How do we get better at killing our darlings? Is scale best pursued obliquely? More thoughts on innovation and development

Benjamin Kumpf, Policy Specialist for Innovation at UNDP, responds to guest post by James Whitehead published Ben Acumenon 24 June.

I found myself nodding to most of James Whitehead’s reflections. Particularly: ”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.” Yet, something seemed to be missing, and something more needed to be said. Let’s start with the missing piece.

The well-known side of innovation is the creative one. We identify novel ways of doing business, co-create new ideas with the end-users and test them. The flip side of innovation is to discontinue practices for which we do not have sufficient evidence of impact or that are no longer relevant.

Turner TimeraireGeoff Mulgan illustrated this point in a presentation a few years ago with the 1838 Turner painting of ‘The Fighting Temeraire.’ It depicts a battleship towed into harbor by a new steam-powered tug, to be broken up for scrap. It served well in previous wars but with the advent of new technologies, its time has come.

The point here is not about technological progress per se but the readiness and ability to identify what works, what doesn’t and to stop doing what should not be done. A colleague from our team likes to emphasize that “innovation is also about constantly killing your darlings.” Another, somewhat nicer way to say this is: Be Data Driven. This is one of nine principles of innovation for development we endorsed with partners.

Decommissioning beloved ways of working is not easy, including for me. So how can this flip side of innovation be managed? Far from a comprehensive answer, here are two things I’ve learned:

  • Employing the term ‘failure’ is not conducive to reaching our goals in this context. The word remains popular within the innovation community. But in most conversations with colleagues, talking about failure has not driven or motivated staff and managers to openly share what has not worked and what they have learned. Semantics matter in change management. To get to a more agile and transparent way of working and eventually to have a conversation about decommissioning, we promote ‘calculated risk-taking’, ‘course adaptation’ along with the practice of working out loud
  • Start with small initiatives that can be prototyped in a relatively short time frame and that generate evidence of impact without threatening ‘old darlings’. Interventions that compare old with new ways are likely to challenge middle management. Middle management is often described as the “permafrost” of organizations and turning it into ‘the volcanic soil for change’ is not easy. What worked for us: introduce new ways of doing business that generate solid evidence and get support from senior management.

This leads me to the statement in Whitehead’s post that needs clarification: ”I want to be working with people who are passionate about solving problems at scale.” Agreed. I also want to work with the driven ones. But is passion enough? Critical thinking, an interest in political analysis and openness to new experiences are other necessary elements in this mix. This includes the openness to question the dominant notion of scale.

Permanent Beta
Permanent Beta

This notion of scale implies standardization. The assumption that what works in one context can be captured, standardized and transferred to another characterizes too many development innovations, from creative water pumps to countless solar initiatives for rural communities in Africa. The current focus on innovation in development and humanitarian aid might actually do damage with its implicit expectation to find the next big breakthrough that will change the lives of millions. There will be no iPad-esque innovation to end poverty.

The dominant notion of scale underestimates factors such as social norms, power relations between men and women and different social groups and institutions. It also does not adequately take into account the intangible changes that are the result of different actors and organizations developing and testing a new way of working together. Such collaborations are sometimes struggles in the best sense and these struggles can pave the way for longer-term changes. For example, to identify what works to end female-genital mutilation in one community implies taking into account not just the programmatic intervention, but also all the conversations and yes, struggles, within the community, between men and women, opponents and supporters of the practice. This will influence the sustainability of the change and how other social challenges will be addressed in the future. Bypassing such struggles can lead to isomorphic mimicry; institutions and communities adopting ways of working based on an external push without having these practices sufficiently internalized.

James Whitehead writes that “innovation is not the destination, it will occur as the by-product of our combined efforts”. I concur that innovation is a journey, progress in people’s lives is the main destination. But there is a pit stop to that destination: to create the space for constant adaptation in organizations that are predicated upon inflexible multi-year planning instruments, risk aversion and often concepts of scale that promote standardization over adaptation.

Innovation is not likely to be a by-product of our combined efforts if we don’t work on bringing in new ideas and technologies from external sources and introduce design skills to better co-develop solutions with people affected by development challenges. It will not happen if we search for the one big idea.  Innovation for development is about the process, not just the outcome. It is about staying in permanent beta. And innovation will not have the desired effect if we don’t say farewell to some of the old battleships along the way. Let’s start with the dominant notion of scale.


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7 Responses to “How do we get better at killing our darlings? Is scale best pursued obliquely? More thoughts on innovation and development”
  1. Kate

    Thanks for this interesting post Benjamin. I like your point on scaling up needing to get away from standardisation. I’m wondering if some kinds of innovation/intervention can be scaled up in a more standardised way, whereas other kinds need more contextualisation – are there some innovations that we can adopt in new areas without lots of testing and checking, and others where the approach will need more ongoing testing and adapting to fit different contexts? And if so, how do you know in advance whether it’s a standardisable intervention that you can use ‘off the shelf’ – are there particular characteristics? Perhaps also about looking at the context and working out whether it is sufficiently similar in relevant ways for the innovation to be adopted and effective there – which suggests that any evaluations of new approaches need to identify the aspects of context that influence effectiveness. Anyway, the post is prompting lots of ideas and I’ll work my way through the links for more info – so thanks!

