How UNHCR’s Innovation Fellowship program practices what it teaches

UNHCR Innovation Service
· 10 min read

The program continually experiments with fresh ideas to spread innovation across the organization.

By Amy Lynn Smith, Independent Writer + Strategist

If there’s one constant in the realm of innovation, it’s change. That’s because it’s impossible to innovate without tirelessly seeking opportunities for reinvention, for new ways of approaching an old problem, for finding collaborative solutions that make better programs and processes possible.

That’s certainly true about the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) Innovation Fellowship Program. First launched in 2013, the program has evolved significantly in the years since — adding or eliminating elements each year to refine and rethink the program to make it more beneficial to UNHCR, the participants, and the country operations where Fellows are tasked with motivating everyone they work with to embrace innovation as a core aspect of their work.

The initial inspiration for the Innovation Fellowship Program came from Joel Nielsen, who was Senior Staff Development Officer and Head of Unit in the Global Learning Center at the time. Today, he’s a Senior Change Management Advisor and Acting Head of Section.

Nielsen approached Chris Earney, Deputy of UNHCR’s Innovation Service, with the idea of creating some sort of innovation training based on programs he’d worked on in the past. It was a moment of pure serendipity, because at the time the Innovation Service had been looking at the Obama Administration’s Presidential Innovation Fellows program and aspired to create something similar.

“Joel and I recognized this alignment of values and capacities — a nice merger of internal and external inspiration and collaboration,” Earney says. “We saw a clear link between Fellows, their learning outcomes, and their ability to produce something for their operations.”

Embarking on an innovation education experiment

Although Earney admits the program was a bit “haphazard” in the beginning, many of the elements of the current program have been in place from the start. For example, the concept of developing Fellows into innovation ambassadors has only been a formal part of the curriculum for the last two years, but the concept has always been central to the program. The goal has always been to give Fellows tools and processes they can take back to their country operations to establish sustainable innovation practices long after their Fellowship has ended.

However, the Innovation Fellowship Program has transformed significantly since its inception, a transformation led primarily by Emilia Saarelainen, the Innovation Fellowship Program Manager, who took over leadership of the program in 2015. Initially, there was a heavy focus on product development and building goodwill toward the concept of innovation, especially among the Fellows hand-picked for the first cohort. They were chosen because they were already trying to push for innovation in their country operations. Although the Innovation Service is relatively young at UNHCR, Earney says, innovation is something the organization has always done, even before it was quite sure what that might look like as it evolved.

“We decided to nurture those efforts with the Fellowship and provide more knowledge and start to build a community,” he explains, “so half of the first cohort was hand-picked and the other went through a selection process.”

Today, the year-long Innovation Fellowship Program trains roughly 25 people each year, mostly UNHCR staff, who work on solving specific challenges they believe will help their local operation improve some aspect of its work.

Each cohort of Fellows begins the program with an intensive five-day workshop. After experimenting with whether one or two workshops per cohort was ideal, the current program includes two workshops: one at the start of each cohort and a second halfway through. The first workshop prepares Fellows for the year ahead, and both workshops give Fellows opportunities to form connections and resources for support, and include a variety of exercises to help expand their thinking about what innovation really means.

In addition to the workshops, the program includes a full curriculum: Fellows are given assignments to carry out at their operations that encourage collaboration, giving Fellows a chance to put the processes they’ve learned into practice. These assignments are hands-on, practical tasks related to the processes Fellows are taught through the program to foster innovation. Experimenting with ideas and transforming them into action is a central aspect of the Fellowship Program’s curriculum, so participants can create practical solutions to put in place to improve the lives of refugees. (For a deeper dive into how the program works at the operational level, read this story on the work of Innovation Fellows in Ethiopia.)

Fostering innovation through ongoing reinvention

In its earliest incarnation, the Innovation Fellowship Program emphasized project development and implementation. There was a great deal of interest from both Fellows and country operations in technology and the development of new apps, or integrating current apps into the work of UNHCR’s country operations.

That’s one aspect of the program that has changed significantly, since innovation is about much more than technology. In fact, one of the most important ways the Innovation Fellowship Program has changed is in its shift away from technology, says Saarelainen.

There was also an initial emphasis on project completion as an end goal of the program. But today, the projects Fellows work on are considered a vehicle to experiment with new approaches and techniques. Participants learn how to identify their operations’ most urgent needs, and how to apply innovation tools and methodologies they learn through the program to address them. As a result, the program is now heavily focused on culture change, behavior change, and organizational change.

“We’ve evolved from an emphasis on projects to processes and people,” Saarelainen explains. “We recognize that innovation is about people, so in that way, the Fellowship became almost like an innovation leadership program. It isn’t that the participants are necessarily at a higher level within the organization. It is about the fact that people can take that innovation leadership role no matter what their grade is.”

That mindset also changed how applicants are selected. Rather than being hand-picked for their interest in innovation, candidates from across UNHCR are welcome to apply. The selection criteria is rigorous, and in 2018 the program experimented with Artificial Intelligence to gain initial insights from the candidates as part of the process of selecting Fellows.

“Rather than simply being limited to the people we knew were friends of innovation, we wanted to bring more transparency and equality to the process, in that everyone should have the chance to apply,” Saarelainen says. “We have created and shaped a much more robust selection process since that first year.”

Giving Fellows the right tools to act as innovation ambassadors

The stronger emphasis on processes and people is a notable difference in the program today. But there was more to it than making it clear that innovation isn’t limited to technology. It was about creating a program that gives Fellows the ability to realize their vision of innovation back at their operations.

As part of the curriculum, Fellows go through a series of concrete steps to design and develop projects for their operations. But rather than the previous emphasis on project completion, today the role of innovation ambassadors and their projects is to bring an understanding of how to collaborate and work in teams to find new and better ways of solving problems and delivering services to refugees.

