How do we get better at killing our darlings? Is scale best pursued obliquely? More thoughts on innovation and development

August 6, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Benjamin Kumpf, Policy Specialist for Innovation at UNDP, responds to guest post by James Whitehead published Ben Acumenon 24 June.

I found myself nodding to most of James Whitehead’s reflections. Particularly: ”I want to be working with people who are passionate about solving problems at scale rather than magpies obsessed with finding shiny new innovative solutions.” Yet, something seemed to be missing, and something more needed to be said. Let’s start with the missing piece.

The well-known side of innovation is the creative one. We identify novel ways of doing business, co-create new ideas with the end-users and test them. The flip side of innovation is to discontinue practices for which we do not have sufficient evidence of impact or that are no longer relevant.

Turner TimeraireGeoff Mulgan illustrated this point in a presentation a few years ago with the 1838 Turner painting of ‘The Fighting Temeraire.’ It depicts a battleship towed into harbor by a new steam-powered tug, to be broken up for scrap. It served well in previous wars but with the advent of new technologies, its time has come.

The point here is not about technological progress per se but the readiness and ability to identify what works, what doesn’t and to stop doing what should not be done. A colleague from our team likes to emphasize that “innovation is also about constantly killing your darlings.” Another, somewhat nicer way to say this is: Be Data Driven. This is one of nine principles of innovation for development we endorsed with partners.

Decommissioning beloved ways of working is not easy, including for me. So how can this flip side of innovation be managed? Far from a comprehensive answer, here are two things I’ve learned:

  • Employing the term ‘failure’ is not conducive to reaching our goals in this context. The word remains popular within the innovation community. But in most conversations with colleagues, talking about failure has not driven or motivated staff and managers to openly share what has not worked and what they have learned. Semantics matter in change management. To get to a more agile and transparent way of working and eventually to have a conversation about decommissioning, we promote ‘calculated risk-taking’, ‘course adaptation’ along with the practice of working out loud
  • Start with small initiatives that can be prototyped in a relatively short time frame and that generate evidence of impact without threatening ‘old darlings’. Interventions that compare old with new ways are likely to challenge middle management. Middle management is often described as the “permafrost” of organizations and turning it into ‘the volcanic soil for change’ is not easy. What worked for us: introduce new ways of doing business that generate solid evidence and get support from senior management.

This leads me to the statement in Whitehead’s post that needs clarification: ”I want to be working with people who are passionate about solving problems at scale.” Agreed. I also want to work with the driven ones. But is passion enough? Critical thinking, an interest in political analysis and openness to new experiences are other necessary elements in this mix. This includes the openness to question the dominant notion of scale.

Permanent Beta

Permanent Beta

This notion of scale implies standardization. The assumption that what works in one context can be captured, standardized and transferred to another characterizes too many development innovations, from creative water pumps to countless solar initiatives for rural communities in Africa. The current focus on innovation in development and humanitarian aid might actually do damage with its implicit expectation to find the next big breakthrough that will change the lives of millions. There will be no iPad-esque innovation to end poverty.

The dominant notion of scale underestimates factors such as social norms, power relations between men and women and different social groups and institutions. It also does not adequately take into account the intangible changes that are the result of different actors and organizations developing and testing a new way of working together. Such collaborations are sometimes struggles in the best sense and these struggles can pave the way for longer-term changes. For example, to identify what works to end female-genital mutilation in one community implies taking into account not just the programmatic intervention, but also all the conversations and yes, struggles, within the community, between men and women, opponents and supporters of the practice. This will influence the sustainability of the change and how other social challenges will be addressed in the future. Bypassing such struggles can lead to isomorphic mimicry; institutions and communities adopting ways of working based on an external push without having these practices sufficiently internalized.

James Whitehead writes that “innovation is not the destination, it will occur as the by-product of our combined efforts”. I concur that innovation is a journey, progress in people’s lives is the main destination. But there is a pit stop to that destination: to create the space for constant adaptation in organizations that are predicated upon inflexible multi-year planning instruments, risk aversion and often concepts of scale that promote standardization over adaptation.

Innovation is not likely to be a by-product of our combined efforts if we don’t work on bringing in new ideas and technologies from external sources and introduce design skills to better co-develop solutions with people affected by development challenges. It will not happen if we search for the one big idea.  Innovation for development is about the process, not just the outcome. It is about staying in permanent beta. And innovation will not have the desired effect if we don’t say farewell to some of the old battleships along the way. Let’s start with the dominant notion of scale.


August 6, 2015
Duncan Green