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The international response to the Ebola crisis was always playing catch up to an outbreak that for much of the time was out of control and unknown territory for most of the NGOs caught up in it.

Take the use of Personal Protective Equipment as an example. No soon as guidance had been developed for training communities how to keep safe and keep serving, but new insights were coming in in terms of safety critical steps that needed to be emphasised or new items of clothing were available.

Conventional approaches to training could not keep up with these insights or improved practices. The calls for innovation were largely rhetorically given how long most development projects take. Could new ideas be developed, turned into something practical and deployed before they were already redundant? Would introducing new approaches add to the confusion and the risks outweigh the benefits? These were questions we asked ourselves as we embarked on an initiative to re-imagine local capacity building in the midst of an unprecedented emergency.

If you add the development time to the time needed to put a grant proposal into a donor and for it to be assessed based on traditional project plan metrics, it was clear we needed a new approach. Public funding through the Telegraph Christmas Appeal combined with an ‘Agile Development’ approach made the impossible, possible. What is revolutionary about the agile approach when compared to conventional humanitarian practice?

The difference is eloquently described by Steve Blank in his article for the Harvard Business Review, May 2013 entitled ‘Why the lean start up changes everything’.

Steve Blank highlighted the importance of a more organic, iterative approach to development than a pre-planned linear development path in this schematic from his May 2013 HBR Article
An agile or 'lean' appraoch results in a very different style of businss as illustrated in this schematic of Steve Blank from his May 2013 HBR Article

‘Conventional approaches to development often assume a linear progression but in agile development there is constant cycling with multiple iterations and constant refinements. The agile approach underpins innovation in the tech sector but involves an approach and language sometimes alien to the development community.

Agile Development methodology allows a much more efficient use of development resources and provides an end product that is fit for purpose through the rapid iterations of development with an extremely quick feedback loop. By incorporating feedback into the process early and often a more tailored application can be delivered quickly. ‘

Development has not always been this way even in the tech sector. In traditional software development involved a linear process marked by milestones deliverables with detailed project planning.

A highly-detailed specification was necessary before the start of the project, signed off by all stakeholders and underpinned by a legal agreement. This might take months to develop and agree on.

Only when the specification has been agreed can it be past to the development team who build to the specification before handing to testing. What happens when they start work through serendipity or fresh insight they see opportunities for improving the design? It is often very difficult to incorporate innovations within the legal structure.

Finally, the application is demonstrated to the user often many months after project initiation. What happens if the needs have changed or with greater insight and experience the client will be using it in a different way. All too often it is found that the product does not fulfil the exact users need or significant parts of the application are not actually needed by the end user.’

The infrastructure we put in place to support the co-creation of ebuddi with MENTOR's frontline training team in Monrovia

Contrast this with an agile approach where rather than produce an extensive set of documentations up front, a prioritised list of requirements is created. Social media based tools have allowed the creation of virtual teams with much more flexible collaborative working structures, with teams working together on a constantly updated list of priorities.

‘Only the most critical requirements at the top of the list are detailed and implemented in the first version of the software, feedback would then be sought very quickly on these initial priority items. Often in a matter of days from the beginning of the iteration. This ensures that complex development is not undertaken incorrectly requiring re-implementation if some fundamental issue had been missed. Essentially reducing any wastage of resources on unneeded or incorrect functionality. The product is often delivered to a much higher standard and faster than using traditional methods.’

What are the main benefits of this approach?

  1. Faster time to market – As iterations are kept short, (2-3 weeks for major software initiatives rather than months) working examples can be deployed much early for additional feedback.
  2. Better product fit – Due to the extensive feedback sought throughout the process a more accurate delivery is produced, reducing errors that are costly to fix later in the development
  3. Critical functions available quickly – As most critical components delivered first, it is likely that the main need can be met before the completion of the entire project

Co-creation with the end user sounds like a nice idea, but is it possible practice? This initiative shows that it really can be compatible with field conditions even during an emergency of unprecedented scale and intensity.

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