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The Innovation Process
Stage 1


Define your problem and map out the challenge

Recognition should be the first stage of any innovation journey. It broadly consists of identifying a problem or opportunity to respond to, collecting and assessing readily available knowledge on the issue and context, diagnosing root causes, and properly framing the challenge.

Gaining a deep and insightful understanding of the problem is the key to any successful innovation. The more time spent on understanding the problem, the less the likelihood of developing an inappropriate solution. This stage consists of four modules and results in the creation of your Challenge Brief.

“Clear problem definition is at the heart of successful innovation, through all stages. Focus on identifying, articulating and meeting needs, monitoring progress and changing course accordingly. Failed innovations are often associated with a lack of focus at the start, or conversely a failure to adapt as evidence and learning suggests a need to change the approach.”
HIF Principles of Humanitarian Innovation

Follow our user stories

To help us to explain the stages of the innovation process, and what both social entrepreneurs and humanitarian practitioners might need to know, we will follow two humanitarian innovators on their journey as we move through the Guide.

We have deliberately exaggerated some of the mindsets of ‘Sergio’ and ‘Hanna’, our two protagonists, for effect – not to reinforce stereotypes, but to enable us to explore some vital lessons. We hope that Sergio and Hanna serve to highlight some of the potential pitfalls you might fall into at each stage of the innovation process.

Hanna is a seasoned humanitarian worker. She has worked in five humanitarian emergencies over the past nine years. She is currently responsible for her organisation’s refugee response programme, in both camp and urban settings.

A conflict has broken out in a country neighbouring Elrharia, where Hanna is based. A large number of refugees are crossing the border and a new camp has been established, with periodic spikes in conflict and unrest increasing the flow of new arrivals. Hanna is tired of seeing the same mistakes made that she has seen in previous responses and wants to find a way to do things differently.

What traps might Hanna fall into?

  • Thinking the problems are too complex and intertwined to be fixed with a simple solution.
  • Being constrained in her thinking by the way ‘things are done’ in the humanitarian sector.
  • Thinking that innovation is only about products and can’t fix systemic problems.
  • Dismissing or mistrusting ideas that haven’t been ‘proven’ in a humanitarian context, or come from someone perceived as lacking in experience.
  • Viewing any organisation from outside NGOs, the UN or Red Cross/Crescent movement, or without detailed humanitarian technical expertise, as suspicious and unable to grasp the complexities of the sector.

Sergio is a recent engineering graduate who has started work for an IT company. In his spare time, he builds and flies drones. He has seen the devastation that hurricanes have caused in his country over two of the past three years and wonders whether his skills could help with disaster relief.

He has tried to find out about how to provide support in disasters, but is confused by all the different organisations, what they do, and how to even start engaging with affected communities. He is pretty certain that drones can help and is determined to explore how and test his ideas when the next hurricane strikes.

What traps might Sergio fall into?

  • Trying to bend (or invent) problems to fit the solution he already has.
  • Thinking that humanitarian workers are limited because they don’t understand his technical language.
  • Not understanding that there are humanitarian principles and standards to guide activity in a humanitarian setting.
  • Not understanding the humanitarian architecture and humanitarian organisations and how to engage effectively with them.
  • Thinking the problems and solutions will be simple.
  • Carry out his intervention without coordination with other actors (local and international) and out of context.

Modules in this stage

1.1 Initial Impressions
This module introduces a number of tools for identifying problems and opportunities, emphasising the need for opportunities to be matched with problems. Once you have identified a problem, the module culminates in the development of a problem statement.
1.2 Starting Point Assessment
This module provides an overview of how to quickly gather and categorise information about the problem you have identified, in order to expand and deepen your knowledge.
1.3 Root Causes and Contributing Factors
This module provides tools and approaches to look beyond your problem’s symptoms to its causes and contributing factors. Tools and advice are provided to enable you to do this with both quick and rigorous approaches.
1.4 Challenge Brief
This module brings together the work carried out in the previous three modules to produce a Challenge Brief containing a problem statement, an impact goal, and design criteria for your solution.