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DAI’s Newest Collaboration: The Innovation into Action Challenge

Innovation has been a core DAI principle since our founding 45 years ago. The firm’s very name, Development Alternatives, speaks to the company’s fundamental aspiration to provide customers with solutions that push the boundaries of the discipline. At DAI, we define innovation as the combination of products, services, processes, and business models that collectively create a new growth trajectory for the company. For DAI, innovation must yield value.

Developments sat down with Jean Gilson, Senior Vice President, Strategy and Information Technology Group, and asked her why innovation still matters and how DAI’s new Innovation into Action Challenge aims to take innovation where it matters: the field.

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Why is innovation important to a company like DAI?

Today, no company can remain static and expect to win. The extent to which we meet the imperative to innovate will determine our ability to shape a more livable world, serve our clients, and offer an exciting work environment for staff.

The international development market is changing. Our customers are buying services in new ways. They are looking increasingly at “productized” solutions to development problems. And new customers are emerging as developing countries put domestically mobilized resources to use locally.

At the same time, our traditional market for integrated projects is not disappearing—just flattening and changing. It is no longer reasonable to expect that our tried and tested recipe (talented professionals taking the right technical approach, backed by project management expertise and a proven business model) will work for all customers. To reach new verticals DAI must adjust.

What exactly is your role in innovation at DAI?

My job at DAI is to guide our strategic planning. A few years ago, as part of our annual planning process, we asked ourselves hard questions:

  • What will disruption look like in the development industry?
  • In the next five years, what innovations could change the way development programs are delivered; for example in products, services, business models, process improvements?
  • How do we identify and interact with innovators?
  • How do we build stronger bridges to innovation?

Our first step was to define the problem. New ideas on how to do our work more efficiently, achieve better development results, and launch new products surface every day. How do we capture and harness that natural entrepreneurial spirit?

What steps did you next take to promote innovation?

First, we looked internally. In 2014, we conducted a company-wide innovation challenge that virtually connected DAI’s 150 projects and 2,500 staff around the topic of innovation, prompting staff to think differently about what they are doing. Finalists for the award included an approach to charting climate change risk on virtual maps, a social entrepreneurship model, and an open source platform that made educational information available throughout Pakistan.

In addition to program design, project leaders and teams cited several conditions that support innovative thinking including collaboration, willingness to take risk, supportive leaders and clients, and the importance of sharing information via networks.

In 2015, we launched the DAI Ops Challenge, an awards program that calls all DAI employees to submit suggestions for making us more efficient and effective. Every month, we select the most impactful ideas, the winners receive awards, and DAI commits to implementing their suggestions—quickly. For the most intractable problems, we crowdsource solutions, enabling employees to build off ideas posted on our intranet.

What’s the plan for 2016?

This year we are pivoting to address external innovation. The Innovation into Action Challenge is designed to support innovations with the potential to make a difference in the lives of people in emerging and transitioning nations.

What distinguishes this innovation challenge from the crowd is its emphasis on moving development innovators up the ladder that leads from concept or prototype to application and potentially commercialization in real-world settings, with real-world partners.

Why look outside the company?

First, building bridges to external innovation is becoming common practice. Coca Cola, Barclays Bank, Nike, Disney, and Walmart have all launched innovation accelerators over the past two years.

We recognize that we don’t just need to know about these innovations—we need to connect with the innovators. The Challenge will connect DAI in a concrete way to networks new and old, and potentially to people we have never thought of as development partners.

Establishing such networks will create mutually beneficial commercial relationships with local and international organizations that also infuse new technology, technical skills, and talent into DAI.

Implementing the Innovation into Action Challenge in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development, Montgomery County, Maryland, and the Global Accelerator Network will also strengthen the international development industry ecosystem while contributing to new ideas on how development solutions are delivered and funded.

What does DAI expect to get out of this exercise?

Forging stronger links to innovation outside our company will help us do development better.

We expect to benefit from a range of new perspectives on the problems of development, which we hope will help us devise more forward-leaning technical approaches—at a cost that is lower than developing these products and services in-house.

We also look forward to less tangible benefits, such as shifted mindsets, modified behaviors, and enhanced capabilities that over time will enable our people to recognize, act on, and generate value from innovative ideas.