    • Hi Kate, your question challenged me to search for off-the-shelve innovations that don’t need contextual adaptation. However, I have not found any. In our experience no solutions or approaches, innovative or otherwise, are useful if they are not tailored to the context. Tools can be off-the-shelf but there are no silver bullet solutions that fit all contexts. So even for example though a vaccine may save lives, the distribution and acceptance of that vaccine is often different across countries and demographics. Also the de-worming interventions warrant not only a custom-approach when it comes to their introduction but it is necessary to take a close look if an approach that is highly effective such as the de-worming initiative has the desired effects in different contexts. This article highlights this case and the need for adaptation well:

  2. James Whitehead

    Hi Benjamin, I like the post and think it is great that you mentioned the importance of discontinuing work as a critical part of innovation – both the longstanding, outdated programming (a la Temeraire) and also the newer darlings that just aren’t bringing the change we had hoped for. Organisations can find that there is no spare capacity in terms of time or resources for innovation because they are being expended on programmes where honest conversations and tough decisions haven’t yet happened. It links to organisational culture and I’m interested in what you’ve learnt about ways to help innovative approaches take root in UNDP despite what you call the ‘permafrost of middle management’. It would be great to develop a culture of openness around failure but perhaps while that is developing one still needs to use words like ‘course adaptation’.

    • Hi James, thanks for your feedback. The question on how to best embed and mainstreaming novel ways of doing business and convince sceptics warrants a longer conversation. What I have learned so far in a nutshell:
      – Introduce innovative approaches in areas that are high on the agenda and close to the heart of decision-makers as opposed to thematic fields on the margins of your organization’s mandate.
      – Bring in external speakers that convincingly showcase the potential value of a novel approach & disseminate the key messages via email to decision-makers (since many of them are not likely to attend the live event).
      – Design the first tests with the post-implementation narrative in mind: how well can we show that what we tried worked and why it is more effective than what we have done so far.
      – Think of how to best mobilize resources from third parties with your innovation work. Aside from concrete development results, bringing in additional funding, also on a project level, is a key factor to convince decision-makers. We search for opportunities by scanning the focus areas and regions of bilaterals and are looking more and more in creating shared value with private sector partners.
      – Promote and support the practice of working out loud. We saw that when colleagues from all levels of the organization start writing about their work, it does not only incentivize them but it’s also a great hook to send emails to senior & middle management with links to such blogs and kudos to the colleagues behind this work. Aside from curating internal networks, we found that congratulatory emails from managers from our team to senior managers in programme countries often have huge effects on buy-in and motivation.

      These are some of the insights and as far as I can see they match the lessons from Oxfam as captured in your paper quite closely. Thanks again for putting this together. A very informative read.

  3. Irene Guijt

    Introducing the idea of ‘stop doing what’s not working’ reminded me of a simple assessment used by many when taking interim stock of eg a workshop, a programme, a partnership. What aspects do we need to add, delete, adapt/tweak? All three are equally important – in principle. But one might be more prominent at times than another. Innovation can be incremental, additive, complementary or breakthrough in nature – with varying degrees of add/delete/tweak needed. Innovation in its iPadesque state as per the blog is often an default image for people but not the only task for adaptiveness.

    What is badly needed in the discussion on innovation is the institutional space for innovation, which James Whitehead refers to, I think, as ‘organisational culture’. Are there incentives for status quo reinforcing innovation – doing what is accepted better? Or is there space for status-quo challenging innovation?

    Another common assumption in my experience is that innovation is inevitably ‘good’ – but what are the values driving innovation? When do you know it has ‘done good’? In science, the notion of ‘responsible innovation’ is gaining ground to counterbalance the known problems with the assumed neutrality of the consequences of scientific consequences. For more on this interesting angle see Phil MacNaghten’s keynote ( as part of the March 2015 conference on M&E for responsible innovation (

  4. Lisa Faye

    I am struggling to, if not kill some darlings, get us to think critically about some of our darlings here. Asking hard questions, reading retreats, debates – when something is your ‘darling’, it is really difficult to get people to sit down together and admit that it might not work or it might not be scale-able or it is time to back off and approach the situation totally differently.

    This blog got me doing some research on how to get people to think more critically about their darlings, but still struggling… Some of the links here are useful – especially the “Development Impact and You” link – but I’d love to hear some thoughts on HOW to get people to admit that it may be time to move on from what is not working.

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