The social innovation field has been successful in developing and spreading new methods that generate new projects and solutions for social change. Micro-finance, competitions and prizes, design thinking, gaming, forum theater and a host of other methods and tools have captured the imagination of would-be social innovators, creating new products, processes and services that more effectively address social need. Many organizations have successfully implemented cross-disciplinary understandings of these methodologies and have adapted them globally and across sectors. Yet further investigation highlights the variation in these methods as they are inevitably adapted and changed according to the context in which they are used and the folks who use them.

Project Innovation seeks to introduce a new population to the potential of social innovation. Rather than teach a large range of methods, this toolkit highlights the fundamental skills of research, facilitation, and collaboration that underpin these methods. These skills are at the core of all effective organizational work and are essential to building innovative cultures.

In other words, methods will come and go. High profile strategies for sparking social innovation such as crowdsourcing or participatory budgeting will be learned, adapted and implemented by a range of organizations, across multiple disciplines and sectors, and will accordingly be named and renamed using the language and jargon specific to each field. However, at the core of these methods, users need to be able to think deeply about problems, facilitate engagement with others to debate and critique the issues that create the social circumstances that require attention, and communicate effectively across a range of people with different knowledge bases and experiences to determine appropriate actions that change those very circumstances under review.

Sideways Learning
Participatory Methods


Sideways learning is also known as lateral learning, horizontal learning, and peer-to-peer learning. It encompasses several strategies to foster cross-sector and non-hierarchical understandings of issues and potential solutions. Sideways learning involves networking, community exchange and the creation of participatory cultures, where many different stakeholders across typical roles and responsibilities form learning communities to better understand problems and define possible solutions.

Sideways learning can suggest different thinking about programs, problems, and issues. For example, a social sector employee in a workforce development NGO may think that the low number of clients following through on job training is the result of a lack of incentives to motivate follow-through. However, through questioning and interviewing, employees learn that their clients face complex barriers, such as problems gaining transportation to programs, and a lack of services around nutrition and healthcare. Sideways learning involves a set of strategies to gain additional information and perspectives on the success of programs, practices to improve work, or new directions to define impact.

In order to promote sideways learning, individuals and organizations need to learn how to conduct basic empirical research to understand the context of social issues and the perspectives of many different participants. Through this process of inquiry, stakeholders will better understand the root issues of challenges and discover more innovative responses that might look beyond traditional approaches.

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Questions help us get “unstuck” when we need to understand a problem from multiple positions. Asking questions leads to different starting points, different people, and different sectors.


Interviews provide in-depth and detailed information on a topic or problem from the perspective of those who have experiences to share.


A survey collects information about the beliefs and perspectives of a large number of people. This information can be used to develop and revise programs and policies and generate community “buy-in.”


Self-reflection is essential for understanding one’s personal position on the issues and problems that demand attention.

Data Analysis

Data analysis is the process of looking at the information that has been collected and using it to guide future thoughts and actions.


Participatory methods focus on creative ways to generate multiple perspectives on issues, problems, and potential solutions; particularly inviting in local viewpoints that might otherwise not be addressed. Participatory methods highlight the importance of diverse spaces where those who are actually in need of services and support can dialogue about issues and concerns, and present them to the larger community. This participatory process of engagement invigorates the procedures that are typically used to get people to engage, contribute, and buy in to programs that require daily ongoing participation. This shift in power relations and the inclusion of more people helps to foster a stronger social sector, which can form the basis of larger scale projects that create more significant impact.

In order to promote participatory methods, individuals and organizations need to use approaches that speak to broader audiences. Effective participatory methods rely on creative processes, such as those inherent in local arts and crafts, or those using more contemporary multimedia resources. Methods such as photography, filmmaking, performance or design rely on visualization and storytelling to portray indigenous knowledge. These strategies may require resources and expert training, but the end goal is to empower local participants to control the representation of issues.

Through a process of creation, stakeholders will better represent their unique perspectives to assist in naming problems within communities and brainstorm potential solutions that catalyze social change.

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Dialogue involves listening to the perspectives of others and telling your point of view to develop a shared understanding of issues.


In the process of creation, people identify and represent issues and ideas artistically.


Performances, demonstrations, and exhibits offer creative ways to present information and communicate ideas. Engaging presentations can help people make a personal or emotional connection to an issue or problem.


All information yields benefits and limitations when acted on. Be aware of potential consequences of following some perspectives and priorities over others.


Project success depends on having a plan for ongoing commitment and support.


Social sector organizations always need effective participation platforms that encourage people to identify social challenges, think of solutions, and carry out their own ideas.

Competitions motivate innovation through a system of incentives and recognition. A challenge inspires individuals or groups to conceptualize an issue in a particular way and brainstorm potential responses. An application process generates excitement to keep entrants engaged and committed to the contest. An incentive of some kind lowers the barrier for participation by attracting a wide audience through a monetary prize or the promise of high profile acknowledgement to advertise the winning accomplishment. Some competition models, utilize other innovation approaches like participatory budgeting, which creates a platform for ordinary citizens to suggest their recommendations for tackling public problems. The incentive in this case is the opportunity to decide how municipal budgets are allocated and even participate in the implementation of winning ideas.

In order to promote competitions, individuals and organizations need to create open environments conducive to idea sharing. This means teasing out the nuances of participant contributions so that others may build on them. Through this process of collaboration, stakeholders will be better equipped to lead new initiatives.

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Fresh thinking emerges when people are encouraged to think of new ideas in different ways, in different spaces, or with different groups of people.


Groups sometimes need a leader to help participants work together, understand common goals, and reach consensus on how to move forward.

Cross Sector Analysis

Every field gets entrenched in their own ways of seeing problems and finding solutions. Analyzing issues across sectors encourages you to think about a problem from the perspective of another field, develop a broader system-wide understanding of problems and issues, and propose new possible solutions.


Individual members of a team must commit to working with others to achieve common goals.


Not all spaces are conducive to networking so it’s important to intentionally envision and curate environments that facilitate collaboration.