What if the best way to be innovative is not to try?

This guest post comes from Oxfam’s James Whitehead

‘Is it innovative?’ ‘How can we be more innovative?’ When asked, my problem, which is slightly awkward as Oxfam’s James photo 2Global Innovation Advisor, is that I’m not sure how useful the word ‘innovation’ really is. I’ve just written a research paper on the factors that enable or block innovation in Oxfam and one of the things that comes out is that those who are ‘innovators’ don’t see themselves as such and don’t label what they do as ‘innovation’. They just get on with working with others to solve problems.

Duncan may characterize it as an unwieldy supertanker, but Oxfam actually has a pretty good track record on innovation, stretching back to its earliest days. In the 50’s and 60’s it pioneered charity shops and humanitarian response. In the 1970’s it developed water tanks for emergencies and ‘magic stones’ terracing to reduce desertification in the Sahel that are both still in use today. The 1980’s saw the invention of energy biscuits with Oxford Brookes University and one of the first consortia on HIV/AIDS. In the 1990’s it launched the first Fair Trade Foundation and even got a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. In the 2000’s it played a pivotal role in the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign and developed new approaches to fundraising like ‘Oxfam Unwrapped’ presents that have now raised more than £50 million. In this decade, we injected new energy into the campaign for an international Tobin Tax and helped secure a global Arms Trade Treaty. But the crucial point is that none of this happened because we were consciously trying to be innovative.

Dilbert on innovationSo if I’m looking to be ‘more innovative’ maybe I’m looking in the wrong place. Innovation is a by-product of the process of collaborative problem-solving – it’s not the destination. As a development community we are trying to address complex problems in a changing world – the response may be a proven approach developed thirty years ago or something unprecedented. I want to be working with people who are passionate about solving problems at scale rather than magpies obsessed with finding shiny new innovative solutions.

I also find that if I ask my colleagues across the organisation to identify work that is innovative I will often be met with a blank look, a pilot with little room for growth, or of course an app. If I ask where our work is exciting and has potential to make a massive difference for people, that’s when the lights come on and the conversation gets interesting.

But, and it’s quite a big but, we are usually not nearly creative enough, not nearly collaborative enough in addressing these complex problems. And that does people in poverty a monstrous disservice. Have you ever been to a health centre and seen a poster pinned up on a wall, with a cartoon of a man beating a woman with a stick and a UN logo and INGO logo proudly on the bottom of it, announcing that you should ‘say no to violence against women’? Where is the resourcefulness and ingenuity in that? Is that honestly the best we could come up with? In contrast, I was excited spending time with our Zambia country team earlier this month when they told me they are working with a major brewery to get messages onto beer mats about violence against women. Is it innovation? I don’t know. But it is most certainly a more resourceful approach.

So what enables or blocks this sort of creative problem-solving?  In the research paper we found that it starts with Innovation cartoonrecognising, nurturing and retaining talent. Those who drive the change are the ones who consistently go beyond the call of duty. They are open to opportunities and challenges in their context, creative in their responses and delivery focussed. But frequently those staff face a chronic lack of time as they are busy delivering existing obligations. One staff member said “In the early stage this wasn’t core work – it was done at weekends and nights because we didn’t have funding.” And yet these initiatives might become the cornerstone of our future programmes.

There are leaders at every level who keep open the space, act as champions, find resources, encourage teams to take risks and defend them when things get difficult or don’t deliver. One respondent said about her manager “She would say – just go and do it, I believe in you. I knew even if I failed, she would be there to support me.” That sort of leader.

Another critical element is vibrant collaboration and partnerships. While working with diverse stakeholders takes time and effort, we found it pays dividends when we involve the right people and are prepared to develop solutions together. Flexible funding in the early stages, through proactive relationships with donors, also made a difference. So did a hunger for learning – the desire to know what’s working, what’s not and to fail fast, learn and adapt.

In order to be more resourceful problem solvers, we need to become highly collaborative across disciplines, less hierarchical, highly connected, open to experimentation and learning, open to considered risk-taking, very outward facing and get better at working with other organisations. Innovation is not the destination, it will occur as a by-product of our combined efforts.


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12 Responses to “What if the best way to be innovative is not to try?”
  1. Barney

    Agree – Innovation is largely around people having the space – both time and protection to break the occasional norm. Also worth noting that some of our innovation is from that most cost efficient source – copying – Unwrapped was actually something we copied from World Vision – but we did it better with a bigger UK brand and more investment but with lower risk because they’d done the painful R&D….we should always have the humility to recognise others might have better ideas that we should build on (or copy wholesale)

  2. Martin White

    I think that many of the issues around a lack of innovation arise from the way that organisations now work as virtual digital workplaces. This requires new approaches to sharing opportunities and solutions. There was a superb book written in 2004 by Jill Nemiro, entitled Creativity in Virtual Teams http://eu.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0787971146.html which is still valid today even if the technology has increased in bandwidth. My experience is that virtual teaming can accentuate issues of national and organisational culture that can easily stifle innovation. They also need a very different approach to leadership. Yet it seems to me that very few organisations take the trouble to invest in virtual team training beyond just how to use the technology.

    • Duncan Green

      Really interesting observation Martin – people in the aid biz spend an awful lot of their time on global telecons, videocons etc, and as far as I know, they have never been helped to learn how to get the most out of what can be quite a sterile exchange

  3. Nigel Twose

    I agree with Barney: much of what we call innovation is not a new idea, but an adaptation or geographical relocation of an existing idea. The ‘magic stones’ terracing from the ’80s is another good example from your post: this was not new; Bill Hereford saw the technique in the Negev desert and thought it might work in (what was then) Upper Volta. Sometimes we get too hung up on the new….

    • James Whitehead

      Nigel – I am delighted that there is still some memory of how the magic stones terracing began. Sometimes the new is also something that we used to do, forgot, and then invented again with new vocabulary.

  4. Nicholas Colloff

    Wholly agree with Barney, innovation is often successfully stealing and adapting the ideas of others to your context. Thus, staff ought to be empowered to thieve intelligently, should read widely and in unexpected places; and, be free of guilt when out of their office and not visiting a ‘partner’.

  5. James Whitehead

    Nicholas, you raise an important point about stealing that you need time to go out there and find out what might be worth stealing. Systematically creating that space within an organisation (by reading, exchanging staff, seconding, bringing unusual stakeholders together, etc) requires a surprising amount of culture change in many larger organisation.

  6. Peter Croft

    Innovation is about more than just novel solutions to problems: it’s also about a focus on defining the problems themselves. Without a good problem definition – with the right level of precision for that class of problem- it’s hard to get the creative juices going.

    It’s also imperative to get the right mixture of people together – not just the subject-matter experts – but people from different fields used to working with different sorts of problems, to chew over the possibilities.

  7. Irene Guijt

    Back from holidays so rather late to this debate, agree that innovation is a very relative concept. I work in evaluation quite a bit and am struck by how certain methods (around since the early 1990s) are considered by some as innovative. Which they are – because it is new for them (http://betterevaluation.org/blog/transparency_and_accountability ) Looking outside sectors, having conversations outside comfort zone, bringing those experiences to bear on problem setting and option identifying, is all about having your antenna out. But the incentives under which we work don’t often value innovation – which inevitably involves a few deadends and errors, etc.

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