2018 Training - Participant Reflections

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Chris Houston

senior program officer, grand challenges canada



A week of learning and heated debate with an eclectic group of people”

Earlier today I finished a week of learning, debating and occasional heated debate with an eclectic group of people from all around the world.  I was fortunate to be selected to attend the first ever “Managing Innovation for Impact” training developed by the International Development Innovation Alliance (IDIA.) The residential programme hosted 24 participants and featured several guest “teachers” who hail from academia and international development or innovation practice.

Honestly, I was a bit nervous at first. I’m relatively new to working in innovation, and while I’m a humanitarian type, everyone else was an international development professional, so I assumed I’d be the odd-one-out.  Turns out, I was right, but the difference didn’t really matter as the group used the members’ distinctions as much as our similarities to fuel our professional development. How did that happen? Through a set of curated sessions, where the facilitation of the teacher was skillful and the engagement of the group was authentic and animated.

In the opening session we were given a diary for the week. We then started off with some self-reflection stimulated by the results of a pre-training self-assessment (the Neethling Brain Instrument.) I couldn’t contain my laughter as I read, “Chris will not be comfortable in an environment that requires attention to detail or adhering to procedures and controls” – very true!

However, on the plus side, I also read, “Chris shows a strong preference for conceptual, original and metaphoric thinking processes”  So it was no surprise that I got busy scribbling in my diary some wonderful insights on the concept of systems change. These were shared by Dr. Anna Birney from the School of Systems Change at Forum for the Future.  Here’s my Diary Entry #1: “All systems models are wrong, but some are useful”.    My crude summary is that humans like to measure things that can be measured, we like numbers, we like to identify patterns and our preferences for all these things tend to result in us sketching out predictive algorithms that are far too simple for this complex world.  Read Dancing with Systems, Capabilities for System Change or watch the Systems Mindset Video for more info. 

My diary entry #2 speaks for itself and is borrowed verbatim from Dr Anna’s presentation: “The world is not a machine, it is not simple and predictable.  The world is not in chaos and unpredictable.  The world is in the middle of those two extremes, it is complex, organic, unique, non-linear and systematic.  There are no separate systems –the world is a continuum. “

The next teacher was Ben Kumpf from UNDP, which has field offices in most countries. UNDP staff work in the complex contexts that Dr. Anna talked about and in the same places that my work is focused on.  Like many others, Ben’s team at UNDP are always trying to figure out the world and measure it to inform their work.  What fascinated me were the innovative ways they measure household income per village - i.e. poverty.  Door-to-door household surveys are time-consuming, expensive and not always reliable.  (How enthusiastic and honest would you be to a stranger from the United Nations asking about your household income?)  So they are measuring poverty by looking at night time aerial photos to illustrate the prevalence of electric lighting; and they are analysing cell phone data payments patterns.  Both are potentially quicker, easier, less costly ways to identify poverty epicentres.

Diary entry #3, which is also the most tweetable nugget of the week, was shared by Ben:  About 70% of innovations create incremental change.  20% are kinda edgy stuff.  Only 10% are the radical moon-shots The private sector folks have learned that the 10% boldest and riskiest ideas generate the best return on investment.  The aid sector hasn’t learned that lesson yet.

Professor Christian Seelos of the Global Innovation for Impact Lab at Stanford University took the next class.  Using case studies of several innovations from social sector organizations in LMICs, Professor Christian  highlighted that most organisations, “don’t have an innovation problem, they have a routine problem.”  He was right. I’ve seen it too much in my work, and it is sad. Organizations can grow into bureaucracies, with layers upon layer of management and process yet fail to solve the known internal inefficiencies and strategy flaws.

With the perspective of a researcher, Professor Christian pointed out the many ways that innovation can go wrong.  Sometimes we don’t give new ideas enough time to grow.  Sometimes we give bad ideas too much time.  If we evaluate innovation projects sporadically it’s possible that we catch them during a bad phase.  Diary entry #4: The effectiveness and impact of innovations doesn’t go up in a linear manner as time passes. The progress graph is a wild zigzag as the innovators, end users and systems all change around it. 

The key, he told us, is in the scaling – the process of turning an idea into something big.  Professor Christian detailed a number of things that impede scaling e.g. funding and market dynamics; innovators’ personal drawbacks such as poor problem comprehension, skills or attitude; cultural and contextual factors; and power factors like the politics of selfishness, corruption or legal systems.

The most fun lesson was surely from Mwihaki Muraguri of Paukwa House, Nairobi, an expert in the art of storytelling.  To change the world you’ve got to persuade people, and the way you tell your stories will make or break your relationship with your audience, donor, end-user or government official.  My next diary entry boiled down the “How To” of story telling. Diary Entry #5: The best stories follow a Why? How? What? algorithm and talk about “me”, “us” and “now” in that order.  People tend to listen if they know you as a person.  The story of me, us and now framework was developed by Marshall Ganz and is often the underlying structure of many a great speech or talk, especially those that galvanize audiences. Read more about it here.

Big brain of the week was Ken Chomitz, of the Global Innovation Fund (GIF) who told us about their algorithm for measuring impact.  We got very animated, maybe even a little heated in debating the need and means of comparing projected outcomes of specific innovations. How would you like to be in the position to decide between funding vaccines that will save 1,000 lives or funding an additional year of education for 10,000 children that will increase their family’s income by 10%. In other words, can you assign a value to things that are seemingly invaluable, and then use those values to make funding judgements? It is possible and the GIF use something called a Practical Impact Assessment as its way of calculating risk and impact. I found it quite remarkable. 

My diary entries only hint at the depth and breadth of my learning during the week. And they say nothing about the equally beneficial  network of passionate people that I met.  Nor does it capture the beautiful surroundings of The Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre which surely helped, allowing us to think, debate and bond in a setting removed from the daily stresses of our work and lives. 

I hear that IDIA is considering doing an online version of the class.  If it does, you will have to get your own diary but I’d recommend it and encourage you to share your entries as well!