For innovation to work in development, keep calm and rock the boat


"Innovation amateurs talk good ideas; innovation experts talk testable hypotheses." That’s how Michael Schrage, an innovator who has worked for Google and Intel once described how he separates the wheat from the chaff.

Thinking about that quote as I worked together with members of UNDP’s Innovation Squad in Colombo this week, I couldn’t help but wonder if most of us have churned out the same ideas our entire (professional) lives without testing the assumptions on which these ideas are built. And untested assumptions are the mother of all chaos.

After more than ten years in development work, I know all too well the myths that beleaguer our ilk. Myth One: “You're always just one good idea away from solving development problems. Myth Two: “Bureaucratic red tape ensures accountability”.  Myth Three: “Failure is not an option”.

Ideas for development programmes are never in short supply. The more interconnected the development sector is, the more exposed development experts are to possible solutions to complex and stubborn development challenges. Coming up with ideas is not the problem.  Here’s the catch though: These ideas must be transformed into rapid solutions and lessons learned must be generated to further refine our approaches. This is called ‘iteration’ and it works magic!

Most of us know that getting innovation to take off while ensuring the organization remains accountable are two completely different ball games. So, how do you create the sort of organizational culture that allows you to quickly get from idea to innovation?

Well, first stop asking, "Where will the next idea come from?" Ideas are everywhere. Instead ask, "How can I build the landing strip to get an airplane packed with innovation projects and champions to land safely and get from idea path to innovation?" To do this requires defining your quick-wins, identifying existing champions of innovation, and paving the cracks in your enabling environment that allows you to maneuver around the bureaucratic impediments to transform ideas into innovation.
Here are four ideas to write into your little black book of innovation:

1.    Question everything
Generate understanding, challenge existing views, identify problems faced and decipher their root causes. Listen, listen, listen!

2.    Become your user
“Step into (your user’s) shoes” and "walk the (user’s) walk." Only by testing assumptions in the field will you be able to understand real problems faced

3.    Rock the boat
Context, horizons, and technology all change. Getting from idea to innovation requires letting go of old models that define the past, and this requires courage and conviction.  

4.    ‘Murder your darlings’
 Don't fall in love with any one idea. No idea is born fully formed, and no idea is the last word in our fast changing world. Be ready and receptive to surprises, be ready to seize opportunities when you see them. Be ready to kill your best idea if that’s how you best serve the work at hand.

This week, as I worked with UNDP colleagues from offices across Asia and the Pacific I reflected on these ideas, and repeated them to myself like a mantra. Stale ideas, like status quos, have strong survival instincts, rooted in our own limitations. It’s a tough fight. But make no mistake, it’s also the good fight.    

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