Creating a culture for innovation
Every organization has innovators: the key is creating an atmosphere where innovation can thrive
Anita Kelles-Viitanen joined IFAD in February 2005 as policy coordinator for the Initiative for Mainstreaming Innovation (IMI), a three-year programme established in 2004 to enhance IFAD's capacity to promote innovations that reduce rural poverty. She shares her thoughts on what it takes to create a culture conducive to innovation.
Innovation is a new practice that improves on current practice or responds to new opportunities and challenges. For IFAD, innovation is a process that reduces rural poverty by adding value or solving a problem in a new way. It could be a new way for poor people to manage their assets, a new method of influencing policy, or a new technique for communicating with partners.
Innovation comes in many forms. Sometimes it's a radical change. More often it's incremental, made of small improvements that together make a difference in people's lives.
Innovation is not the same as creativity. Creativity is the first step. You may have 100 ideas, but only one or two may be functional and provide benefits to the user. Being innovative requires creativity, but not all creative people are innovators.
Setting the stage
Innovation flourishes in a friendly environment. When staff members feel appreciated and respected, they feel safe enough to explore innovation. Innovators often "fail forward". It is like children learning to walk who fall down every now and then. To be an innovator you must be willing to fail before getting it right. According to Harvard Business School professor David Garvin, "The knowledge gained from failures is often instrumental in achieving subsequent successes."
It is essential to encourage open debate, where views from people of different cultural backgrounds, genders and ages are respected, and where blaming and shaming are discouraged. Some people worry that open debate disrupts organizational harmony. But dissenters can stimulate creativity. They force us to examine our positions, search for more information and consider alternatives. There is one caveat - criticisms should be constructive, and directed at issues, not at people.
The present knowledge era and economy require organizations that are more democratic. Hierarchical organizations have become outdated because they constrain the ability of individuals and institutions to innovate. All staff should be encouraged to innovate - not just a few managers or professionals.
Prepared minds, innovative minds
One of the basic building blocks of innovation is learning. There is a saying that innovation only comes to prepared minds. But anyone can become prepared. We must have a passion for enquiry and for learning as much as we can about our work. We must know what is happening in our projects, read the literature, find out about the activities of development partners and talk to poor people themselves.
Innovation should not come from our heads alone, but from a participatory process. It is about being so informed of the realities and constraints on the ground that when we see or hear something new, we know it is innovative.
Innovation requires deep learning. This type of critical thinking helps us to compare previous knowledge with new knowledge, examine things from different angles, relate theoretical ideas to the everyday experience of poor people (and vice versa) and develop a new understanding of the socio-economic and political realities of today's world.
Being open to change
Sometimes cultural norms discourage innovation. Staff members may pick up on signals that dampen innovation - anything from laughing at those who suggest new approaches to not sharing information. Often, people are not aware they have been seducing one another into abiding by such counter-productive rules.
All companies and institutions have a minority of people who are radical innovators. The key is not only to hire these people, but to retain them by providing a supportive environment where they can thrive. When innovators are not given the respect and authority they need to pursue their vision, they may take their ideas elsewhere. Meanwhile, incremental innovators also need to be promoted and supported.
Putting innovation into practice
New ideas need to be applied in such a way that they fit with an institution's values, norms and past experiences. They also need to be easily adoptable without requiring excessive resources. Above all, they must respond to the problems of rural poor people.
Because radical innovations can be risky, their feasibility must first be tested through experimentation. Pilot projects and trials help confirm whether new ideas are truly innovative.
What if no one knows?
Innovation is already happening. The problem is knowledge evaporation. New things are tried, some of them work, but then they stay in the heads of people in the field. We need instruments at the corporate level for collecting ideas and then promoting them.
Because innovation is context-specific, the best way to communicate about it is through stories. Sometimes this happens informally, when staff members and consultants share stories while on mission or at conferences. But if we want to use these stories back at headquarters, we need rigorous documentation with visual and written details to explain the original constraints and the new practice, and how this benefits the people involved.
Lastly, innovation is a process, not just an output. It involves continuous learning. Time out is as important as time in. If we have a problem, our brains continue to search for the solution even while we are doing other things. So, like the Greek mathematician Archimedes who made one of his most important discoveries about weight and volume while sitting in a bathtub, we may cry "Eureka!" when we least expect it.
IFAD and IMI
During the preparatory phase of the IMI, IFAD launched eight IMI-funded projects. A main phase is now underway, extending support to some of the preparatory projects, and launching several new ones. IMI is financed by the United Kingdom's complementary contribution of US$10 million to the Sixth Replenishment, as well as IFAD's own resources.
Innovation is the theme of the Twenty-Ninth Session of IFAD's Governing Council, 15-16 February 2006.