Innovation won’t work if we don’t embrace inclusive collaboration.
Most innovation teams fail, and there is a significant risk that what has become a multimillion-dollar industry of humanitarian innovation, may fail as well. Failure in the sense that it becomes stagnant, never grows out from its initial phase, and stays irrelevant to create meaningful impact in our work for and with displaced populations. Failure in the United Nations (UN) system is not akin to the private sector where ‘people move on’ and entities disappear.
The failure of initiatives and systems in the UN system may mean that things are not killed off, but linger and add dead weight to the bureaucratic machinery. Recognising failure, cutting it, moving forward, and imagining the next big thing is hard — very hard — in the UN system. The reason why innovation teams are so fragile and at risk of failure in the humanitarian sector is that they work to enhance the culture of inclusive collaboration and are set up against organisational cultures that are opaque and siloed.
There should be no middle ground in terms of where innovation is situated within UNHCR. Benefits and applications need to be clear and understood — and if we as the Innovation Service cannot deliver this clarity, we risk being irrelevant to refugees and to our colleagues. So the pressure is on us, the Innovation Service. There is no doubt in my mind that if innovation, and the Innovation Service along with it, succeeds, UNHCR will continue to remain in a strong position in the future of humanitarian relief. We must never become dead weight.
We see massive innovation opportunities in UNHCR, and one of the key areas is in structured decision-making based on evidence. This evidence should be based on data, both small data (intuitions based on human interactions, and experience), and big data (information that can lead to machines learning patterns, among other things).
The organisation-wide data ‘push’ is necessary. It creates the core infrastructure required to move forward with providing continued and more effective support for refugees. Simultaneously, I believe, that if the organisation does not act on the culture of collaboration and experimentation, we will not manage to deal with its current and future challenges. A data centre, for example, is useless if people do not actually want to collaborate or know how to identify questions that data can help to answer. Paired with infrastructure, we need to learn and understand that our minds need to change.
Being aware of the risks of irrelevance, these are the two steps we will take from a strategic communication, and design, point of view:
- Think less and experiment more — and demonstrate that this is effective;
- Enhance links between strategic design, strategic communication, and take innovation learning to new heights.
What does this mean and how do we do this?
The need for experimentation
The Innovation Service understands the model for innovation as a specific mix of many learnings from different ecosystems, teams, and individuals. Within the Innovation Service, we are slowly shaking off the notion of the ‘Silicon Valley’ model of innovation being an effective one for us. We are convinced that the ‘Western corporate-based’ innovation approach is not going to create long-lasting impact. We live in a world where results are not only hired through partnerships and consultancies but through a healthy combination of internal and external skillsets acquired into the ‘problem sphere’. We are also learning as a service, that to be relevant to the organisation, we have to build bespoke innovation models that work for UNHCR. This requires everyone in the organisation to invest time in innovation, commit to the innovation process, and have an appetite for experimentation. Without experimentation we end up with bad solutions to problems we didn’t define well — we waste time and resources. So not only do we as a Service show that experimentation works for the team, but that it is the way forward for everyone.
Opening minds, narrowing gaps in teams
We need to move forward with one of the core human elements of innovation: behavioural change. How many people still think innovation is about “labs”, colourful rooms, young people, drones, hackathons, and 3D printers? The same way the humanitarian system still deals with legacies of “awareness raising” as a key toolset for communication (this is outdated), innovation in the humanitarian sector suffers from being associated with technology, and is attributed to ‘cutting edge problem-solving’. This narrow understanding of innovation and acting upon this understanding is a lost opportunity in the world of humanitarian innovation. As this narrow understanding does not create sustained impact, it increasingly becomes difficult to be heard. Nobody will listen if we as a society of humanitarian innovators are not demonstrating valuable impact.
We need to understand better why people have this narrow view, why it persists, and we need to learn more about how we communicate about the benefits of innovation as a process, not as a product — the Service needs to help change people’s behaviours, not only minds.
We are also aware of the lack of understanding about what diversity means in innovation. As we quickly associate innovation to technology, somehow we also equate technology to men. While we know that innovation is absolutely not about men only, it is difficult to shake that perception. More work is needed to speak candidly about the makeup of our teams, meetings, and the biases we carry when we carry out trying to create change. Diversity is a tool to reach better outcomes, not a game of statistics.
