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Innovation at UNDP: from weekend sport to daily practice

Giulio Quaggiotto of Nesta and Millie Begovic of UNDP share their experiences of working to embed innovation approaches into everyday practice at UNDP's country offices.

I always have the image in mind of nature re-populating concrete industrial landscapes. Roots and shoots emerging through cracks and weaknesses in the apparently solid structures and gradually weakening them until they crumble.

Euan Semple

From the periphery towards the centre

Many organisations’ innovation journeys probably aspire to follow a similar trajectory: from small experiments at the edges to becoming “the way we do things around here” (see the chart below).“Embedding innovation in our business processes” is an aspirational mantra we have often heard when comparing notes with other development organisations. But what does this mean in practice? Where to start if this is not to remain just an empty slogan?

Embedding innovation

Source: Adapted from Sabine Junginger

In our case, the prompt was an evaluation of our innovation work by MindLab that threw the gauntlet back at the organisation: could we make innovation a more intrinsic part of the UNDP culture and turn it, as it were, from a weekend sport (something that project managers were doing in their spare time and in spite of the system) into an everyday practice?

This presented us with a particularly interesting challenge: the innovation mantra (at least, the way we interpreted it), with its emphasis on system thinking, goes against the very grain of the organisational culture of a very project-orientated organisation. Based on the experience of early adopters, we spelled out four emerging abilities we saw frontrunners developing over time (see below) - but how could we embed them more broadly in a daily practice that reinforces quite different behaviours?

Four emerging abilities for the “new normal”

  1. Ability to see the system
    Mapping assets (rather than needs) as the starting point for projects, identifying positive deviants and “edgeryders”, mapping and augmenting existing dynamics (rather than trying to impose new ones from outside), delving beyond the surface.
  2. Ability to understand the system
    Reframing and understanding development problems differently, seeing the connections, reframing projects into platforms that can help launch interventions in a complex system.
  3. Ability to intervene in the system
    Articulating assumptions not as truths but as hypotheses that can be tested in the field, running multiple parallel experiments, exploring non-obvious, non-linear solutions.
  4. Reframing key relationships
    From donor to convener and facilitator, from latecomer to lead adopter of new behaviours, from funder to partner.

The road not taken

You can't change culture. You can change things that affect people in the hope that doing so gives them a good reason to adapt their behaviour, but culture emerges from the collective behaviours of the people in your organisation over time.”
- Euan Semple

What we knew from past experience is that an “innovation toolkit” or a poster campaign would not do the trick. These are organisational shortcuts that are not suitable for a world of network leadership.

You don’t need to be a David Graeber aficionado to acknowledge that bureaucracies have a penchant for the utopian: “what should be” is spelled out in great detail for staff to follow, even if it departs quite dramatically from “what is”. Nina Vohnsen’s ethnographic work on “the absurdity of sensible decisions” in policy implementation also gave us a strong awareness of the need to empower decision-making close to where the problem is - in the field.

What could have been a desk-based exercise in identifying entry points for innovation in the UNDP project cycle turned therefore into a collaborative exercise with project managers and partners in four different locations (Georgia, FYR Macedonia, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan). When we worked with the project teams (at different stages in their project implementation), our work was informed by some basic principles:

  • Start from reality (not romance) - if a project is the basic unit everyone can relate to, deal with it rather than trying to change everything at once
  • Add immediate value to the teams you are working with
  • Learn in “the real world”, with the people who are implementing projects as they are implementing them
  • Go for minimum viable improvement: focus, at least at the beginning, on very marginal improvements and take interested staff through a journey of progressive discovery
  • Use conversations, not tools: as per Esko Kilpi, work is interaction and change is an emergent property that cannot be fixed with a toolkit

What became apparent during our work with the project teams was that what we were not embarking on a re-engineering exercise, but rather we were helping staff “find the cracks” at each steps of the project cycle, within existing systems. In many instances, this still leaves plenty of room for “tinkering”. For example, assuming that research will lead to a specific policy action is just that - an assumption. But if taken as the truth, a team can invest a lot of effort in analysis without really understanding the conditions under which the findings would (or would not) be taken up by for example men vs. women or in rural vs. urban areas.

On a different note, designing projects for people as rational decision-makers may lead to many dead ends, but framing an issue in an irrational way can lead to projects with non-obvious solutions that work - take a look at the ‘want a bride, get a toilet’ example.

Exploring the cracks does not require any new process but merely an adjusting and reframing of our work within existing parameters. It entails distinguishing between negative and positive freedom mindsets: colleagues often look to policies for explicit approval to do something, whereas our approach was encourage them to ask first “show me where it says you can't do it this way?”.

Perhaps even more crucially, finding the cracks requires reconnecting project managers with the spirit of existing procedures, not the letter. The linear narrative of an existing project proposal, which bureaucratic inertia often reduces to an accounting exercise constrained by a logframe, can then go back to being what is was meant to be: a list of assumptions in the ‘if this, then that’ format. These can then be tested and enable the team to pivot as they go along. As Tiago Piexoto put it: a theory of change is, at its best, an hypothesis of change.

So while field colleagues were indeed still pointing to many binding constraints imposed by existing procedures, we ended up exploring entry points to “hack” the project cycle that would require no change in corporate policies. The hacks can then be socialised through team discussions and only once the purpose is clear will they be eventually supported by tools.

A tool to initiate and facilitate conversations around entry points for innovation in a project cycle.

A tool to initiate and facilitate conversations around entry points for innovation in a project cycle.

Some initial findings

“Feedback loops are an equivalent of diagnosing and treating a disease; a conventional evaluation is more like an autopsy and thus of limited value to the patient.” - Marc Gunther

  • We kept hearing that traditional reporting doesn’t always capture all the interesting insights from the field, and that in an effort to address accountability it almost sanitizes the juicy type of evidence that filters from the ground up. So how do we create a space for a more meaningful reflection that allows project teams to capture the interesting work that goes on in the field?
  • For time-strapped project managers, it is useful to provide guidance on two different levels of interventions to explore the cracks: Firstly, the basic level - “if you only can do one thing, do this” and secondly, the ‘pro’ level - in-depth analysis and evaluation of options.
  • While working within the constraints of a project, teams end up continually recalibrating the interventions - either as a reaction to something unforeseen that has happened (but may not qualify as a major issue or a risk) or as a deliberate effort to test out many different ways of cracking the problem. Similar to the above point, many of these tweaks that are made on the go are not really reflected in the annual working plans, even though they are a truer reflection of the realities on the ground that are constantly shifting and more akin to problem driven iterative adaptation.
  • There tends to be a default setting to choose certain types of knee-jerk interventions (e.g. workshops, trainings, awareness raising campaigns). How do we encourage continued challenging of the status quo and going beyond the obvious, linear solutions?
  • Capacity (and willingness) to take up new ways of working varies across the board. Having a dedicated support in the field to facilitate the process of challenging existing views and identifying alternative perspectives is a necessary ingredient to help socialise the new principles and hack the project cycle.

The journey continues. We will roll out our “hack the project cycle” initiative in the coming weeks and see whether it does nudge innovation at UNDP to move from a weekend sport to daily practice. Watch this space for future updates.


Giulio Quaggiotto

Giulio Quaggiotto

Giulio Quaggiotto

Senior Programme Manager in Innovation Skills

Giulio was a Senior Programme Manager in the Innovation Skills team, responsible for advising international development and public sector organisations on the implementation of their i…

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Millie Begovic