Q&A: The obligation to find, foster, and invest in innovation

Chemonics' President and CEO Susanna Mudge.

BARCELONA — Innovation seems to be the development buzzword of the decade. The arrival of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda brought with it a push for out-of-the-box thinking and a clear demand for new approaches to tackle long-standing issues including poverty, rule of law, the environment, and inequality. But what exactly does innovation in a global development context look like?

Susanna Mudge, president and chief executive officer of Chemonics — a leading facilitator in the development space, operating in over 70 countries — explained that the term means different things to different people.

“To me it is really the process of learning, adapting, developing new approaches that make a significant impact and can be scalable,” she said. “New ways, new products, new thinking about how to solve the development problem.”

It can refer to technology, new finance mechanisms or creative partnerships, Mudge said, but it can also incorporate project management, program staffing, and testing and scaling new applications.

Is there a need to shake things up in order to deliver long-lasting and impactful change?

“I feel, as development implementers, we have an obligation to find, foster, and invest in innovation to ensure we’re delivering the very best results, with sustainable impact that can be continued long after we leave the environment,” said Mudge. “And if something is not working, or having the anticipated result or impact, do not be afraid to pivot, to try something new. Investing and fostering innovation means you need to be ready to fail, so fail fast.”

But in a sector where the stakes are high — lives and livelihoods are often dependent on successful program implementation — and with the 2030 deadline for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals fast approaching, is there room for development practitioners to innovate? Sitting down with Devex, Mudge shared her views.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What does innovation really mean in our space?

Innovation is integral to everything that we do in development because we’re constantly looking for new ways to solve complex problems. These problems have not necessarily changed that much over the 40-50 years that the United States has been involved in development work. I think it is continuous learning on what works and what doesn't work, and not being afraid to share what doesn't work. It's not a quick fix, it's something that has to be looked at, adapted, scaled, and experimented with — and it’s not going to happen overnight.

“If you see something that you think is really working and want to take it to that next level, give staff the space to be able to do that.”

— Susanna Mudge, president and CEO, Chemonics

In development, we're in an ideal position to foster innovation because we're always able to take a theory of application or a new approach to solving a problem and adapt it to a local context. We can then learn what’s working or not from local implementers or local beneficiaries, and how it can be adapted at scale.

At Chemonics, we continuously push our staff to pursue multiple ways to integrate, encourage, and inspire — not only in our home office but among our global workforce — to think outside the box, not to be afraid to take risks, to look at what we're trying to achieve and ask if there’s a better way to achieve it. It's not just about the outcome, it's also the way that you're doing it.

What are some of the obstacles that hold development practitioners back from innovating?

Sometimes the perception is that there are barriers to innovation, particularly if you’re working under a contract. I’ve even had a contracting officer tell me that you can't do innovation in a contract. I beg to differ, because I think how you achieve a contract is something that will change over time and needs to be adaptable and flexible.

Sometimes contracts have 30-40 indicators and that, in and of itself, can stifle innovation because you focus on delivering a series of indicators or output values rather than thinking about how that all feeds into the greater outcomes you're trying to achieve. You need to have a vision and the flexibility and adaptability to make mistakes, to learn from them, and then find different ways to do something — but most importantly, achieve the desired outcome.

Is innovation something that an organization can invest in or does it have to happen organically?

What are Solution Labs ?

As part of a corporate commitment to innovation, Chemonics has invested in five solutions labs across a wide range of technical areas including blockchain for development, countering violent extremism, monitoring and evaluation, supply chain optimization, and conservation dynamics. Through these labs, Chemonics and their partners — leading universities, local organizations, and think tanks — consider how solutions can be designed and tested to tackle some of the most complex development challenges.

It takes a combination of allowing it to happen organically and having the tools, resources, and willingness to capture it, invest in it, scale it, and then share it. That way it becomes something that can be learned from, and also scaled and adapted to local contexts and still deliver significant results.

I think it's particularly applicable to Chemonics, as we’re structured geographically for the most part. How do you ensure that you're technically capturing what’s being learned and used across multiple countries and multiple geographies? In that regard, you have to be deliberate, but how innovation is actually occurring is organic. It requires you to take a step back and ask “OK, what are we learning and how do we do that?”

Do you have advice for global development professionals aiming to innovate within their organizations but perhaps encountering pushback?

It's really important to give staff the time to reflect, and then encourage and motivate innovation. If you see something that you think is really working and want to take it to that next level, give staff the space to be able to do that.

We have used a variety of mechanisms to promote innovation at Chemonics. We've used contests as a way to allow a project to reflect on what's working, but then given staff the time and the space to actually write it up and share it. Then we have a panel that reviews and determines whether this is actually a successful innovation. Last year, we tied it with Global Innovation Week, bringing those teams that won to participate in the conference and share what they had learned and why their idea or innovation was so successful.

You always have to create time and space for people to reflect on what they think is an innovation that's happening in the project they're working on. We were trying to not only provide the space but also the incentives for people to really take it to that next level.

I think the other thing is to create a learning environment and be a learning organization. We continuously try to pivot, adapt, and be responsive to the changing environment in which we're doing the work, while constantly being attuned to what's happening and seeing how we can best adapt to what's happening on the ground.

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