As humanitarian actors, we operate in complex systems seeking to address humanitarian challenges that are in constant evolution at the mercy of factors that are often well outside of our control. Nonetheless, local actors and the crisis-affected communities in which they are based are frequently omitted from resource flows, decision-making and structural efforts to change the system.
Moreover, the communities we serve are facing unprecedented crises and aid efforts fail to adequately meet their needs or ignores them. The gradual efforts of improvement to the system status quo just won't cut it; transformation is clearly long overdue and increasingly urgent with the rising number and complexity of crises associated with climate change. We need to fundamentally change the way the humanitarian sector operates and experiment with different ways of working and learning.
In October 2021, Complexity University in partnership with Start Network and The Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF) launched the first radical, action-focused innovation programme for community-led impact in the aid sector. The Crisis Response and Resilience Lab was a 2-week intensive action-learning programme, the first of its kind, aimed at supporting humanitarian practitioners to experience and learn a new way of working in response to complex humanitarian challenges. The Lab was an experiment in itself—an opportunity to create a place where different people could build new practices, relationships and learning, whilst experiencing a professional and personal journey taking them from business as usual towards a new, better, humanitarian system.
What did that look like? The course content and process were simple, but challenging at the same time. As a first step, teams had to define the problem they wanted to address and the specific challenge they intended to tackle. Then, through group work and coaching support, teams went through a full innovation process in the space of just two weeks. During this time, they had to come up with possible practical solutions or prototypes, test them as many times as possible, and then reflect on the feedback received before adapting and improving their prototype.
Over 100 people in 13 teams from across the world participated in the course. They developed and tested many prototypes tackling a wide range of challenges (from reducing river flooding in Ghana, to predicting landslides in Bangladesh, and reaching out to highly vulnerable people in crises in Guatemala).
Two coaches (one from an innovation background and one from a humanitarian background) provided ongoing support to each team for a total of 26 coaches.
What does it take and how does it feel when we dive into re-envisioning the way we work and dive into experimentation, collaboration, and action-learning?
After the course, we gathered feedback from a sample of participants through a qualitative survey and from the end of the course reflection workshop. This is what the teams have learnt and shared so far.
Relevant, good ideas and solutions change along the way. Almost all teams experienced some sort of changes to their initial ideas.
There is a lot we already know when we start implementing an idea, but there is so much more we still must learn. Good solutions are the ones that evolve and adapt over time through reflection and feedback of multiple users including from team members and coaches. This means you have to hold your idea lightly, and be prepared to let it change (or even let it go).
Unlearning and learning new ways of working can be painful, but also rewarding.
The transition towards new systems does not happen without the personal journey. Most team members felt that letting go of linear and structured ways of operating in order to embrace the uncertainty of prototyping was hard, especially in only 2 weeks. But that discomfort is fundamental to changing mindsets. All respondents also said their confidence in prototyping has grown, and some participants shared that they have already started to apply this way of working and will hopefully support their colleagues to do the same.
“Working together with diversified personnel in a team was a little confusing to decide on the specific point from many options following directions under training course.”
“I have learned there is a fine balance between planning and action. I also learned alot from the coaches on how to move a team forward.”
Collaboration and peer learning enhance the power of innovation work.
Coming up with a good solution is not just about technical innovation or a clever plan—more important is synergy within the team and creating a trusting environment where everyone can feedback and bring up new ideas. This is not easy as it can create tensions and misunderstandings, but the teams that managed to rise above those tensions to find opportunities in their diversity, which contributed to their success in the prototyping journey.
“The great thing I have learned through this process is that the team perspective is more effective than the individual thoughts.”
“Being able to put aside ego and put efforts in creating consensus to be able to move forward.”
“It's not easy to work as a team when you are in different locations even if it's the same country. There were moments of misunderstanding, accusations where even one member left the team in fury.”
Practicing as much as possible, with no fear of failing. The purpose of the Crisis Response and Resilience Lab was to guide participants through an action-focused way of learning with little space for building theoretical plans. That was also hard and antithetical to the way we’re conditioned to work. Some teams were highly challenged to transition from scoping their challenge statement to working on a practical solution. For some, it was uncomfortable to be pushed towards action and not drive towards perfection through detailed discussions. There is no perfect solution and to come up with something good enough to solve a pressing challenge the only way is to practice: test and iterate.
“The two-week sprint was time well invested as it has made me realise there are new ways of looking and engaging in life challenges”
The humanitarian sector needs a radical transformation, a transformation in the way we conceive and carry out our work, as well as a profound transformation in the way we behave, learn and feel. This transformation can only happen if, as individuals, we shift from linear project cycle work and the pressure of meeting outputs and targets towards creating long-lasting value for communities by focusing on empathy and creativity, while constantly seeking meaningful feedback, prototyping and iterating. The course made clear the false premise upon which our modus operandi is based: responding to complexity with control and planning sets us up to deliver weak impact. Crisis-affected communities deserve an aid sector which is adaptive, creative and able to flex in response to the dynamic, complex nature of crises—and it’s not nearly as painful as we might imagine.
 Around 20% of total participants took part to the survey