Introducing our new Humanitarian Innovation Guide (by an innovation sceptic)

Published on 20/07/2018

Our Ian McClelland, Outreach and Engagement Adviser, has been leading the work to develop the first ever in depth guide to humanitarian innovation…

Last month we launched the first stage of our new Humanitarian Innovation Guide – a growing online resource to help individuals and organisations define humanitarian problems and successfully develop innovative solutions. For me, this was the culmination of 10 months’ work with Ian Gray (Gray Dot Catalyst) and Joe Guay (The Policy Lab).

Since starting out on the journey to develop the Guide, I’ve had conversations with several sector colleagues, where – somewhat paradoxically – we’ve each professed to being innovation sceptics while being convinced of the need for innovation. I believe this mindset is probably reflected in a fair number of people involved in supporting innovation.

Very few people would argue against the need to put conscious thought and effort into how we might do things differently – ways in which we can try to increase efficiency and effectiveness in an increasingly resource-constrained sector. But evangelists for innovation also risk getting weighed down by management jargon and conceptual frameworks that don’t translate to the real-world. While theory is important, it’s practice that matters.

Credit: World Vision, in Bangladesh

We need to empower innovators in humanitarian organisations, and we also need to encourage more ideas from outside the sector, while ensuring that these social entrepreneurs understand how to engage with humanitarian actors and the importance of adhering to humanitarian principles and standards. The opportunities for impact are huge, particularly in the application of new technologies, but so are the risks associated with experimentation on crisis-affected populations.

The Humanitarian Innovation Guide is an attempt to provide these two audiences – humanitarian practitioners and social entrepreneurs from outside the sector – with a grounded framework for managing a successful innovation process. We also hope that it will be a useful resource for innovation managers who are tasked with supporting innovation in their agencies, labs or networks.

While we have fought hard to keep the Guide as simple as possible, we have had to strike a balance between the breadth of coverage necessary for the wide variety of innovation projects springing up in the sector, and the depth of coverage necessary for it to be a useful resource. We have also aimed to put forward a responsible vision of the innovation process – one that is both as accessible as it can possibly be, while being as complex as it needs to be.

Starting out

When we set off to produce the Guide, I wanted it to answer all the questions that I had when I started in my job, and which have periodically fuelled my scepticism: What does innovation actually look like, in terms of the kinds of activities that occur? When and where do these activities take place? How do design thinking, systems thinking and other schools of thought relate to the HIF’s process model? What on earth is a paradigm innovation?

It turned out that at least some of these questions were shared. An independent evaluation of the HIF stated that “too little [is] known from across the projects about the effectiveness of investments and about ‘what works and what doesn’t’.” In research for the Guide, we found that even the most widely-cited and rigorous studies provide little insight into the ‘nuts and bolts’ of innovation management. Despite hoping that the Guide would be able to bring together existing resources, we realised that what we were looking for didn’t really exist.

Based on this, we decided to carry out ‘deep dives’ into one or two stages that we could adequately address within the scope of the first phase of the project. Interviews with innovation experts and practitioners helped us to identify the ‘Recognition’ and ‘Pilot’ stages as particular priorities for better guidance, as well as several cross-cutting issues.

We therefore focused on building a framework that we believe allows for full consideration of the different aspects of humanitarian innovation, while unpacking what’s involved in these two stages to provide detailed and relevant guidance. By presenting innovation as a process, surrounded by critical ‘enabling factors’ and ‘humanitarian parameters’, and by introducing a set of ‘milestone’ outputs for the different stages of innovation, we’re working towards a more holistic approach to managing innovation.

But defining what is helpful and what is necessary to know, for what are complex activity areas, has not been an easy task, and as we’ve dug deeper into some of these issues and the size and scope of the Guide has grown, we’ve had to make a further adjustment to our plan – finalising the Recognition stage for the launch, with a view to publishing the Pilot stage in early September.

Explore the Innovation Process

Innovation culture vs process

A lot of people that we spoke to during the research for the Guide – especially from larger organisations – said that the most important thing for them was not practical guidance on innovation, but guidance on how to build a better culture for innovation within their organisations.

For me, these two things are inseparable. Although there are customs and behaviours that benefit innovation, a culture for innovation also requires the groundwork to be in place: you have think about your organisational strategy and the ways of working that are required, you have to resource it properly, and you have to give senior managers the tools to generate and integrate evidence.

To do all these things, you also need to have some idea of what the innovation process looks like. During the development of the Guide we have introduced some significant changes to our view of the innovation process, partly in response to the growth of innovation projects in the sector and subsequent lessons learned.

We know that a lot of problems have already been tackled somewhere and that it’s not always (not often?) necessary for people to be inventing new solutions without a strong foundation. We know that there are an increasing number of pilot projects that have struggled to gain the momentum for scale. We know that there’s often a culture of ‘not invented here’ that means that too frequently we are reinventing the wheel, rather than learning from the successes and mistakes of others.

While we have long understood that a good ideation process should involve searching for what’s already out there before trying to do something new, it’s not always been obvious in the way we talk about the innovation process at the top-level. By giving increasing prominence in our framework to the ‘Search’ and ‘Adaptation’ stages, we’re putting greater emphasis on the need to identify, adopt and adapt existing solutions.

Managing the process

Getting to this point has been a challenge. When we started out on this journey, in July 2017, I had hoped for a relatively straightforward process: a literature review to identify what resources already exist, interviews and surveys for further input and prioritisation, and then some time to piece it all together.

In many ways the process we’ve been through mirrors the innovation process that we put forward. We spent time understanding the problem through research, interviews and focus group discussions; we searched for helpful and relevant resources that might already exist; we adapted content where we could find it, and we invented new tools and guidance where we couldn’t; and we piloted the Guide – first, with two workshops in Nepal and Lebanon, and now in a ‘permanent beta’, as we seek to continually review and update it.

And just as the process can be seen through an innovation lens, so can the challenges that we faced: assumptions that might have been challenged but resulted in later difficulties; risks that might have been mitigated but resulted in changes to our plan; and lack of a deep understanding of the process we were embarking on – on my part – that might have otherwise contributed to better management.

While I may continue to have moments of scepticism, the Guide answers many of the questions I had about innovation, and we believe that its continued development is an important step towards addressing the priority concerns of the wider sector. Perhaps I could have done more to predict and understand the challenges that we’d face along the way, or perhaps not. But at least I know where I can find some useful guidance in future.

The Humanitarian Innovation Guide is a growing and evolving resource. The Recognition stage is the first stage to be launched and over the next 9 months we will continue our research into the actions that underpin successful innovation processes, releasing new stages and modules throughout 2018/2019. As a live resource, we will also continue to review and update existing content according to new research that is published and feedback from existing users.

Take a look at the Guide

Elrha is a registered charity in England and Wales (1177110).

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