The “making” of innovation

The formalization of the term “innovation” in the language of humanitarian organizations, resulting from ALNAP’s 2009 study on innovation in the sector, and its adoption as one of the main themes in the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, led to the proliferation of different models on “how to manage humanitarian innovation”.

The distinction between a centralized and a decentralized innovation management, matters for humanitarian organizations that adopt the concept of innovation as an integral part of their activities, and as a key contribution for improvement and change. This distinction matters independently of the change organizations do: from the products they use, the processes they carry out to their structure or aim. Some organizations centralize innovation by creating positions or units responsible to overview, coordinate and manage “innovation projects” or the innovation environment. Others support a vision of decentralization, more based on capacity building within the organization, promoting individual and spread-out initiatives.

Whereas the first model offers a better environment to control decisions on investment and to promote solutions, the other is potentially more agile, diversified and needs driven. The first model may be criticized for the distance between solutions (often technology driven projects, influenced by the “north”) and “real” problems; and the second model, criticized for limiting the scale and impact of initiatives because field staff have a poorer exposure to the latest technologies, and they lack time and skills to manage and scale up projects.

In the humanitarian sector, the management of innovation is mostly done at the level of headquarters, through funding mechanisms, support units, specialized departments or collaborations. In the field, the management of innovation is less visible, or structured, because of the focus on operational priorities. In the field, while new adapted solutions are embraced and celebrated at headquarters, it often happens that there are no formal structures to leverage from new ideas – or ways to do things – and in daily reality, most field staff is not particularly encouraged to deviate from standards.

Innovative humanitarian organizations centralize innovation management to target problems of headquarters nature, while creating mechanisms that allow the field to be innovative too, solving field-related problems. Both, staff at headquarters and in the field, can have a key role in improvement and change. For this, innovation management must not lead to frustration about top down decisions, unwillingness by the field to take up suggestions from headquarters or mistrust from headquarters on field’s small scale and low impact “improvisations”.

The establishment of an environment at headquarters of acceptance for change, constant reflection and improvement of field support, and challenging policy making are very different activities, than operational – and very context specific -experiments or improvements. And yet, both offer opportunities to be innovative. Field staff does not need headquarters to “make innovation” for them, they need opportunities for exposure to new technologies and ideas, training on manage operational priorities and problem solving, and a clear and agile decision making path where to communicate intended actions. At headquarters, staff equity and retention, knowledge management, and research about latest technologies, are objectives for which a central and large scale position are required.

Managing innovation, as opposed to making innovation, is an orchestration of activities to achieve common objectives in resolving problems. For that, an organization must identify, promote, strengthen and celebrate the various approaches with which everyone, independently from where they sit, contributes to a better organization and humanitarian service.

Interesting to read:
Scott-Smith, T. 2016, Humanitarian neophilia: the ‘innovation turn’ and its implications. Third World Quarterly Vol. 37(12).

Sandvik, K. 2017, Now is the Time to Deliver: Looking for Humanitarian Innovation’s Theory of Change. Sandvick Journal of International Humanitarian Action (2017), 2:8.

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