Start Network DEPP Labs

What makes a good innovator?

The first of a 3 part blog series reflecting on the experiences of the DEPP Labs themselves. In this piece, Scarlett Sturridge explores some of the personal traits and skills required to make a successful innovator.


Time to read: 7 minutes

Area of work:

The DEPP Innovation window is a two-year programme that aims to foster and eventually scale innovations that address key problems faced by disaster prone communities through established ‘lab’ spaced in Bangladesh, Jordan, Kenya and Philippines. The programme takes a community-centred approach to innovation, meaning that people and organisations affected by disasters are involved in the design, development and implementation of solutions (innovations) to their problems. Many of the innovators are from the community and have limited experience and knowledge of developing and scaling innovations. Lab staff have developed unique and comprehensive packages of support to help capacity-build and guide innovators through this process.

This blog forms part of a 3-piece series that reflect only the experiences of the DEPP Labs themselves. At the time of writing all of  the labs have selected their innovators and supported them for a prolonged period. Progressively, labs and innovators are focusing on sustainability and scale.

When looking at the programmes diverse range of innovations, a handful of front-runners gradually emerged. However, at the beginning many of these were not the obvious choices; there were some  that appeared more exciting, more innovative or even potentially more impactful than others. So, why  did  some progress faster than others? And, what are the factors are necessary for success?

When I posed this question to labs, they unanimously replied ‘THE INNOVATOR, THE INNOVATOR’, because ‘whilst the idea is important, it is only as good as the executor’. In the context of this programme, success seems strongly linked to an innovator’s personal qualities and characteristic  than to their background. Importantly, whilst these strengths maybe described as innate, they can also be developed with the right support and training.

So what do some of these common traits include?

A passion for solving the problem and/or finding the solution

The innovation process can be long, difficult and frustrating. No matter how great the idea is, there is always the risk that innovators will give up when faced with challenges.  Passion could be a great emotion motivating innovators to go the extra mile; driving them to weather the storm.  

When it comes to scaling, an innovators passion for solving the problem is important to ensure that the primary motivation remains social impact and convincing others (investors, partners, end-user) to invest or adopt the solution.  Recognising the importance of this factor, one lab redesigned its written application process to disqualify individuals who did not express ‘a passion for solving the problem’ as a factor to applying. Others assessed this quality when deciding which innovators to progress onwards to incubation.

An ability to communicate with stakeholders and willingness to use their feedback

DEPP innovators were encouraged to engage with a variety of different stakeholders to develop and sustain their ideas. This included their target community, experts and potential partners. Initial assumptions that innovators would engage most easily with their “peers” was not always correct.

Innovators from the community did not always know how to respectfully communicate with their counterparts. And, innovators from NGOs or the did not always appreciate the merit of external advice from within these sectors, and often proved unwilling to apply critical feedback. However, through trainings around communications and pitching, alongside encouragement and support these traits can be developed into useful skills.

One lab considered design thinking training as important to establishing a clear logic and process for collecting and incorporating feedback. Through regular check-in session the lab supported the innovator to critically evaluate and incorporate feedback. Another lab found a weekly pitching session as an effective mechanism for reducing innovators attachment to their ideas, encouraging them to use feedback and adapt.

Relevant experience in the problem area

When asked ‘What have you learnt from the DEPP process?’ one innovator reflected, ‘I used to think that innovating was like magic, a brilliant moment when a great idea would suddenly appear out of thin air. Now I know that it is a long progress, that requires you to understand the problem and repeatedly test and refine different solution’.

Our labs observed that having relevant experience in the problem area (for example, in farming if your solution focuses on agriculture or health services if it focuses on healthcare) was helpful; suggesting a pre-existing knowledge of the problem area and existing solutions – was a good foundation on which to build their solutions – alongside understanding relevant stakeholders.  It might also suggest a pre-existing interest in the problem area and solution.

Some level of formal education and/or experience innovating

Education is not a prerequisite of success, however, in the context of this programme, innovators with limited literacy undeniably faced more barriers. For instance, it limited their ability to act independently (i.e. without lab or co-worker support) in accessing relevant research - a vast majority of which is written and conducted in English - and communicating remotely with external experts and partners, whose preferred medium was often email.

Additionally, and regardless of education, having a basic understanding of the innovation process, running a business and relevant terminology helped some DEPP innovators make quicker progress. DEPP’s innovation process is intense and includes significant capacity-building where innovators are required to digest huge amounts of information in a very short space of time. All the innovators struggled, but a basic understanding of ‘prototyping’ or ‘financial planning’ helped some hit the ground running. Whilst this quality is not inherent and can be taught, because of the programme’s short timeframe it proved a real asset for some innovators. 

It is crucial to acknowledge that these trends reflect limitations within the programme design rather than the capacity of ‘grassroot’ communities to innovate.  Arguably, the language used, format of and timeframe for capacity building is less compatible with innovators with limited literacy or relevant innovation/business experience. We have learnt that if you want to facilitate an innovation process that truly focuses on ‘community innovators’ a longer timeframe and more individualised capacity building is required. 

That said, there are examples of highly educated innovators failing when compared to other individuals with low levels of education who are progressing well. There is an Arabic term  “ibn al souq”, which means ‘son of the market’ and refers to someone raised as a natural hustler, not through formal education, but from working and having life experience. This has been linked to success in micro-grant programmes in Jordan; as such it would be interesting to consider how life education versus formal education relates to success.

There is no one silver bullet for success

The personal traits listed above have undoubtably contributed to success, however, they are not prerequisites (with exception of passion) or determinants. All of the labs had passionate, committed individuals and innovators with relevant experience and education that succeeded and failed. The recipe for success is the right mix of complementary qualities, combined with a good idea.

Innovators vs innovation teams

 Recognising that this ‘mix’ can be hard to find, many of our labs encouraged innovators to form teams and offer guidance on team composition. From our experience, we learnt that teams worked best when they form naturally, have shared ownership over an idea, clear roles and responsibilities that align to individuals’ strengths and weaknesses and, perhaps most importantly, positive team dynamics.  Whilst a functioning team can reap many benefits, bad team dynamics and composition can just as much be a hinderance. Labs can facilitate this through training and support on team building.

However, recognising that the skills required to conduct research or develop an innovation may be different to those needed to scale an idea, a potential challenge for the future might be around how to create fluid teams. How will this work in practice? For example, what does it mean in terms of ownership and intellectual property?

In conclusion, the key learning identified in this blog is that ‘having the right innovators is as important as, or perhaps more important, than having the right idea’. This is relevant and has implications for other innovation initiatives, particularly in terms of:

(1) Their process/criteria for selecting ideas/innovators 

(2) The structure and content of their support  

(3) How they facilitate team building

It also questioned whether the programme’s design is compatible with supporting ‘grassroot’ communities to innovator. Whilst was not an explicit aim of this programme, DEPP labs have learnt that supporting this type of innovator requires careful consideration of the programme design, in terms of timeframe, format and content. 

Look out for the second blog in this three-part series to learn more.