One of the gaps in innovation is diversity. We can fill that gap with gender equality and by applying diversity of thought in everything we do. Mobilising diversity into the world of innovation will create the needed boost for innovation becoming “regularised” in all corners of our operations. At the Innovation Service, we are acutely aware of biases we carry, but proud to say that the team, and the people we work with, is diverse. We are inclusive and diverse in terms of nationality, sexual orientation, personal backgrounds, the languages we speak, and thoughts we express. But we can always do better.
Mindset and inclusivity above all
How do we move forward? At the Innovation Service, we started to apply strategic communications (we are working with leading experts in Public-Interest Communications — read more from my colleague Lauren on this), and we embrace strategic design, and what we today may call strategic learning. I believe we must double down on design, content, communication, research and tie it all to ‘strategic learning’.
In practice, at the moment this means taking key learnings from the Innovation Fellowship programme that is set to help build competences in our colleagues and expanding it to an ecosystem of innovation. Our Innovation Fellows facilitate innovation across teams in UNHCR and are our ambassadors for positive and effective change. Having the Fellows is a fantastic starting point to expand innovation learning to more parts of the organisation and ultimately to the entire humanitarian sector.
Having opportunities to develop an attitude, and a mindset to act in an innovative way (approaching a challenge, knowing what to do with a complex question, how to have people in the centre, and do it quicker and better) is key to a lean and agile UNHCR. When the Innovation Service succeeds in providing innovation learning opportunities to colleagues, more people will understand the benefits of testing assumptions, receiving feedback from refugees, and ultimately build programmes and act based on this feedback whether it’s from an experiment or our constituency.
Setting an example for the organisation
The mission of UNHCR’s Innovation Service is to help build the most innovative organisation in the world, that benefits displaced populations. To achieve this, we need the best team in the world. The best teams work well together. At the Service, we sometimes forget in our daily work that we have the opportunity to set an example of how to work better, be inclusive, accept dissident, keep eyes on the goal (not be bogged down by politics, personalities). When we forget to set an example, we fail to innovate or facilitate innovation. A positive, inclusive and diverse approach is the key ingredient for innovation. For us to reach our goals and ultimately our mission, we need good people to work at full capacity, and in sync. I will leave you with a few tips that I have noticed that have helped the Innovation Service to move forward when we have run into sticky teamplay situations:
- Keep in mind that for innovation actions to have an impact, teams need to work well. And if you’re unsure how to run or be part of a particular team, then the first thing I recommend you do is to familiarise yourself with how to be more self-aware and developing stellar soft skills. Many times misalignments in teams in my view are due to people not being aware of their own biases, and their influence on others. Harvard Business Review and Stanford Social Innovation Review are good places to start to read more on this;
- Innovation is not only about thinking; it is about doing things. We are all smart people and as smart people, we are used to being rewarded based on how well we think (hence the good scores in school and alas, employment). But thinking too much can lead to a backlog — either your, or your team’s and this is not good for UNHCR or the communities we serve. It’s better to think, and test, then think again and test again. If you’re thinking about something for more than three days at work regarding a particular ‘problem’, stop thinking — go test your assumptions. This is how you can move on and start doing;
- Innovation is about safe mental and physical environments for everyone. Voice discriminatory and inappropriate behaviour, and voice roadblocks too. If something does not make sense, voice it, document it, and think about action points you will take forward to fix it — then share it (you can share it with the Innovation Service if you can’t initially find a channel for this). Don’t expect others to fix your problems and be ready to fix problems that are not in your terms of references (and if others fix problems that are in your terms of references, embrace them, thank them!);
- And lastly, don’t be afraid to make management accountable for their decisions and actions that are counter-intuitive to innovation practices (truth, collaboration, experimentation, action-driven clarity, decisions based on data and feedback are good places to start). Speak to your management and tell them their actions are none of the above. And if that sounds scary, take the energy of after-work complaining and build a movement instead.
If you have further questions, please reach out to us to learn more about our work, the innovation work by our colleagues or about humanitarian innovation.
We’re always looking for great stories, ideas, and opinions on innovations that are led by or create impact for refugees. If you have one to share with us send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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