International development donors are increasingly asking their partners for more than just “good development.” Inspired in part by the example of the information and communications technology sector, they want new thinking and better approaches to address global poverty, poor governance, climate change, environmental degradation, and inadequate health care. They want solutions that are transformative (vs. incremental), scalable, more efficient, and cost-effective. They want, in a word, innovation.
Innovation has been one of DAI’s core principles since its founding 45 years ago. The firm’s very name, Development Alternatives, speaks to the company’s fundamental promise to provide customers with solutions that push the boundaries of the discipline. No surprise, then, that DAI saw its clients’ intense emphasis on innovation as a mandate to question our own assumptions and confirm that we are channeling long-held innovative impulses in ways appropriate for development in the 21st century.
DAI launched the “Innovation Challenge” in June 2014 as one of several corporate initiatives to promote innovation. The idea was to engage all DAI staff in a company-wide competition to recognize and reward creative problem-solving. The Challenge was modeled in part after one of DAI’s U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) projects, Grand Challenges for Development, which uses social media and creative advertising campaigns to reach—and source ideas from—nontraditional partners. Grand Challenges has shown it is possible to harness fresh ideas from a wide array of creative sources. Challenge organizers wanted to apply this same thinking to identify, capture, and share the innovative work taking place on DAI’s projects.
In addition to the competition, the Challenge included awareness-building events from June through October, concluding with an “Innovation Week” that featured outside speakers and panels, technology demonstrations, presentations by the five finalists, and selection of one project’s submission as “Innovation of the Year.”
While the primary purpose of the Challenge was to spur projects to share those aspects of their work they considered innovative, organizers had several other objectives:
- Virtually connect DAI’s 150 projects and 2,500 staff around the topic of innovation, prompting staff to think differently about what they are doing. In the past, DAI used periodic staff conferences to bring representatives from the projects together to share knowledge and experiences, but these have become harder to execute as DAI has grown. The Challenge provided an opportunity to explore the use of technology rather than face-to-face interactions to achieve some of the benefits of these meetings.
- Enable projects to look at their activities through a different lens. Instead of focusing exclusively on client-driven results, project staff were asked to share examples that they thought exceeded expectations and to highlight what made the approach better, more impactful, or more cost-effective than a traditional approach.
- Reaffirm the value of a strong technical focus. In a fast-paced, deliverable-driven environment, the Challenge sought to test whether it is possible to create more room for technical reflections and discussion between projects, the field and home offices, and DAI and its clients.
- Contribute to the company’s knowledge base. Knowledge management poses an ongoing challenge for companies like DAI, with projects, staff, and clients spread across every time zone.
Great Response, Valuable Lessons
By every measure, the Innovation Challenge was a success. The quantity and quality of submissions exceeded expectations in all three phases of the process. The phase 1 “call for proposals” generated 92 submissions from 53 projects. In phase 2, 15 semi-finalists were asked to submit videos showcasing their innovations. Many of the videos were of high quality, and all 15 can be used without further editing as education tools for clients and counterparts. In phase 3, five finalists were selected to travel to Washington, D.C., to present their innovations to an outside panel.
The five finalists were the:
Ultimately, the Transforming Education in Pakistan (TEP) project was judged by the external panel to be the overall winner, on the basis of the open-source data platform it created to make education data equally available to all Pakistanis.
The Challenge provided valuable insights into how project teams view their work, how innovation happens at the project level, and how challenges may be used to spur and surface innovation and learning:
Project teams want to innovate, and they want to have impact. All of the applications reflected a desire to make a difference beyond the metrics specified by the client. Any suspicion that project teams are too burdened by the day-to-day business of contract deliverables or regulatory compliance to take on “extracurricular” technical work was belied by the enthusiasm of the teams and the quality of their entries. Each submission demonstrated an interest in taking the project scope to a higher level—by using new approaches to solve development problems more effectively or to achieve results more efficiently, more broadly, and/or more sustainably.
Projects value being part of a larger entity or network. The conventional wisdom is that development projects revel in the relative autonomy afforded by their far-flung locations, but the Challenge revealed a hunger on the part of project teams to be more connected to a central entity and to their “sister” field projects. Project staff want to share what they are learning and accomplishing and to be recognized for it. Flouran Wali, Business Development and Gender Advisor on the Agricultural Credit Enhancement project in Afghanistan, stated that one of her team’s goals in participating in the Challenge was to share tools—such as “Zahra,” the Sharia-compliant loan program specifically designed for women farmers and entrepreneurs—with other projects operating in Muslim countries. She also hoped that local staff could participate in the transfer process, thereby providing them with additional opportunities for growth.
IT, while not synonymous with innovation, is ubiquitous. More than a third of the submissions used technology to extend reach, increase impact, or simplify process. Projects used a wide variety of social media (Tunisia Transition Initiative, Grand Challenges, Ilm Ideas), web-based systems (Polish Sustainable Energy Financing Facility, TEP, and Ilm Ideas), mobile applications (AgLinks Plus, Kenya Financial Inclusion for Rural Microenterprises, Indonesia Urban Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene), and GIS applications (C-CAP, Proparque, Mekong Adaptation and Resilience to Climate Change). TEP, the overall winner, won for developing an open-source online data clearinghouse.
