Collaborating on the Next Generation of Humanitarian Innovation Capabilities

Over the last five plus years I’ve had the good fortune to work with a number of organizations tasked with building a robust innovation capability within the Humanitarian Sector. It’s provided me with a front row seat as concepts such as failing fast, user centered design, and program pilots were taken from Silicon Valley and shaped to the task of supporting those in the world who are most in need.  

There was a lot to do, and a lot has been achieved.  Over the years programs and organizations emerged to tackle different aspects of the innovation challenge, applying new practices in widely varying contexts.  Today, fast moving pilot projects that pivot in response to new learning are familiar and widely adopted.   

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Now, having mastered innovation’s core skills, there is a growing need for a next generation of innovation practices.  These methodologies need to be designed for the sector’s uniquely complex challenges.  Problems such as taking innovations to scale in resource poor environments, driving complex system change as called for in the SDG’s, or enabling creative community engagement per the Grand Bargain require new level of innovation capabilities.   

While the aid sector has been able to build on the innovation insights of commercial innovators, the job ahead will require the aid sector to pioneer complex new methodologies.  This will require a collaborative effort that brings together experts and insights from diverse innovation programs across the sector.  The host of innovation advocates currently working in relative autonomy will benefit from three shared strategies that draw their efforts closer together:   

1.     Broad intentional collaboration

2.     Shared frameworks

3.     Actionable tools and extensible platforms

The difficultly of the problems that dominate the next generation of innovation won’t be easily solved by a collection of independent efforts.  A deeper collaboration among innovation advocates would leverage the substantial innovation capabilities that have already been developed in the sector to push innovation practices forward.  Here are some thoughts on how this collaborative creative effort might emerge.  

1) Intentional Collaboration 

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The first strategy would build on the strength of the many programs already active in the development of humanitarian sector innovation practices.  Creating a more tightly integrated web amongst these actors would make it possible to deal with next generation challenges around complexity, integration, and adoption. 

This collaboration should go beyond a periodic convening of the experts, instead committing to an ongoing effort to collaboratively develop thinking, models and materials.  Given the many skilled innovation organizations in the sector, there are ample opportunities to draw on the unique resources organizations have for research, design and testing.  For example, five organizations, RIL, GAHI, HIF, START, and ALNAP are actively collaborating on the challenge of developing an integrated view of the varied use of evidence (MEAL) in the evolution of complex humanitarian innovations.   

As innovation challenges become bigger and require greate investment to deliver, it will also be necessary to include advocates and participants outside of web of specialized innovation programs.  Adopting complex strategies such as scaling innovations or engaging local communities in system change will be a big ask of institutions.  Early high-level sponsorship and engagement can help establish channels for advocacy that will help pave the way for adoption  of new practices.

Strategy 2 – Shared Frameworks

It is not enough to merely choose to work together.  Many well intentioned convenings and collaborations have ended with little more than a brightly colored pile of post it notes.   While providing an opportunity for different voices to explore a challenge is crucial, there is little value to the exercise unless the thinking can be organized in a way that enables further rigorous work.  Without a shared perspective or common structure to organize them, ideas and insights accumulate, but they often fail to build on one another.  

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Building this shared framework isn’t easy and is often overlooked, yet integrating complex and messy insights requires a structure to frame the thinking across different actors. The upcoming Pathways to Scale paper from GAHI, developed by Lesley Bourns, Alice Obrecht and me, is an example of a framing model that seeks to  weave different scaling ideas together, while separating observations that actually address different issues.

These frameworks should not prematurely lock down big picture thinking.   They are tools for ongoing collaboration.  Once a working model is available, it should continue to be updated and adapted as diverse actors develop new aspects of the innovation practice.    

Strategy 3 – Actionable Tools and Extensible Platforms

As the number of innovation practitioners grows and the challenges they take on become more difficult, the need for practical actionable resources grows.   This will be particularly true as humanitarians develop innovation strategies that extend established commercial innovation methodologies.   An innovator applying well known lean startup techniques from Silicon Valley can draw on many existing resources to learn the basics. As the Humanitarian Sector develops its own innovation practices around the next generation of complex creative challenges, practice guidance must be provided by the sector itself.  

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Since these practices will be rapidly evolving, they can’t be set in stone documents that are published and then left for years before its next revision. There is also a danger that published information on innovation practices becomes a flood outstripping the interest and available time of practicing innovators.     

This creates a need for extensible platforms that share distilled content, ideas and techniques in an accessible format that supports working innovators.  The HIF Innovation Management Guide is an example of this kind of actionable content and platform publishing strategy.   The “manual” is built around discrete tools organized based on a common innovation framework.  As new tools become available from a variety of sources, they can be inserted into both an online and physical version of the manual and then revised based on a series of edits, critiques, and design pivots from across the sector.  

Collaborating on the Next Generation of Innovation Practices

This is an exciting time. Humanitarian innovation is positioned to take on the bigger more complex challenges ranging from scaling complex innovations and innovating in low resource environments to empowering communities to actively engage in the full lifecycle of innovation 

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Innovators within the sector will need to work jointly to master these challenges.  Collectively acting to intentionally collaborate, leverage shared frameworks, and create extensible tool platforms with actionable tools will help drive this next generation of humanitarian innovation practice forward.

