Innovation – not only of technological factors but also in terms of people, policy and organizational factors – is at the core of building future capacities. The ICRC’s innovation focus is to develop customized and contextualized solutions in close proximity with those impacted by humanitarian disasters. Being on the ground gives the organization legitimacy and also can provide it with a unique lens to understand the real needs of beneficiaries. Daccord stressed that innovation for the ICRC needs to start in the field.
What lessons about innovation can the ICRC and other humanitarian actors learn from the private sector? Professor Bill Fisher asserted that change is no longer occasional and episodic, which alters the way managers should think about organization, deployment of resources, the way they work and leadership. The continuity of change should be at the center of strategic thinking. When and how organizations react will be determined by where they are in the change cycle.
The change cycle shows how organizations adapt and reinvent themselves as industries evolve. Organizations must learn how to innovate to move to the next phase of the cycle. Professor Fischer introduced a number of lessons learned about innovation from a business perspective:
- There is a need to get more out of human talent rather than less: Complex organizations hire great people and turn them into average employees. Building new types of organizations will liberate talent rather than imprisoning it.
- Embrace change rather than avoiding it: More different minds are better than more of the same. Agility requires instances where you hire for skills and then figure out how to deal with attitudes.
- Do it sooner rather than later: It is relatively easier to make big organizational changes during times of high performance. Urgency is critical to ensure that organizations are not being forced to act during times of low performance.
- Radical change should be built on the familiar: A big organizational change involves putting routines and protocols in place and being reasonable about following them. Coherence and consistency are necessary for scalability and success.
- Routines are not enough for learning: Organizations need to “provoke” the unknown in order to be able to learn. This involves experimentation, prototyping, agile organizations and agile people.
Unleashing and harnessing innovation in organizations involves recognizing that: 1) you are never going to get it right (wrong and fast is better than perfect and forever); 2) somebody has done it already (look around, others are struggling with similar challenges); 3) it does not always have to be new to the world (“Good artists copy, great artists steal”); and 4) you cannot do it by yourself (different ideas are better than more of the same). These lessons can be useful for humanitarian organizations that
have difficulty implementing innovative solutions and do not always have a sense of urgency to adapt their organizations to rapidly changing contexts.
The GPHI2 event, which also explored specific challenges and opportunities related to innovative humanitarian partnerships through participant working groups (see insights@imd #45), was based on the premise that when the experiences and motivations of entrepreneurs, philanthropists and humanitarians meet on common ground, innovative ideas and partnerships can emerge that will help save and improve more lives.
Event participants were generally convinced about the possibilities for humanitarian innovation. Out of the wide-ranging discussions there was an emerging consensus around the following:
- Customized and contextualized solutions: Maintain close proximity to people affected by wars and disasters to ensure that innovation is not imposed from external environments.
- Change management: Organize the process of change management in a way that is inclusive – iterate as you go along and give people in the field an opportunity to provide input.
- Culture change: Be more open about the case for change internally and externally and realize that an innovative culture accepts and learns from failure.
In closing, ICRC President Peter Maurer reiterated that the ICRC is deeply convinced of the need to seek partnerships with private sector actors to respond to growing organizational needs and the changing external environment. He stressed that humanitarians are often driven by a natural curiosity and desire to find solutions to complex problems – and that humanitarians, philanthropists and business people who share their knowledge, experience and expertise, while respecting and understanding each other’s working methods, can create innovative partnerships for humanitarian impact.