When not to innovate

21 Sep

Some of you may hate me for this…

It’s easy to want to rail against the aid industry – the “the establishment” or the “machine” as I myself have described it. And I like to think that I’d be among the first to acknowledge, yea, to decry the aid industry’s schizophrenia when it comes to trying new things. For all of the rhetoric about “innovation” and “new approaches”, we seem painfully un-adept at bringing in new ideas, testing new approaches. While we preach and are self-described agents of change in the communities where we work, we can be surprisingly resistant to change within our own industry and within our own organizations.

I struggle daily with the dilemma of how to find the sweet spot where new ideas, fresh vision, creativity and “outside the box” thinking can overlap comfortably with hard-won lessons about what works and what does not.

In the course of a single day on the job, I personally can on one hand deal with situations in which it seems painfully obvious that an established practice needs to be scrapped in favor of a better one, or that our collective thinking on subject X needs to be abandoned and replaced with something totally different. And then, on the other hand, find myself having to argue with equal vigor that some new and definitely novel but also obviously flawed idea is precisely that – flawed. Flawed to the point that discussing it further is simply a waste of energy in the context of what years of experience already clearly tell us.

And I just have to get this out there:

Too often we reinvent the wheel in the name of innovation. Too often we innovate simply for the sake of innovation, but not because innovation is needed necessarily.

* * *

For me it comes down to five points:

1) Innovate in those areas where innovation is actually needed. This is the flip side of age-old aid work wisdom which says, “Replicate what works.” For all of the talk about what is wrong with the aid industry, there is actually a lot that does really work. And, as anyone who actually paid attention in “International Development 101” (or who reads AidWatch on a regular basis) knows, the real challenges to aid work are systemic, often at regional or even global levels.

In my opinion we don’t really need a new kind of specially manufactured collapsible relief housing. Those blue tarps work just fine. And people really like them. What we could really use, though, is some workable ways around some of the systemic barriers to effective aid work.

2) Incremental change. If you must innovate, it should be about making small adjustments to known effective practices and models. Base assumptions about the need for adjustment in the first place on actual knowledge of a particular place, then make those incremental adjustments based on the specifics of that context. And for goodness sake hold off on pronouncing them “successful” or trumpeting your “innovative approach” at the next inter-agency workshop until enough time has passed that you can actually see what some of the impact is.

3) Base innovation on a solid understanding of existing theory and also practice. This is basic, but I’m amazed at how many seem bent on innovating before they’ve clearly understood what currently exists. Despite those very significant systemic challenges, aid industry approaches and best-practices exist now as the result of many years of direct experience by very intelligent, capable people. So, know the work and know the industry before preaching the need for innovation. The fact that your innovation goes against long-established and well-documented best practices should be a hint that maybe it isn’t all that…

4) Keep it simple. Many things about aid work can be mind-numbingly difficult. But the core work, the work of some how providing what it is that beneficiaries need most is not horribly complicated. If your innovation involves complicated interventions, long algorithms, a lot of hard-to-find stuff being moved from one place to the other… re-think it.

5) Oh yeah, it’s about helping the poor. Saving the most important for last – If your desire to innovate stems from anything other than a simple desire to deliver more effective, more efficient aid to those who need it, don’t do it. Enough said.

3 Responses to “When not to innovate”

  1. c 29 September, 2009 at 1:18 am #

    my organisation just created a new and very senior ‘international deputy director for innovation’


    I was hoping for an ‘international deputy director for getting the basics right’


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