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Our February 6th Technology Salon in New York City focused on the organizational challenges that development organizations face when trying to innovate or integrate ICTs into their programs and operations. We looked at the idea of “innovation” and different ways to approach it. We asked what “innovation” really means and why “technology” and “innovation” seem to always be used interchangeably. We shared ideas, challenges and good practice around supporting and encouraging staff, managers, and donors to experiment with new and better ways of doing things.

A huge thank you to Somto Fab-Ukozor and Rachana Kumar for their collaboration on writing the summary below!

Mika

Mika Valitalo, Plan Finland. (Photo by Somto Fab-Ukozor)

Our lead discussants were Jessica Heinzelman, DAI’s senior ICT specialist; Chris Fabian, UNICEF’s advisor to the Executive Director on innovation and co-lead of UNICEF’s innovation lab; and Mika Valitalo, Plan Finland’s program manager for ICT4D.

What is innovation?

Different organizations bring in different ideas and definitions of innovation. Is innovation always synonymous with technology? Does it always require technology? For some organizations, “innovation” means doing things faster, better and differently in a way that adds value and has a concrete impact.

One discussant noted that innovation is not necessarily disruptive in nature; it can be categorized into 3 main forms:

  • a totally new context, new problem, new solution
  •  an existing solution that is improved
  •  an existing solution that is adapted to a new context, country or sector

Another lead discussant pointed out that innovation is not necessarily something brand new; it can be something that existed but that is used in a different way or simply different processes or ways of thinking, and innovation does not have to be technology. The concept of innovation is often misunderstood, he said, because “someone can come up with 10 crappy ideas that are new but that does not make them innovative or useful.” He also cautioned that innovation should not only be about replication and scale, yet donors sometimes decide that an idea is innovative and encourage organizations to replicate the idea, without ensuring that it is having a real or relevant impact across different local contexts.

One discussant disagreed and said that there’s no innovation without technology; for example, 60% of kids are stunting in one of the greenest areas in the world because of lack to electrical grid; the provision of electricity is technology. Without the electrical grid, the country will never reach any of its developmental goals. Technology enables the work to happen. A different viewpoint, as another discussant explained, was that the application of the technology is the innovative part, not the technology itself.

What fuels innovation?

A key part of the Salon discussion focused on whether having dedicated resources fueled innovation, or whether the presence of challenges and constraints forces innovation. Some Salon participants felt that when people are faced with challenges such as less time, fewer resources, no office space, etc., they may find themselves being more innovative in order to overcome constraints. Others found that staff often use the excuse of not having time and resources as a reason for not innovating or thinking outside the box. Some felt that innovation is difficult to achieve within large bureaucratic institutions due to their risk averse cultures, whereas others felt that one of the benefits of large-scale organizations is having resources to innovate and then test and scale innovations. Participants did agree that regardless of the outside setting, some people are more inclined to be innovative – these people are easy to identify almost everywhere, as they are always coming up with new ideas and trying/testing things out. The key is to find a way for organizational structures to support and reward innovators.

Encouraging innovation within large development organizations

Different organizations approach the innovation question in different ways. One discussant said that at his organization, the innovation team spends 60% of its time working on problems the organization is facing at the moment; 20% of its time looking towards the future (a 3-5 year horizon) for ideas that have an immediate direct impact on its work; and 20% of its time on organizational redesign, in other words, how to work with users to create solutions that are not top down and that take advantage of the existing ecosystem. His innovations team is only interested in finding/creating innovations that could reach very large scale, such as 10,000,000 people or more.

The innovation team created some guidelines for staff and allies with tips on how to defend one’s existence as someone working on innovation.  The guide addresses questions like: Why innovation?  Is it valuable to have an innovation unit? If so, why? If so and why, then prove it. Working on these questions led the innovation unit to develop metrics for innovation to justify staff positions focused on innovation. These guidelines can help people at other organizations who are trying something new to have a reference point; they allow innovation teams to say “such-and-such organization is doing this, so we can do it too.”

Metrics for innovation

Having a set of metrics can help innovation labs, teams or persons charged with organizational innovation to measure whether they are actually achieving their goals, too. One organization defined the following metrics:

  • permission to fail or fail cheaply without fear
  • working with heterogeneous groups
  •  sharing knowledge across countries and contexts

Working across organizational boundaries without “soul crushing bureaucracy” and having the real ability to work horizontally is one key to achieving these metrics.