How the SDGs Change the Role of Humanitarian Innovation

In the fanfare surrounding the release of the Sustainable Development Goals it may be easy to miss a shift in thinking that can have a dramatic impact on the role of Humanitarian innovators.  Our job as advocates and practitioners of innovation is about to get much harder … and more important.

In closing remarks at the recently concluded OCHA Global Humanitarian Policy Forum in New York, Hansjoerg Strohmeyer, Chief of the Policy Development and Studies Branch of OCHA, challenged the current humanitarian model, where extended displacements can run for 10 years using the same mode of operation.

He sees the Sustainable Development Goals as an opportunity to change this thinking. Simply meeting ongoing needs for the delivery of aid should no longer be enough. Humanitarians need to accept responsibility for scaling up local actors instead of just funding the sector’s own operations.

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The themes are repeated in OCHA’s newly released report, Leaving No One Behind, Humanitarian Effectiveness in the Age of Sustainable Development GoalsThe report reinforces the message that investments in aid often create humanitarian holding patterns, ultimately denying opportunities for self-reliance and real resilience.  There is call for change.  Reducing vulnerability and improving resilience needs to be seen as an essential component of humanitarian action.

More on the UNHCR Innovation Blog ... 

CIO.Com Interview - 4 Ways Running IT is like Directing a Hollywood Movie

(An interview with Dan McClure by Paul Rubens on CIO.COM published on November 19, 2015.) 

50 years ago big Hollywood studios abandoned the idea of making movies using talent they had signed under exclusive contracts. Instead they began assembling casts and crews for each movie they made using the best people available from a much larger industry-wide pool.


"What I find fascinating about the movie business is that each project is a complex one and one that is unique," says McClure.  "That's similar to the IT space, where one project will need specialists in X, Y and Z, and the next one will need experts in A, B and C. So what we need to be doing is reconstructing IT teams for each project based on the talents that those projects need."

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Why Lean Transformation is Hard

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Everyone knows that big cross-organizational change is difficult. This is particularly true for businesses looking to become fundamentally more entrepreneurial, the lean enterprises that create original market value as a repeatable core competency.  

It isn’t enough for an organization to have isolated pockets of market-driven learning and response. The surrounding business processes for budgeting, design, deployment and training are just a few of the groups that impact the real-life agility of an agile technology team. Carving out creative ghettos like Innovation Labs is not much better. Such isolated small-scale efforts typically have limited impact on the broad fortunes of an organization.
To be creative at an enterprise level, the entire organization must be involved in the nimble pursuit of new opportunities. An Entrepreneurial Enterprise does this by leveraging learning loops throughout the business. At a macro level this manifests as a large loop designed to identify opportunities, build and test them, and then respond strategically to new performance insights.

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IIEEE GHTC - Engineering Scale Up in Humanitarian Innovations Messy Middle

(A concise version of themes explored in the World Humanitarian Summit report on Engineering Scaled Up Humanitarian Innovations.  Presented at the IEEE Conference on Global Humanitarian Technology Conference for 2015.  Coauthored with Ian Gray.)

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The growing ability of the Humanitarian Sector to apply lightweight lean innovation techniques and deliver promising new Pilot programs has not been matched by corresponding capacity to bring these ideas to scale. The initial explanation this shortfall has been the failure of Pilots to adequately apply techniques such as User Centered Design.  

This focus ignores deeper more systematic challenges in the way an innovation must be transformed from a fast moving Pilot to a mature solution ready for replication.   We’ve identified the gap between these two very different solution states as the “missing middle” of innovation.   It is characterized by complex solution architecture challenges across multiple domains. 

In this perspective, the primary reason innovations fail to scale is not because of bad Pilots, but because of the general omission of a set of complex solution architecture tasks. Little attention has been given to this difficult work.  In an effort to provide a framing model around the nature of the challenge, this paper proposes four areas that need to be intentionally addressed as part of a Scale Up initiative. 

The “Four C’s” include: Completeness, Compromise, Connection and Commercials. The paper describes the nature of each of these challenges in the light of the Humanitarian Sector.   

IEEE GHTC Paper Download

I Love Stupid Dreams

I love stupid dreams, yet for years we’ve lived in an economy that prized small responsible ambitions. A promotion. A proven career. A college degree. They are all packaged up versions of life in the status quo, impoverished dreams we adopt for their current utility.  

It's sad to see great talent made into something small, particularly when it's done for misguided reasons. I could care less whether you want to be the youngest vice president in your company, or retire by the time you’re 45. I’m indifferent to your plans for a promotion next year.  


An innovation driven economy is rushing towards us.  There is no longer a reason to squeeze your soul into a box just to claim the reward of “success”.  We are choosing sensible shoes in a world that will soon demand knee high neon boots. 

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When Afternoon is a Hostile Work Environment

Tailoring workplace routines and expectations is a significantly underestimated part of the organization change necessary to become an innovative enterprise.

In his book “Strategic Intuition” William Duggan says the latest innovation research indicates that, “The real prize [in strategy] comes from non linear outcomes … flashes of insight are the key mechanism that creates twists and turns.”  Not surprisingly, organizations are rushing to bring in more of this kind of thinking.


But what happens when we pursue this new DNA for our teams?  What new types of workplace flexibility are required?  Can we force crooked thinking and oblique talent into the same daily routines that shaped industrial age offices?

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