How can insights from behavioural science improve your chances of scaling a humanitarian innovation?

As part of its community engagement activities, QRCS team along with beneficiaries examining the “Smart Bucket”, a practical solution that ensures handwashing and making use of soap water for discharge. Photo Credit: Suleiman Al Sumairy.

#TooToughToScale Blogging Series

By Kathryn Ripley, Operations Director, Elrha.

This is the first blog in our new series on ‘Scaling Humanitarian Innovation’, which will delve deeper and unpack some of the most pressing barriers to scale highlighted in our recently published Too Tough to Scale Report.

Despite increased investment in the area, scaling humanitarian innovation is still a big and ongoing challenge. In our report we explore why more innovations aren’t successfully scaling and identify 13 key barriers — from funding to uptake.

Just identifying these barriers isn’t enough — system-wide problems need system-wide solutions. This is why our report also provides clear calls to action for key actors in the humanitarian system and encourages those groups to work with us to achieve the transformative change the sector needs.

In this blog we focus on the issue that innovations don’t always address the right problem — we propose a solution to this and are calling on others in the sector to help implement it.

People don’t always do what they say they will

How can we address the issue that innovations don’t always address the right problem?[1] . Addressing the right problem is an essential pre-requisite for scale: without a solid understanding of the problem there is a real risk that solutions are not useful — or worse — do real harm, in which case they are highly unlikely to achieve positive impact at scale.

Understanding of this issue is growing among the humanitarian community. Particularly the crucial role that effective engagement with people affected by crises must play to fully understand the problem and solution required. However, the research carried out by Spring Impact for our report showed that there are still instances where this approach is not systematically followed in practice.

This could be due to a lack of knowledge or constraints on time and resources. However, we’ve also found that occasionally someone already has a solution in mind before they start — “solutions in search of a problem, rather than the reverse”[2].

Insights from the field of behaviour science show that there is often a difference between what we say we’ll do and what we actually do. We suspect this is true of innovators who have “solutions in search of a problem”. They may be aware of what’s best practice but be conflicted in what they know they ought to do and what they want to do. We need a mechanism that can address this conflict.

Tackling a lack of knowledge or constraints on time and resources can be readily addressed

We believe Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Guide goes a long way to closing the knowledge gap on problem recognition — we have a chapter dedicated to this area with practical tools and insights.

Constraints on time and resources will always be a factor. But there are choices about where to allocate time and resources most effectively. We will continue to advocate that the more time spent on understanding the problem, the less the likelihood of developing an inappropriate solution.

Learning from behavioural science

The issue of “solutions in search of a problem” is tougher. In these cases, someone may have come up with an innovative idea and been inspired to develop it further because he or she believes it to be a great idea. It is the solution that is inspiring them to act, not the problem.

The field of behaviour science tells us that transparency and accountability can be powerful tools to persuade people to act differently. To this end, we are calling for those who manage innovation processes — innovators as well as hubs, labs, accelerators and global innovation actors — to use and publish challenge briefs. A Challenge Brief is the final activity we recommend in the problem recognition stage and captures and distils the learning about the problem area, the symptoms and underlying causes of the problem, alongside related risks and assumptions. The document is a tool to help innovators move forward to the next stage of the innovation process. We give detailed support in using this tool in the Humanitarian Innovation Guide.

Publishing such challenge briefs would share important situation analysis information with the wider sector, while also highlighting the importance of this stage of the innovation cycle. We believe it would also help to increase the quality and consistency of the problem recognition phase: innovators would be able to see what their peers are producing; learn from what’s been done in similar situations; and, by virtue of these documents being publicly available, drive them to produce outputs of a higher quality than would perhaps otherwise be possible.

The accountability side should come into play here too, to strengthen this recommendation. We would like to see donors hold the organisations they fund to account for ensuring problem recognition is done well for all innovation projects. We believe that ensuring all projects have produced quality Challenge Briefs is a fairly easy way to do this.

Working together to overcome barriers to scale, one step at a time!

Off the back of our research and experience, and in reflecting how to improve innovations’ success at scale, Elrha is committed to publishing Challenge Briefs for each new project supported through our Humanitarian Innovation Fund programme. We hope others will do the same. We will be talking to those who manage innovation processes — hubs, labs, accelerators and global innovation actors as well as donors of humanitarian innovation through round table discussions next year to understand if this proposal is something they could adopt. If we work together, we can address these systemic barriers to scale.

Read our report for more information on barriers to scale and get in touch if you’d like to discuss this further with us.

[1] See p. 25 of the Too Tough to Scale report — Challenge 1, Barrier 1

[2] See p.26 of the Too Tough to Scale report