside the 4‑H box: National and state 4‑H association meetings teach you how to run traditional programs, ‘best practices’ that work, but you’ll never hear about ‘next practices’ or the ideas that utterly failed and what your colleagues learned from their mistakes. Don’t use only best practices as building blocks if you want an innovative 4‑H program. Look outside of 4‑H for ideas and concepts that work in the world of business. New 4‑H programs thrive on innovation, not more of the same.
  • Cultivate a culture of innovative: Culture defines your 4‑H program. Do you want to have a dynamic, creative team? Then your culture needs to reward initiative, encourage communication and provide autonomy. You can’t just give lip service to the word ‘innovation,’ you have to ingrain innovation into your culture by honoring it with every decision you make. Prioritize open sharing of innovative ideas and listen closely to those teammates who think differently than you. Diverse perspectives help innovation flow.
  • Blaze your own trail: Commitment to innovation becomes even more critical as your 4‑H program grows because unfortunately, size encourages tradition. As the size of your staff grows, strict structures will appear more attractive in order to help keep things organized. Only your leadership will stave mediocrity. Question every best practice by asking, “What if we did the opposite?” Set your own course and ascertain the best way to organize your 4‑H program when it is small so the transition remains steady.
  • Reinforce agility: Smaller, agile teams collaborate better and can tackle new challenges more effectively than a large staff working in silos. When your team is small, use tools like Slack, Google Groups, Drive, Basecamp and Box to share openly about what everyone is working on. When you have established a collaborative nature in your 4‑H program, it will be easier to scale and bring on more people while maintaining a spirit of innovation.

As the grant funding rolls in for your 4‑H program, keep innovation at the nucleus of your leadership to prevent slowing slipping into mediocrity. Examine the traditional best practices, but be sure they’re a proper fit for your team culture before applying them. This type of focus will keep your program firmly anchored in innovation.