Myriam Khoury, vice president for innovation at Mercy Corps; Moz Siddiqui, senior manager of strategic innovation and partnerships at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; Michelle Risinger, innovation director at Pact; and Sarah Pearson, chief innovation officer at Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

SAN FRANCISCO — Last year, Myriam Khoury, vice president for innovation at Mercy Corps, learned to lean into her discomfort.

Along with 23 other leaders, she attended a workshop organized by the International Development Innovation Alliance at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy called “Managing Innovation for Impact.”

She learned that discomfort is not only normal but in fact essential in work on innovation. In a blog reflecting on the workshop, she explained that she planned to create more time to explore some of the difficult questions related to scaling innovations. That theme also emerged in Devex’s Meet the Innovation Leads series, which featured 12 leaders in innovation for international development, one for each month of 2018.

As 2018 came to a close, Devex touched base with a range of people featured in the series, and they shared some of their learnings as well as some goals for the new year.

Trying new things

There is an inherent element of risk in innovation, said Sarah Pearson, who joined Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as chief innovation officer last year, but she says the biggest risk is not to take any risks at all.

“Within our agency, we’re learning innovation is about giving colleagues permission to experiment, rethinking our approaches to risk management, and equipping people with the confidence and capabilities to try different things to achieve their objectives and measure the results,” she said.

“This also means we have to work more closely with current DFAT projects, understand their needs, collaborate with others across DFAT to provide our innovation knowledge, provide expertise and external connections for DFAT projects, and build the department’s culture and capability.”

The goal is to build innovation into all of the agency’s work rather than keeping it the responsibility of a small group of innovators, but that also means getting more people comfortable with taking risks.

A systems approach

Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, has seen that time and again no single product, service, or process will advance a health system.

“What’s really exciting for me now is to see how various products or services can connect with others to create new models of working — so when we connect an IOT solution with barcoding on vaccine, for example, we get to see the whole picture on the supply chain,” said Moz Siddiqui, senior manager of strategic innovation and partnerships at Gavi. “And in doing so we create a stack of innovations, that together make for a new solution.”

By taking more of a systems approach to innovation, Gavi plans to support products and tools that are relevant not only for immunization but also for other primary health care interventions, he added.

Designing with customers

Michelle Risinger, innovation director at Pact, said her team has worked on new techniques to understand the customer.

“We are asking ourselves, ‘what do our customers really need, how do we elevate their voice as we design products and services, and how does that realistically juxtapose with our funding sources?’” she said.

She emphasized the importance of shifting away from using the term beneficiaries, which implies a more passive role, to understanding people as customers of products and services.

“We are finding that, when we work with marginalized communities to generate customer insights, … we don’t often have the funding or resources to act on all of the valuable customer insight we surface,” she said.

“So what would it look like if every insight was captured and analyzed on a platform? What would it look like if we could match those insights quickly to relevant pots of funding? What type of new business intelligence and market analysis could we create from this unique information?”

Accepting failure

A major focus for Mercy Corps this year has been helping social entrepreneurs, Khoury said.  

“It is critical to expect and encourage iteration and pivoting and, therefore, to be accepting of failure,” she said.

She called on donors and NGOs supporting social entrepreneurs to provide capital, technical support, and reporting processes that encourage transparency about what is working as well because failures and pivots hold valuable lessons.

If you work on an innovation strategy and have learnings to share, comment below, and tell us what you would like to see in the 2019 installment of Meet the Innovation Leads.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.