This reflects some of the less tangible — but equally important — aspects of the Innovation Fellowship Program’s evolution. For example, building technical innovation skills is an obvious element of the program. But over the years, the team has recognized that there are other skills that are equally important, such as collaboration, community building, communication, giving and receiving feedback, and reflecting on successes and failures to guide next steps. All of these skills and more have become integral to the learning experience so Fellows can infuse their country operations with an innovation mindset. That’s exactly what happened in Brazil, for example, where Innovation Fellows helped create a culture of innovation that’s continued even after some have moved to new duty stations.

As Earney explains, the program has doubled down on making sure every aspect of the curriculum enables the innovation process. He attributes much of that to the program prioritizing learning content over innovation content. Although he admits that’s a subtle distinction, he feels the focus on learning as a means to facilitating innovation is crucial. There’s a real emphasis not only on UNHCR’s values but on the organization’s people, something Earney experienced at a recent workshop.

“We were all on the verge of tears at one point because one of the sessions was just so cohesive and emotional. It was an experiment in itself, and charged with goodwill and good energy,” he explains. “That’s a dynamic you won’t see in many places.”

Embracing reinvention as central to fostering innovation across UNHCR

Innovation has become so important to UNHCR — as reflected by the continued growth and evolution of the Innovation Fellowship Program, which the team hopes to scale up further in the years ahead — that Senior Leadership is now assessed for their competence in innovation.

“It’s acknowledging that innovation comes from many areas, and the Fellowship builds one stream and now we’re also talking about working with Senior Managers,” says Nielsen, who has brought learning content that promotes innovation to the Global Learning Center, too. “We’ve found that Fellows sometimes have issues with Senior Managers who don’t really understand what it means to allow them to go about their innovation activities, so creating that enabling environment for innovation is a managerial task and something we’re trying to push.”

The continued refinement of the program demonstrates a central fact: the Innovation Fellowship Program has been an experiment from the start. According to Earney, the ongoing evolution of the program — driven by Saarelainen’s willingness to experiment and challenge her own assumptions, much as Fellows are encouraged to do — reflects the objective of socializing innovation as inherent to the work of every country operation.

“The entire Fellowship is an experiment, and within the program there’s plenty of experimentation, too,” Saarelainen says. “So far, none of the years has been identical.”

For example, in 2018 the program added gamification to create even more opportunities for Fellows to collaborate. Fellows were awarded for advancing with their innovation assignments and collaboration with others. Fellows had an opportunity to vote for others who have helped them or others the most. According to Saarelainen, the game is being refined, but it remains part of the program as the team continues to improve on the idea of using games to inspire learning and make it more engaging.

Acknowledging failure as a learning opportunity

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges when a program is one giant experiment is the potential for failure — something the program leaders and participants face on a regular basis. People are, by nature, conditioned to see failure as something negative. But the Fellows quickly come to understand it’s actually a learning opportunity and a process of improvement, especially in a program that’s constantly evolving, just as each Fellow’s project does.

“We select great people for the program who understand that’s part of the challenge, but the most difficult work is when the Fellows are trying to explain that to their colleagues at their operation,” Saarelainen says. “The program gives Fellows an opportunity to try something out they otherwise would not have the opportunity to do — and they are taught in the initial workshop that failure is an important part of experimentation and testing. But because their colleagues and managers have not gone through the intensive workshop, it’s up to the Fellows to help them change their mindsets. Of course, we offer support to the Fellows throughout the program, but since their colleagues haven’t been through the program it can be a challenge.”

Learning to rethink failure is a crucial aspect of the program — and across the Innovation Service. “Failure by definition is considered a bad thing,” Nielsen says, “but here it’s reframed as an opportunity for learning, which is not a failure at all.”

What’s more, Saarelainen says, she tells the Fellows that the program is always evolving and changing, and sometimes they have failures of their own as part of the process. This gives Fellows a reassuring real-world example of failure as part of learning and innovating.

Looking ahead to the future of innovation — and the program

True to the spirit of innovation and experimentation, the Innovation Fellowship Program will continually be reinvented. For example, in 2018 the program piloted the first Innovation Mentoring program, in which alumni Fellows mentor the current cohort. Based on feedback during its first year, the team has improved on the mentorship aspect, giving it more structure, and is continuing it this year.

Six years in, the Innovation Fellowship Program is definitely making a difference across UNHCR. Although its success hasn’t been quantified yet, the Innovation Service plans to conduct an impact assessment, to determine what works and what doesn’t to continue refining and improving the program.

“It’s important that we take a longer-term perspective, because then we start to see the Fellows as the shapers and directors of the future,” Earney says. “So whatever seeds we’re planting now, we don’t necessarily know what the outcome is going to be but we’re fairly sure that it leads to a better culture and better leadership.”

For Saarelainen, there’s value in showing people that putting themselves in an uncomfortable position — trying something new, proposing ideas their colleagues might disagree with, risking failure, or simply telling management, “We could do things better” — is a positive thing. What’s more, it’s an approach that can be applied to nearly any endeavor, as part of the Innovation Fellowship Program and beyond.

“It starts in the first workshop, but later there are so many things the Fellows or anyone who wants to innovate must face that puts them in an uncomfortable position,” she explains. “Innovation is uncomfortable because you’re doing things in a way the organization is not always used to and it doesn’t always provide the space for. So you have to create that space and teach people how to support it. The Innovation Fellowship Program is, and will continue to be, a critical tool in building the organization’s innovation capacity.”

UNHCR Innovation Service

UNHCR’s Innovation Service supports new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

UNHCR Innovation Service

Written by

UNHCR’s Innovation Service embeds new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

UNHCR Innovation Service

UNHCR’s Innovation Service supports new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

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