The words “challenge” and “competition” spur action. In a fast-paced, deadline-driven environment where the actual work is geographically dispersed, traditional information requests often generate little response. The Challenge, however, prompted an enormous response, dispelling the myth that project teams are too stretched to engage in broader corporate initiatives. In follow-on discussions, project teams said the opportunity to participate in a company-wide competition was what led them to engage. Local staff read the applications submitted by other projects to learn what their fellow projects considered innovative and how they presented their ideas. Project leaders are encouraging DAI to continue using such tactics to engage projects and elicit new thinking.
Outreach is critical to success. Communications played an essential role in the success of the competition. Challenge organizers used social media, DAI’s intranet, email, videos uploaded to YouTube, and monthly newsletters to reach as many field and corporate staff as possible, and they did so with a sense of fun while playing to the competitive proclivities of their audience. This advertising worked. Based on feedback from finalists and other participants, the Challenge achieved its goal of connecting and energizing staff around a common purpose. Communications also played a critical role in many of the innovations themselves, most of which included investments in public education, outreach, and marketing. None of the innovations was a standalone tool that could be simply slipped into place; all required sustained effort to build understanding, acceptance, and demand.
Institutionalizing innovation remains a challenge. DAI’s Challenge succeeded in generating interest in innovation across the company, but, to date, there has been little broader uptake of the innovations submitted. In the long term, the success of the Challenge will depend on the extent to which the company incorporates tools and approaches surfaced through the Challenge in its proposal and project work, and more generally on the degree to which it institutionalizes innovative thinking. Ongoing investment and sustained leadership will be required to capitalize on the energy generated by the Challenge.
What We Learned About Innovation
Several of the innovations represented approaches that could justifiably be called transformative. The winner—TEP—is using its data platform to mobilize action on a national scale to address the education crisis in Pakistan. Other projects, such as Proparque—which transformed Honduras’s approach for designating and managing protected areas, with a particular focus on indigenous people—and C-CAP—which devised a GoogleMaps-based tool that communities and local governments spread across nine countries and 7.8 million square miles can use to assess climate change risks—have changed the way governments and communities look at and address these problems. Results for many of the submissions can be characterized as substantial, scalable, and cost-effective.
Interviews with participating project teams provided insights on what led them to try new approaches. Often it was the challenge of meeting ambitious project targets with limited resources or overcoming a significant technical barrier to accomplishing a given scope of work. For example, TEP could not advance its advocacy agenda unless it figured out a way to neutralize the widespread disagreement about the size and nature of Pakistan’s education problem.
Other innovations focused on finding more efficient ways to implement a scope of work. For example, FoodTradeESA developed its online grants application system to improve both the efficiency and transparency of its grant making. The project team combined a new idea (real-time grant applications) with an existing technology platform (DAI’s internal project management software, TAMIS) to streamline one of the most common field activities—the grant application process.
Project design is an important factor in stimulating innovation. Design principles differ across donors: certain donors issue contracts with fairly prescriptive work statements; others issue more open-ended, results-based scopes that provide more latitude for the successful bidder to adjust its approach based on conditions on the ground post-award. Feedback from project teams indicated that contracts issued by European donors, such as DFID and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, provide more leeway for modifying approaches in this manner.
European donors often let contracts in two phases: an inception phase and an implementation phase. The inception phase ranges in length from a few months to a year and gives the awardee time to adjust the scope of work to fit current conditions and counterpart needs in-country. Awardees that fail to deliver a compelling approach at the end of the inception phase are not likely to win the implementation phase. USAID, on the other hand, requires awardees to begin work immediately, after a brief period provided for mobilization. While USAID contracts provide a 30- to 90-day workplanning period, project teams report that the workplan is more of a contractual requirement than an opportunity to rethink the approach according to prevailing conditions. On the other hand, budgets on USAID projects provide more latitude for adjusting activities during implementation, while DFID project budgets tend to be more constraining. All donors require projects to report on metrics of progress, but while measuring progress is important, the number of metrics and an over-emphasis on detailed, frequent reporting can constrain innovation.
In addition to program design, project leaders and teams cited several conditions that support innovative thinking. While not all of these factors need be in place, some combination will likely be necessary for innovation to flourish:
- Desire to achieve broader, lasting impact. All project teams interviewed expressed a commitment to making a difference beyond merely delivering on the contract.
- Strong leadership. The project leader must understand the client’s objectives and empower his or her team to think about best options rather than minimum requirements.
- Supportive client. Clients must be open to allowing project teams to try something different. Trust must be established for clients to allow longer lead times and live with less certainty that an approach will deliver as anticipated.
- Willingness to take risks. Leaders—on the project and client side—must be willing to take risks and embrace new thinking.
- Drivers. Challenging targets, limited budgets, tight timeframes, high-risk environments, and the imperative to demonstrate value for money or exceed targets all spur teams to come up with better ways to achieve results.
DAI’s Innovation Challenge provided a unique opportunity to build awareness and engage staff around a topic that will increasingly shape the way the company does its work. The Challenge also provided an opportunity for DAI to learn more about what drives innovation in the field. It surfaced examples of work that can immediately enhance the company’s marketing, proposal, and project delivery efforts. And it helped create a platform that DAI can build on to push its staff and projects to continue to explore new approaches. Staff appreciated the opportunity to engage in an activity larger than their projects and to examine their accomplishments through a different lens. They are energized and look forward to further opportunities to learn, collaborate, and innovate. The challenge now is to use this energy to create an even stronger, more vibrant, and more productive culture of innovation at DAI.