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Innovation Insurgents

There’s an old joke that asks how many psychologists it takes to change a lightbulb and posits that it doesn’t matter until the light bulb wants to change. Behind the humor is a truth that applies as much to electrical fixtures as it does to people and organizations. And it is particularly relevant to the field of international development and humanitarian aid, a sector undergoing a period of uncertainty, upheaval, and a growing appetite for more adaptive, collaborative approaches.

One of the significant shifts we’ve witnessed in international development over the past decade is an evolution away from linear ‘big design up-front’ five-year plans toward more complexity-aware and adaptive management approaches that acknowledge that our work is complex and unpredictable and requires agile thinking. The World Bank’s “Doing Development Differently;” the UK Department for International Development (DFID)’s “What Good Looks Like” initiative; and the Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) approach at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) are all promising products of this evolution.

The USAID LEARN team, which I led from late 2014 until October 2018, supports a dynamic team at USAID to socialize this CLA approach across its global missions. The program is an example of a leading US government agency investing in the resources to support a more systematic and intentional approach to organizational learning and change management. The Agency had been moving in this direction for some time when I joined, but principles of intentional, systematic, and resourced approaches to adaptive management had only recently been included in the Agency’s guidance to missions about how to implement their work. At that time, there was limited clarity about what it meant or where or how it was being done. The Agency can now point to specific examples from more than 60 offices worldwide that are using these techniques for strategic collaboration, continuous learning, and adaptive management.

Lest you think USAID LEARN is taking credit for this impressive adoption trajectory, allow me to return to my opening thesis: true organizational change – no matter how much it is written into policy and guidance – will never be sustainable unless the individuals who make up the organization truly want to change. The positive shifts we are seeing toward adaptive management behaviors at USAID are because of hundreds of advocates across its offices worldwide who are adopting these new approaches as part of their work because they see that they will help them do their jobs better. They are known as “CLA champions.”

Through USAID LEARN’s engagement with these champions, it has become abundantly clear that while the tools, resources, cases, and facilitation we provide are all important and necessary, they are not sufficient to create lasting change. What has really led these champions to adopt and integrate adaptive management into their work is the nature of today’s changing, challenging, and complex development contexts. Let me share with you a few examples of these ideas being put into action.

  • The Agency’s office in Senegal used its Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) results as an opportunity to pause and reflect on the mission’s culture. The mission then used the survey to establish five internal management priorities for the upcoming year, including building organizational resilience. While this may seem natural, I’d encourage you to reflect for a moment on what it takes in terms of time, leadership, and prioritization to set aside specific time and effort to intentionally work on the softer side of operations, such as strengthening organizational culture.
  • When an Agency-funded business reform project in Tunisia didn’t seem to be hitting its job-creation targets for youth, staff and partners worked together to examine programmatic data in real time and implement a series of adaptations that addressed the root of the country’s unemployment crisis. This required candor on the part of the partner and the Agency’s support of a significant shift in the project’s focus. Being open to revisiting assumptions and targets, and to the idea that the initial plan might need to change, requires a level of flexibility and organizational maturity that can be the difference between long-term survival and obsolescence.
  • In October and November of 2017, DFID, the UK counterpart to USAID, convened multi- stakeholder workshops to discuss what other funders, partners, and implementers are doing to mainstream and scale up learning behaviors. Based on the resulting energy and engagement, the Department’s learning team successfully made the case for continued resourcing of its own internal learning efforts. Further, the Department is now prioritizing efforts in its own work and has expressed interest in co-creating a global alliance of donors committed to learning for improved impact.

The examples above all reinforce the point noted so glibly above; namely, that the ability to effect change requires a desire to change, not just the capacity to make change happen. Psychologists and electricians alike will tell us that to maintain that change, there needs to be a steady and positive flow of energy to support that change. The source of this energy in organizations like USAID is the community of advocates who are adopting strategic collaboration, continuous learning, and adaptive management practices every day to improve the effectiveness of their work.

Internal advocates tell us that they realize that the organization’s tools, resources, and approaches help them be more effective, strategic, collaborative, and flexible in ways that are essential in today’s development environment. In a world where we are all being asked to be more efficient, accountable, effective, and adaptable; a time when the goal is to support the self-reliance of our stakeholders, beneficiaries, and partners; and a time when the only way to get anything done is through effective and strategic collaboration, continuous learning, and adaptive management, it is becoming abundantly clear that we need to address these challenges with a structured approach. The lightbulb wants to change, and change is coming through internal champions—the innovation insurgents—one person at a time.

Piers Bocock is the former Chief of Party for USAID’s Knowledge Management and Learning (LEARN) contract, implemented by Dexis.

The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Agency for International Development or the United States Government.