How to help innovation flourish

In 2020, as part of Start Network’s commitment to localisation and collective innovation, we embarked on a journey to develop innovative and locally-driven solutions that place communities affected by humanitarian crises at the forefront of…


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In 2020, as part of Start Network’s commitment to localisation and collective innovation, we embarked on a journey to develop innovative and locally-driven solutions that place communities affected by humanitarian crises at the forefront of humanitarian action. We have been working with Start Network hubs to start building community innovation initiatives in Guatemala and the DRC. We also launched the Working Differently Challenge to support members in developing their ideas through coaching and mentoring, while gaining experience with innovation approaches.

Many of us are new to the world of innovation and its methodology. Approaching innovation for the first time does not come without challenges, but it is also an exciting and stimulating experience. Here’s what we have learnt so far during this process:


Embrace a flexible, curious and adaptive mindset

Forget for a second about toolkits and guidelines on innovation programming, system thinking, or human-centered design. Innovation starts (and ends) with lived experiences, with embracing a flexible mindset and being open to challenge our teams’ traditional ways of thinking. To tackle complex problems such as humanitarian crises, applying methods and tools is sometimes not enough—it is also important to move away from traditional, structured and isolated ways of addressing problems to explore different, flexible and unconventional approaches. 


Build trust and create an enabling environment

Innovation is not only about creativity and experimenting, it is a process of reflecting on power dynamics and trying to give people the space, time, encouragement, and resources to experiment. One way that we are doing this is by creating an enabling and trusting environment, a safe space for discussion and improvement where no judgement or personal/organisational ego prevails. It is when we have full trust that we express the best ideas. In the Working Differently Challenge, we saw different teams coming together and working with Thoughtworks coaches on various aspects of their ideas. Although they never worked together, most teams were able to find new ideas, think outside of the box and push themselves further through honest conversations, active listening and holding space for divergent opinions. 


“We weren’t sure how Thoughtworks would be able to help. With the initial calls, the support on design thinking definitely helped the field teams piloting. We then worked on the data management and the moral support, and their expertise in this field allowed us to think more broadly and has pushed us into further development.” - Participant in the Working Differently Challenge


Keep empathy at the core

Innovation, especially that which is community/locally-driven, starts with the incredible value of people and their lived experiences. We learnt that it is only with a high level of empathy that we can understand the real challenges that communities face—whether during natural disasters, protracted conflict, forced displacement, or the COVID-19 pandemic—and support them to design good solutions to their problems. People with deep experience of the problem are the real experts in innovation, and when our teams are able to hear their insights and understand their perspectives (not through a needs assessment but by enabling them to lead) then we are much more equipped to create an appropriate supporting environment for them.


Encourage curiosity and flexibility

When working in complexity, particularly if operating in resource-scarce, unpredictable environments, we found that a flexible and curious mindset is the one that works best. Learning from our hubs and teams of the Working Differently Challenge, we found that it is so important to be willing to take some small risks from the very beginning, building opportunities for prototypes as much as possible. Prototyping, experimenting with a few resources to validate ideas, and learning how to be effective at adapting, were key in seeing the Working Differently Challenge teams take advantage of unplanned outcomes, quickly repurpose their ideas and then be able to grow. 


“The different suggestions on the design thinking allowed us to be more flexible to understand how to adapt the thinking and the field work results allowed us to look at multiple types of outputs.” - Participant in the Working Differently Challenge


Be brave and ready to fail

We knew it might be hard to innovate without failure, but the real challenge for us has been being comfortable with the small failures we face along the road to success. When designing a new community-led innovation program with our hubs, we knew it was a new approach, so it was important to learn how to embrace the discomfort of working with new methodologies and turn every challenge into an opportunity to do things differently (and better). Over the past few months, our team and our hubs have truly embraced being brave, ready to see ideas changing through time as feedback is gathered and then incorporated.


“It was a road to the unknown. The way we had to question and question ourselves helped us to think through and understand where we are and where we are going, which we found exciting. the adaptive learning and iterative is the core of innovation and makes this programme amazing”  - Member of the Start Network hub in the DRC


Continuously reflect and learn

Learning is not only building complex logframes and smart indicators, monitoring results or assessing the impact of a project at the end of its life cycle. It is a much more complex but enriching experience. Within the volatile and complex world of humanitarian and community innovation, we realised that learning is all about living the innovation journey, while regularly testing our hypothesis. We thus approached learning through designing flexible and adaptive tools such as innovation diaries and journey maps, and created opportunities for contextually relevant learning priorities, highlighting community perspectives and local knowledge. We didn’t want learning to happen in isolation, so also we built regular reflection loops to help us in testing these methods and adapt as we go.


Our innovation journey is just starting. Perhaps the most important thing we have learnt so far is that stepping outside of our comfort zone and operating in a less risk-controlled environment is not easy, but it is necessary to help us thrive. To truly shift toward locally-driven humanitarian action, address complex problems and achieve systemic change, a flexible and adaptive mindset is needed. 

Read more about our work on collective innovation.