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Oil, Water, Apples and Oranges:

Bootstrapping Innovation With Social Networks

© 2005, Keith McCandless and Linda DeWolf


Research illuminates the powerful role of social networks in spreading new ideas.  Adoption occurs in communities, rather than in aggregates of unrelated individuals, with interpersonal dynamics influencing the rate and scope of diffusion.  This article explores the creation and influence of a social network among six diverse grantees of the VHA Health Foundation.  Over a 15-month grant cycle, each grantee was developing an innovative service or technology with the intention of spreading it to other settings.  The innovators’ social network, a relatively informal group of people that came together on an ongoing basis around a shared interest in advancing practice, was created to support innovation development and spread.  With an economy of means, the Foundation created a portfolio of approaches that helped this ensemble of innovators jointly develop, vet, and spread their work.

Introduction – Good for the Goose, Good for the Gander

What helps an innovator or explorer succeed?  Imagination, courage, serendipity, tolerance for ambiguity, or pure grit?  All were required, in  abundance, for the grantees of the VHA Health Foundation.  In October of 2004, six grantees set off from their respective “shores” with a new idea or technology to spread across the country.  [See “Diverse Grantee Profiles” on page four]

The authors of this article, a foundation executive and a consultant, launched this exploration with an open question:  What will help support and strengthen grantees’ efforts to get their new idea or technology adopted by others?  Is there a way to bolster the imagination, courage, serendipity, tolerance for ambiguity, and grit of our innovative grantee teams?

Our goal was to help grantees to be more successful in developing and spreading their innovations.  Knowing full well that over 95% of innovation projects fail to spread [1], we ventured boldly forth.  The effort was inspired by social network and innovation diffusion theory [2, 4].  We knew that social networks play a powerful role in spreading innovation but not how much an innovators’ network would help grantees throughout the entire process. We asked, “Social networks are good for goose, are they also good for the gander?”

Looking back, grantee Dr. Alan Duncan reflects, “Typically, foundations give you the money and press for progress reports and evaluation. I have never seen a foundation so involved in staying connected and connecting us with other

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