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The Innovation Process

Innovation mindsets

Our approach to innovation borrows from four core methods and approaches that we would encourage you to adopt as part of your mindset. Each of these approaches plays a distinct role throughout the innovation process:

  1. We employ user-centred design to understand problems and evaluate solutions from the perspective of end-users and affected communities.
  2. We employ systems thinking to better understand the complexity of operational environments and the root causes of problems.
  3. We employ evidence-based design and decision-making to generate evidence, monitor progress and demonstrate the improved performance of our solutions.
  4. We employ agile and adaptive management to ensure flexibility and deal with the uncertainty inherent in humanitarian innovation and the contexts in which it is applied.

User-centred design

Putting users (whether crisis-affected populations or humanitarian workers) at the heart of your innovation process and ensuring that your process is fully inclusive is fundamental. Design approaches, such as user-centred design (UCD), can help you to explore and experiment with how to tailor a service or product to user needs and preferences.

The term ‘user-centred design’ was first coined by design and consulting firm IDEO several decades ago and the methodology has since been embraced widely across the commercial, government and development sectors. User-centred design allows the designer – or the person developing the product or service – to understand user experiences while at the same time considering constraints such as budget, time frames and available resources.

This methodology supports a rights-based approach to innovation, embedding humanitarian principles in actions and ultimately helping to maximise impact. In employing user-centred design, you should seek to go beyond traditional humanitarian accountability practice and truly engage community members in inclusive processes, particularly vulnerable groups and those at risk of exclusion.

By borrowing from the commercial sector’s ‘design thinking’ processes to create more ‘human’ or ‘user’ centred solutions, you can explore new tools for rapidly understanding how to make products and services more appropriate for the people using them.

Systems thinking

The humanitarian environment isn’t static: it’s constantly changing, and changes to one part of the system affect other parts of the system; good innovators and innovation teams need to think about systems.

Systems thinking means identifying different component parts of a system and seeking to understand their relationship with each other. Systems-thinking approaches provide helpful frameworks for developing, tailoring, monitoring and evaluating interventions in complex environments.

The problems faced by crisis-affected populations and those who serve them are complex, dynamic, uncertain and inter-connected. Environmental conditions can disrupt the flow of cause and effect; change can occur through incremental steps or huge leaps. Such features make challenges notoriously difficult to solve in the humanitarian field.

Given the complex environments in which we work, an inter-disciplinary and multi-faceted lens is necessary for problem solving. You will need to understand all the component parts of a problem, its causes and contributing factors, and you should understand how any solution you develop fits into the current system for addressing that problem – the closer a solution fits with the current system, the easier it is to adopt.

Evidence-based design and decision-making

Evidence-based design is a process for (1) identifying relevant information that can be used as evidence for or against a proposed course of action, (2) explicitly applying that knowledge as a resource in the design of potential solutions; and then (3) field testing those with key stakeholders in the real world.

This ensures decisions we make around our innovation are grounded as much as possible in evidence. Where such evidence does not exist, it needs to inform our innovation process, so that we start building the evidence as we go.

“There’s a lot of hard-won advice out there. That’s why, in Silicon Valley, they always want to invest in people who have failed. It’s because they’ve done it before.” Andrew Lamb, Field Ready (interview)

Agile and adaptive management

Although its origins lie further back, agile project management came to the forefront of project-management thinking with the publication of the Agile Manifesto in 2001. Its roots were in software development, but its principles of iterative learning and collaboration can be applied much more widely.

No matter how well you gather evidence at the start of your process, you will soon find new evidence and learn new things. Therefore, the process you use for innovation should be agile, seeking to iterate and gather learning as often and as quickly as possible. Your learning will show you when and how you need to adapt. Your innovation process and your mindset need to be adaptable: able to take on new evidence and new information and change direction accordingly. This requires the ability to deal with ambiguity.