Decentralizing the innovation function

Another lead discussant described the institutional changes and underlying understanding of people needed to improve and support innovation:

  • Identify the real incentives that someone has – individual or project – and the disincentives to innovating. It is important to look underneath the excuses people come up with such as time constraints and additional work, and find out what is driving them.
  • Hire realistic optimists – Sometimes in the ICT4D space, people gloss over the challenges and promote the technology. It is important to hire people who are grounded and have a good analytical sense, and who can think beyond gadgets and hype.
  • Building and sharing expertise within the organization – Creating a champions group of mid-to entry-level professionals within the organization, who understand the power that new technology has, is another way to make innovation and ICT4D spread. Rather than keep the expertise isolated within a specialist unit, finding younger people who are hungry for knowledge and who see this kind of work as a way to help further their career and set themselves apart from their colleagues can help. Then the “innovation team” can provide them with support and guidance. Participatory workshops on new tools and approaches can be organized where these innovation champions are tasked to research and explore something and then present it. Equipped with tools and trainings, they will be able to better identify opportunities for innovation.
  • Getting innovation into the plan early and working with those who are putting proposals and RFPs together to make sure that it is part of the metrics being measured from the beginning. It’s hard to add new elements into the program later because people will perceive it as additional work.

One Salon participant said that her organization disconnected “innovation” from its other programs so that space for trying new things would be made, and the fear of failing would be reduced or “offloaded” to the innovation team. In this case, the unit is funded through private sources which support it to experiment. It still has to struggle for its existence and show the impact and value of either failure or success.

Ideas for taking innovation and ICT4D forward

Some ideas for moving ahead included:

  1. Flexibility in program planning– In reality, most times during program implementation the plan changes and we have to figure out how to cope with it. The solution lies in the ability to quietly promote innovation and to influence donor organizations to embrace more flexible implementation.
  2. Integrating User-Centered-Design – Ethnographic research can help to better understand how people use technology locally and what its meaning is. It also helps identify existing patterns and ways of doing things that could be enhanced or shared with other communities if they are working well. Agile methodology from the software world can be pulled into development programs in order to end the top-down approach of solving problems from afar and having everything cooked up from the start. Rather, focusing on small iterations and the impact of the deliverables can be a better approach.
  3. Collaboration with Universities – Universities can be great places for working on and trying out  new ideas. Links with universities can be used as ways to find solutions, but even moreso to “change the proteins” inside of a traditional organization.  Collaboration among staff and students provides opportunities for staff to learn how to think about things differently and for students to understand real-world challenges in development agencies.
  4. Bridging the gap – Involving educators, health experts, child protection specialists and others who are not very interested in gadgets can bring about strong understanding of the real needs. Then connecting them with “techies” and ICTs in plain language and asking them to relate their own use of tech (they probably all use mobile phones in their personal lives, for example) to the ways that community members use tech can help to bring about solid, practical, sustainable and locally driven solutions.
  5. Provide a safe environment – Many humans are innovative by nature, said one discussant. Hierarchies and organizational processes are often what prevent people from doing new things. Giving feedback and psychological support can help those who are innovative to flourish within a difficult environment.
  6. The interdisciplinary approach – One Salon participant said that his organization had started to work with some senior staff to think and structure data in a way that would help them understand their challenges and programs better in order to innovate. This makes people more comfortable, and working across different teams with a variety of people and skill sets can help new ideas and solutions to bubble up.
  7. Information intermediaries – Infomediaries working at various levels can help connect people with technology, conduct training, and ensure that staff can acquire skills to use the technology themselves and in programs.
  8. Open source – Making project documents, budgets, concepts, “open” online can make them more accessible and  help  enable sustainable projects and prevent issues and costs associated with proprietary tools, applications and content.
  9. Younger management – There’s an age differential between the people who lead most large organizations and large-scale projects and those who are more interested in technology. One participant suggested it would be important to get younger people into positions where they can make contributions of ideas and decisions without being blocked by higher level people that may be “past their innovation prime.” Another solution may be to hire more experienced people but to ensure that they are open to working with  younger people who bring in new ideas. (Some Salon participants, however, felt that age has nothing to do with innovation, and that it is more related to personality types and organizational environments).

For  additional resources on the Salon topic, look here – and add your resources as well.

Salons are held under Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this post. Many thanks to our lead discussants and to ThoughtWorks for hosting and providing breakfast.

If you’d like to attend future Salons, sign up here!

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