Innovation: Not shiny or new; not always the ‘next big thing’

I recall sitting in a meeting a few years ago to review the draft of our organization’s new five-year strategic plan. Most of my memories of the meeting revolve around the chair of the meeting going on and on about ‘what is new, what is different?’ Having reviewed a significant portion of the plan, an amalgamation of the strategic plans of different teams in the organization, I had to agree with the sentiment in principle. A few new terms stuck here and there, a couple of new projects but nothing ground breaking or agenda setting. To be honest, it was disheartening because I knew my colleagues were far more inspiring in their work than what we were reading on paper. In fairness, however, how could we possible expect ‘new’ and ‘different’ with a moment’s notice to make the plan, and nothing more than a vague idea about what was supposed to be ‘new’ or ‘different.’

Development is a complex world – the planning, the mobilization of resources (human and financial), the implementation, the dealing working with government institutions, the donors, the international politics. From all of this, lessons are learned, and are produced into glossy reports and PDFs shared far and wide. They are jammed packed with great ideas, and ideas to steer clear of (read: learning from failure). The problem is, we never have time to read them.

I used to have this policy of reading at least one briefing note or report circulated on our learning site every day. Then it became every week, and then, grasping at straws, once a month. By the time I had left the organization, my ‘monthly’ reading backlog was a stack on the corner of my desk that served to make me look intelligent with my finger on the pulse of ‘what was new’ in the development world, but not much else. Beyond my day-to-day tasks, were all of those other, sneaky tasks that seem to eat up 90% of your time – trouble-shooting with project managers; coaching project staff in their day-to-day tasks; allaying donor fears about risks and project targets… who could possibly have time to read about new and innovative approaches in development?

The thing is, I had begun to realize that reading about what someone else was doing somewhere else in the world wasn’t going to matter much to what we were doing. It was interesting reading… but overtime I was becoming more interested in how we could learn from the projects we were implementing within one country and share those experiences with each other. It was shocking how little our project managers talked with each other and exchanged experiences – mostly because we weren’t facilitating opportunities to do so. We weren’t chatting enough about why things were working in one project, and perhaps not in another. We were so focused on the macro that we never gave the micro a chance to shine.

We wanted ‘shiny’ and ‘new’ much more than we wanted ‘effective’ and ‘workable,’ despite the fact that effective and workable tended to lead to success that in turn bred new ideas that we could easily scale up. But, we were always looking for new as a ‘square one’ and not something small that we were already doing that was going well. True story. In one instance an idea to replicate the work done with political parties and parliamentary representatives at the national level down to the provincial level was shunted to the side not because it wasn’t a good idea, but it certainly didn’t qualify as ‘new’ or ‘innovative.’ (In retrospect, I’m not sure why. Everyone focuses on national political parties… and provincial parties are left to languish, driving down the quality of governance at the provincial level. When you’re talking about a decentralized country, poor local governance will eventually drive down the quality of governance at the national level as well. Food for thought.)

In his post “What if the best way to be innovative is not to try?” James Whitehead talks about the factors that make an idea innovative compared trying to be innovative. (http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/is-the-best-way-to-be-innovative-not-to-try/, June 24, 2015) Specifically, he points out that innovation is a by-product of the process… it’s not the destination; it’s brought about by ‘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 focused.’ This couldn’t be more to the point. Innovation comes from problem solving, not cherry-picking ideas out of the air. A tweak to a project here, adjustment there… the next thing you know you’ve overcome a problem that seems to plague many, for example, getting women involved in community development planning (put a woman in charge of the planning).

The problem here is that we never get a chance to think about the small things that make something work and result in success, so we never get a chance to discuss how those small ideas could be replicated and later scaled up. We’re so busy implementing and trouble-shooting (and calling it exactly that) that we never look at those processes through an ‘innovation’ lens. And sometimes we need fresh eyes to wear those lenses – someone else might find an idea or approach exciting and innovative if it is new to them even when it is not new to you.

This is part of the reason I stopped reading all of those briefing notes and reports – and started focusing instead on the little things that were going on in our projects. Some things were exciting, some were interesting and some were pretty darn boring – but each had value in their own right that could inspire other changes in other projects which could potentially increase effectiveness, impact and result in new thinking. It’s too bad we never take the time to look at innovation through this lens. We’re too busy putting pressure on ourselves to search for the ‘next big thing.’

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