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 Global 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.
So 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 recognising, 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.