Back to all news and blogs

Innovation lab tools in practice

Blog Post

Becky Thorn on behalf of the rest of the ThoughtWorks team past and present (Kassia Echavarri-Queen, Nag Kandukuru, Dan McClure, Satish Viswanathan)

Tools abound for innovators, projects and businesses, but what about for those who facilitate, manage, fund or coach them? What about if those who are providing support across groups of innovators are new to this work? And what if their new ways of working need to be simple, easy to understand tools which make sense of their complex and changing landscape and not distract them from tackling the problems at hand?

DEPP Innovation Labs have pioneered scalable, sustainable innovation with, by and for disaster-affected communities. Established in Bangladesh, Jordan, Kenya and the Philippines, all disaster-prone countries, the Labs sought to tackle specific challenges identified by communities at risk.

The people who run the ‘humanitarian innovation labs’ come from diverse backgrounds: NGO, architect, doctor, engineer, designer; to name a few we’ve met. The massive challenge they faced was to find and help community-based innovations grow beyond pilots towards not just viable solutions but also viable businesses or fundable programmes. Their additional overarching challenge was to manage a ‘portfolio’ of innovations - much like funders - making decisions on what, who and how to support. Our role was to find and mindfully adapt tools to support the labs' teams get through these unique challenges.

“If the humanitarian sector wants to address the problems it faces with creative innovation, it must help pioneer new innovation tools and resources, instead of simply borrowing what worked in Silicon Valley and other commercial entrepreneurial models.” (Gray, I. et al. (2019) )

In this blog series, we describe 4 tools we adapted for use by the Lab teams: journey map, scaling canvas, portfolio map and lab sustainability models. The first and third being very simple tools used both in social and commercial sectors, the second and fourth being more complex tools created for the humanitarian innovation sector which we adapted for this purpose.

Note we’re talking about tools for a team with a programme or portfolio of innovations or projects. Some of these tools, eg the scaling canvas, were used directly with innovators. The full list of tools used by the Labs with individual innovators was long and were adapted by them for their contexts - for example, human-centred design and business models for crisis and resilience innovations. The labs also developed their own tools and are in the process of publishing them on their web pages for others to use. This is the ideal state - tools which are localised and translated - see for example Mahali lab in Jordan.

Why us? At ThoughtWorks, we work with organisations across sectors and across the Global South (and North) to challenge ways of working and help practitioners adopt new ways to tackle recurrent problems. We were brought into the DEPP Labs programme as innovation partners bringing in our experience supporting enterprises become more innovative who, like Labs, need to make faster funding and support decisions than typical funders; and who need to quickly find financial sustainability.

Lab tools

The Labs wanted to think holistically and intentionally about the innovations they were selecting and supporting - as well as about the process they were using to get there.

Follow the links here to separate blog posts on each tool:

  • Journey map - to document, review and develop the innovation process of the Lab
  • Scaling canvas - to guide innovations through a path to scale
  • Portfolio map - to gain a holistic perspective of a Lab’s innovators against their objectives/ToC and enable a useful conversation on risk vs impact
  • Lab Sustainability Models - an approach to thinking about future lab models

Each of these blogs covers: Why use it? What is it? How we used it. Feedback / our own reflections. Improvements and recommendations. We offer links to decks with more in-depth information which could be copied, adapted and re-used. These are all lo-fi collaborative tools destined for a conversation around a large piece of paper or whiteboard, you don’t need to run these as presentations.

This blog series makes available these tools for wider use as well as giving some insights into how we used and adapted them and some of the feedback we received. Let’s be honest, some have worked, some haven’t as much as we hoped. This isn’t a full evaluation of their effectiveness - so we refer you to the Labs themselves to give their view on usefulness for their contexts. But we also encourage you here to evaluate and adapt them for yourselves. We offer ideas for improvement and in most cases are offering improved versions. But the best version is the one that has been thought about and adapted to the need and context at hand. Over to you!

These tools have origins in the wider ‘agile’, ‘lean’ and ‘design thinking’ movement, they’re not part of a branded methodology, though there are brands who think they have cornered the best version! With the rise of the analogous ‘adaptive management’ movement happening currently across the NGO and donor sectors with ‘adaptive rigour’ approach, MEL4AM, etc., we propose that tools for innovation labs, have use in regular NGO programmes where greater adaptability is required during the course of the programme.

Let’s end with a rule about tools and a few words about evaluating them.

Tool Rule: There should never be "one tool to rule them all". Anywhere a tool is used relentlessly without thought or adaption, it should be burned in the fire!

Or at least evaluated against other tools such as a straightforward conversation. How do I see this sign? Ask yourselves, are we sticking to the confines of a tool over listening to people's concerns about its fit with the current situation? Have we ever adapted the tool?

That said, tools are literally tools of our trade so we still need them, we just need to remember to think about them. Regular discussion about their effectiveness is a good starting point. It can get complex to discuss effectiveness at an organisational level. At ThoughtWorks we have the Tech Radar where we regularly debate the latest tools we’re using and publish the findings. We’ve also established a ‘build your own radar’ workshop and visualisation tool to encourage anyone to evaluate the tools used and available to a team or organisation.

For empirical research on humanitarian innovation tools, have a look at: “More than just luck: innovation in humanitarian action” (A.Obrecht and A.Warner, 2016).

For more tools, why not check out the ELRHA/HIF Humanitarian Innovation Guide launched in June 2019.

Keep reading:

DEPP Innovation Labs DEPP Labs key document

  • by Zofia Piotrowicz