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  • Writer's pictureNanthilde KAMARA

Meet the “Humanitarian innovator”: 8 strategies to innovate in the field

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

Do you belong to this rare species called “humanitarian innovator”, a change maker who wants to constantly improve his/her humanitarian action and his/her impact?

If YOU are a humanitarian innovator, you will always face one of the biggest issue when you want to innovate: how to change colleagues « adverse » mind to accept innovation within your organization?

Innovation means CHANGE and from my experience, nobody likes CHANGE – your colleagues are not interested or worst, they resist, they are AGAINST the change.

You can hear “All the project we implemented since the early ages of humanitarianism work, so why changing?” or “Why do you want to design a complicated project? This project is simple and is good enough as it is!”.

Why this resistance??

· Innovation destabilizes because you have to go outside of your comfort zone and you enter the territory of the unknown.

· Innovation threatens : innovation can potentially induce a change in the HR chart for example, new competencies, a revision or even a reduction of positions

· Innovation is demanding : you will need to improve your skillset or find them elsewhere, you will have to be CREATIVE, you will probably work more and you will have to dig, search and explore.

· Innovation can make you feel insecure : are you selfconfident, do you trust yourself, will you be able to carry out this new project and succeed ? Are you scared to fail ?

With all these barriers, how to introduce innovation in your organization ? No don’t give up and continue reading!

1. Innovation helps you solve a problem

There are no problems, only solutions ! (John Lennon)

The first step of innovation is being CREATIVE at … finding a solution to your problem. In your work, what is the problem you would like to fix ? What do you want to improve ?

With the COVID19 wave, we cancelled all our field surveys but we needed data to assess and monitor the impact of COVID19 and revise our emergency response. What about mobile surveys ?

How to be creative?

· Meet and discuss with your colleagues (at HQ, in your region, in other regions, in the field), partners, counterparts, friends to find solutions.


· Find some experts around you who can give you ideas

Always keep a diary and pen at hand –creativity and inspiration will find you unexpectedly

2. You don’t need to revolutionize all your organization

You receive a call for proposal about innovations and you are wondering what innovations you can propose : your mind is completely blank or you don’t know if your idea could be considered as an innovation.

Innovation does not mean you want to change all your organization or create a project from scratch: innovation can be a complementary service you are proposing to the beneficiaries or an improved process within your organization.

OCHA defines a humanitarian innovation as:

“a means of adaptation and improvement through finding and scaling solutions to problems, in the form of products, processes or wider business models… [these] can be applied to nearly any specialized area, from logistics, to medicine, to media, and may include technology but is not reducible to it.”

ODI and ALNAP give this definition of innovation: “Innovation represents an “iterative process that identifies, adjusts and diffuses ideas for improving humanitarian action” and refers to both products and processes. This draws together multiple elements that define problems or opportunities; doing something different; and/or seeking improvement.”

3. Identify your champions or other “humanitarian innovators” within your organization

Easy to say ! How to identify them or convince one of THEM ?

CREATE opportunities : organizing a meeting or a workshop about innovation can help you detect your champions who have appetite for innovation. Try also bilateral or informal meetings!

Try to find champions among managers (but not only): it will be easier for them to lead the others.

4. Engage ALL your colleagues and Co-create

Involving all your colleagues from the beginning is KEY to overcome adversity (this is true for basically every project or initiative). Organize a workshop, a lunch, a meeting, even the three!

Yes, ALL your colleagues even the ones with a negative attitude – they can change their point of view because they were involved in the first place or because they understand your initiative. But if they really try to undermine your project, ignore them!

The good point is that all your colleagues will create and will contribute to a much more complete solution.

5. Innovation is a project!

An innovation, whether a new service or an improved process, must be seen as a PROJECT and every step of the project cycle management must be respected.

What is the need or the problem and how does the innovation respond to it ? How do you design your innovation to be efficient and effective ? What are the risks associated and how do you mitigate the risks ? What resources will you need to launch your innovation ? How will you monitor your innovation and evalute its impact ?

For example, you want to strengthen your complaint and feedback mechanism with a new component : a free hotline. Opening a free hotline is not about appointing one of your colleague and giving him a mobile phone to answer the phone (I speak real here, it really happens in the field).

Before buying a sim card and a phone, you think about your project and ask yourself :

· Are you sure the hotline is well adapted to your context and to the population you target? You could check with a quick survey or with actors who are running a hotline

· What system do you put in place to ensure your hotline is functional to receive and treat feedbacks with the necessary confidentiality : An in house system or a private call center ? Do you need a standard operating procedure (SOP) ? A partnership with actors working in protection ? A protection officer in your office ?

· What system do you put in place to make a use of the feedbacks to improve your programme ? A task force reviewing the results every month, a monthly meeting with field colleagues, a dashboard showing the main results ?

· Will your system be sustainable, scalable and how?

6. Think Partnerships !

You do not always have all the skills or expertise within your organization. You can hire an expert but you need to manage him and this is not always easy.

Consider partnerships with research institutes, NGOs, universities, ministries – they are lots of options over there and partnerships are very valuable to your organization.

For example, you want to mainstream environmental issue in your project but you don’t know where to start and how to do it. Instead of thinking automatically of “improved cooking fuels”, find and contact the reference organizations in renewable energy or in nature-based-resources management (through coordination mechanisms and specific platforms, informal channels, advertising online or in local newspapers etc.).

7. Show the Benefits

Innovation can bring lots of benefits :

  • Innovation is attractive to donors – it means more funding for your organization!

  • Glory and fame for the organization and for those who were involved in the innovation process

  • Career and job opportunities and promotion : I once participated to pilot a new methodology of market assessment in the field (the EMMA) and I’m telling you, I became a very busy consultant to pilot and carry out market assessments for several years!

8. And don’t be afraid of failing

Yes it happens but always try to understand why it failed to succeed the next time: organize a meeting or even a workshop to learn from this experience.

BUT, if you follow the number 5 tip, you should avoid the BIG failure.

What about you, humanitarian innovators, do you have any other strategy to share?

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#humanitarianinnovation #collaborativeinnovation #innovation4good #future4change

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