But innovations don’t always have to be new, or grand. Sometimes, the idea is already there and people just need to find ways to adapt it to a new context or sector, or adjust their approach.
In some cases, however, the problem lies in getting people to actually embrace the concept of innovation, share their ideas and try out something new.
So on a two-day conference marking its annual Scientific Day, international medical group Medecins Sans Frontieres kicked off the conversation May 7 by asking a panel consisting of innovation experts, members of the academe and officials within MSF the question: Given 1 million euros ($1.1 million), what would you do to foster a culture of innovation within the organization?
The question may be specific to MSF, but it can also apply to other big development and humanitarian groups struggling to create a culture of innovation within their respective organizations.
Here are some interesting answers.
1. Have a pot of money for innovation, be it in the form of an innovation prize, a catalyst fund or a specific budget allocation.
Denis Gillet of Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne argued an “MSF Prize for Innovation” could help encourage people within the organization to share their ideas that can be helpful to the organization’s mission, especially as it comes with an award and a recognition.
Regardless of what form or shape that pot of money will take, however, Josiah Kaplan of the Humanitarian Innovation Project at the University of Oxford suggests including a “degree of competition” as it tends to provide an “intrinsic motivation structure.”
2. Engage external actors.
For any discussions in innovation, the organization needs to have a mix of internal and external actors on the table. The idea is that internal people can bring in the organization’s strategy and vision, but it is usually external actors who can help open people’s mind to ideas, according to Gillet, who suggested the idea in the form of an MSF innovation committee.
But he noted that those who will be part of the discussion should be disconnected from the operation, so they can focus on innovations that can be applied over the long term, and not just those resulting from an immediate reaction to a pressing problem on the ground.
Kaplan meanwhile raised the idea of MSF staff being seconded to “relevant sectors of academic excellence,” so they’d be exposed to wider discussions on innovation theories and cultural change.
He underscored the importance of humanitarian actors involving their aid beneficiaries in identifying, piloting and scaling up new ideas and solutions related to their own issues and challenges.
“I think in general across the humanitarian community, more can always be done to develop better recognition of the potential of beneficiary-led innovations. Existing approaches to humanitarian interventions too often tend to overlook the talent, skills and aspirations of crisis-affected people themselves,” he said.
3. Know what the needs are, and ensure any innovation fits the organization’s strategic priorities.
The International Committee of the Red Cross is already doing this under a new platform, called redinnovation.org. The platform is meant to solicit information from within the ICRC and wider Red Cross Movement, as well as aid beneficiaries and corporate partners on what specific needs are they seeing on the ground, and what they can offer as a solution or innovative concept to address that need.
For example, one staff member posted the problem of keeping Burundian refugees stay connected with their family members, and is asking for insight from the online community on any suggestions they have apart from phone calls offered by the organization. That post generated a number of suggestions from across the Red Cross community, including from Tarun Sarwal, head of innovation at ICRC, who plugged the platform during the panel.
“It’s very difficult to start, because the culture is hierarchical, but it’s on this basis that we started to fund projects,” he said.
4. Invest in internal communications and “cultural change.”
For an organization as huge as MSF, where different branches operate independently of one another, communication and coordination can be tough, and there’s always the chance that some offices are duplicating efforts, are unaware of a new innovation being implemented elsewhere, or decisions taken at headquarters level may not often fit the context or situation on the ground.
So investing in internal communications, particularly across different MSF operations, is important.
But that’s not the only thing that the organization — or any organization for that matter — can and should invest in.
Xisco Villalonga, MSF Spain’s deputy director of operations, also laid out the importance of investing time and resources in the promotion of cultural change within the organization.
“We are not an organization that is quite tolerant to failure, but individually speaking, this is not happening that much. As an organization, we have individuals who don’t want to try to expose themselves to try and fail,” he said.
In addition, the organization should invest in promoting interactions and identifying key people who can become “kind of a ball of attraction for innovation.”
“Sometimes they can be decision-makers, but many times they are just people eager to try [something out],” he said.
How about you? How do you plan to make use of 1 million euros to foster a culture of innovation within your organization?
Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex senior reporter based in Manila. Since 2011, she has covered a wide range of development and humanitarian aid issues, from leadership and policy changes at DfID to the logistical and security impediments faced by international and local aid responders in disaster-prone and conflict-affected countries in Africa and Asia. Her interests include global health and the analysis of aid challenges and trends in sub-Saharan Africa.
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