A New Compass: navigating the dark matter of institutional innovation

By Salvatore Vassallo, Senior Admin and Programme Associate & Balint Pataki, Admin and Programme Associate

Diagram by Hans Park.

In the universe, there is much more that is unknown than is known. Everything on earth, everything in the universe that has even been observed by scientific instruments, all normal matter adds up to less than five per cent of the universe. The rest of the universe is comprised of dark energy and matter — everything that is not in the form of stars and planets that we see. This unseen matter touches everything — and yet is in situated between all the things that are known.

So, what can dark matter teach us about innovation? Within UNHCR, there are spaces that exist in the gaps between bureaucratic processes and services, spaces that often go undetected, just like dark matter. These spaces straddle multiple departments — from human resources to administration, and procurement — and much like dark matter, can be the richest areas of growth and innovation. We need to act where these unmet and unarticulated needs are discovered to create new opportunities for innovation.

Innovation in these straddled areas within large humanitarian organisations doesn’t get enough attention. Humanitarian innovation often lives in rigid silos that are situated upon us — education innovations, energy innovations, technology innovations or innovation in emergency response. But bureaucratic challenges touch all these points of light in the humanitarian context. Whether it’s budget or programming — these institutional forces walk hand in hand in serving refugees at UNHCR. One cannot exist without the other and both sides of the coin require new approaches and new ways of thinking to prepare the organisation to be fit for the future.

Lighting up unseen spaces and unmet needs

If we look at the Latin roots of the word innovation — “in-nova-tion” — it literally means “in a new way” or to “make changes to something established.” In this sense, innovation can be a means of improvement or renewal, moving against the status quo. More importantly, understanding challenges and learning from previous missteps is key for improvement and innovation. Most people are always searching for methods to improve their life and wellbeing; there are whole business models synced with books, courses, and retreats that are focused on improving yourself.

So, why don’t we speak more about improvement within our workplace? The space where we spend the majority of our time. And what does it mean to create a space or “room for improvement” within our organisation? We view it this way:

The word “room” can be recognised as an unseen space where there are numerous possibilities to innovate. Similar to the dense dark matter mentioned above, these spaces often go unnoticed regardless of the untapped potential for transformation. We are at a crucial moment where innovation is at the forefront of methodologies to address complex challenges. But ultimately we will never be able to truly become an innovative organisation or sector if we cannot light up these unseen bureaucratic spaces and begin to innovate within them as well. How can we mainstream innovation in UNHCR’s emergency response if we are not innovating the back-end processes that support these responses? How can we improve services to displaced populations if our administration and programming services aren’t fit for purpose?

In the end, innovation needs a starting point in our processes — it does not have to act as a complete overhaul and should not replace modernisation efforts. We do not have to start with reinventing the wheel itself but we can review the cogs of the wheel and see how they can be readjusted and refit for a new model.

For example, the famous memo approval process in UNHCR. We initiate hundreds upon hundreds of memos every day for a wide range of specific reasons. This can include special leave without pay, a budgetary increase, the transfer of money between different locations and entities — some of us work with memos literally all day long. But these memos are often a legacy from the time of telex and the first typewriters. Memos are lengthy, consist of multiple pages (which often say very little) and are extremely time-consuming. Frankly, we don’t believe people even read them sometimes. However, this is the way UNHCR has always handled memos and this is how we do business. The issue of memos is precisely one of these unseen spaces – institutional dark matter – that should be recognised, lit up and innovated as a process.

Why aren’t we speaking about automated processes for memos? If we are requesting leave without pay, wouldn’t an automated email sent from a proxy server be enough proof that it is us requesting leave? Take another example: the electronic signature. The electronic signature is a reality, and has been a reality, in many sectors for a while now. At UNHCR, we are just starting to look at this issue with serious eyes as an alternative to individually signing each page of a document manually. This is another illustration of a space that could significantly benefit from a new way of doing things. Institutional innovation craves Artificial Intelligence solutions – something that is clearly integral to not only the future but the present too.

The gravitational resistance

At the Innovation Service, we have tried to look at how to improve processes at UNHCR. In reality, these have sometimes ended as a vain attempt because of the resistance to this renewal and the pull of the future. As usual, we fear this sentiment that other innovators across the organisation feel when they are trying to innovate. When we speak about organisational change we focus on these very technical elements – structures, roles, processes – but neglect the equally important human element. This resistance to change is extremely psychological and human; it is shaped by cognitive biases and schematic processing of information that allows our brains to take the easy road by focusing on assumptions and previous conclusions. These biases then form an individual’s mindset – and very often their resistance – to organisational change.

This resistance can be countered by communicating the existing promising practises in bureaucratic innovation. We’ve seen real attitudinal changes in colleagues towards innovation when they can see that a new idea has been tested before outside of the organisation. UNHCR works extremely closely with the private sector to fulfil our mandate, whether it’s creating new digital products or providing connectivity in developing parts of the world. But why aren’t we engaging the private sector more to learn about the way they deal with bureaucracy and create agile internal systems? The simplification of processes is indispensable for UNHCR if we want to keep abreast with current trends that have already proved to be impactful across sectors. Through sharing knowledge and communicating promising practises, we can begin to look at influencing behaviours and mindsets.

The truth of the (dark) matter is: individual change must occur for organisational change to proceed.

A new compass for innovation

We are not saying that you should drop all other innovation initiatives and focus solely on bureaucratic innovation. But we are saying that our work does not sit within a parallel universe, and ultimately for other innovation initiatives to be successful, we need to catch up. We must ensure that our internal processes can be one of the richest areas of growth for innovative ideas.

Innovation starts with a need – whether that’s a new challenge or a call for renewal. Bureaucratic innovation will allow us to have a more systematic approach to change that is required for the future. Because in the end, we can’t prepare UNHCR – or any organisation – for the future if we don’t have the back-end processes and structures to support it.

This essay was originally posted in the recently released publication — UNHCR Innovation Service: “Orbit 2018–2019”. The publication is a collection of insights and inspiration, where we explore the most recent innovations in the humanitarian sector, and opportunities to discover the current reading of innovation that is shaping the future of how we respond to complex challenges. From building trust for artificial intelligence, to creating a culture for innovating bureaucratic institutions and using stories to explore the future of displacement — we offer a glance at the current state of innovation in the humanitarian sector. You can download the full publication here. And if you have a story about innovation you want to tell (the good, the bad, and everything in between) — email: innovation@unhcr.org.