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The innovation conundrum

When I started out trying to understand the complexities of international development well over 15 years ago, one thing struck me. The trick, I was often told, to increase chances of funding was to apply a liberal sprinkling of the words gender, scalable or sustainable into any project proposal. Donors apparently liked those words, however they were used.

I’m beginning to wonder if the same thing is happening today with the word innovation.

For organisations seeking to deploy technologies to put right social wrongs, innovation is the hottest date in town. If the solutions themselves are not described as “innovative” then often the organisations behind them are. Innovation hubs have sprung up across the developed and the developing world, seeking to create the perfect environment for innovation. There are books galore extolling the virtues of innovation in three, four or five steps, or how we might foster cultures of innovation. If only it were that easy.

Over the past few days I’ve read three separate articles, all of which touch on different aspects of the innovation phenomenon. They’re interesting on their own, and collectively, as examples of the various debates currently taking place. As with all things “development” (which is the hat I wear as I write this) there’s as much discussion about what things mean as there is real-world activity.

Harvard Business Review

On the Harvard Business Review blog, good friend Bright Simons focuses on the cost of innovation, and argues that low-GDP countries and smaller businesses are in danger of falling into an “innovation poverty trap” while their richer counterparts ride off into the distance. Cost may indeed be a barrier, but it would be wrong to assume that if we provided every resource you could possibly wish for that people would suddenly become innovative. Money doesn’t make you innovative, although for innovative individuals and companies it arguably helps. Some bigger companies have fallen from their perch at the height of their success, crucially at a time when they had peak resources available to innovate, including money. Take Nokia as a more recent example. (For more on why big companies fail, see the excellent “Innovators Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen).

Stanford Social Innovation Review

In the Fall 2012 volume of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Christian Seelos and Johanna Mair argue that innovation should not be the holy grail, and that instead “it is time to move from innovation as an ideology to innovation as a process”. In particular, they argue that a relentless focus on innovation as an outcome can undermine an organisation’s appetite for experimentation. This is particularly true when that experimentation may have a high chance of failure:

Although productive innovation does not always translate into desired outcomes or impact, systematic learning and building of a knowledge base about what works and what does not constitutes an important indicator for an organisation’s ability to innovate

Failing to recognise this carries a number of risks:

Glorifying innovation as the solution to social and environmental needs and problems has led to well-intended efforts to increase the population of social innovators and entrepreneurs. This certainly has its merits but it has come with a detriment to investments in established social sector organisations that operate at scale and that create value mainly through incremental improvements

The rampant rate of innovation in the commercial sector has provided risk and opportunity in equal measure for the non-profit world. The ICT4D toolbox is a lot bigger than it was two or three years ago, but as I like to point out in my numerous talks on appropriate technology, many of these new tools don’t yet work in the places where the need is greatest. Donors sometimes fuel the frenzy by their willingness to fund the next big thing, leaving us with ‘innovative’ projects such as “iPads for Africa” (this is one I made up a couple of years ago, but it may now exist in some form). Although these projects may look great in the glossy pages of an annual report, and sound incredibly disruptive, they look less compelling on the ground (where they largely fail).

Organisational Capacity to Innovate

The Rockefeller Foundation recently launched organizational capacity to innovate, a new website based on the findings of ”Learning from Experimentation: Sustaining Innovation to Achieve Impact” (available as a PDF here). They focus on the importance of seeing social innovation as an outcome rather than a tool, and an ongoing process rather than a single moment of inspiration. Two organisations are used as case studies in the report – our very own FrontlineSMS, and Circle of Blue - both seen as good examples of building capacity for continuous innovation through experimentation. The report is particularly interesting because it covers organisational innovation as much as technological innovation. As I’ve written before, organisations themselves need to innovate (business models, organisational structures, funding, leadership, messaging, and so on).

Creative Advantage list over a dozen definitions of “innovation” on their website, and therein lies the problem. We need to be careful we don’t overuse the term to the point of it becoming meaningless, and that when we do we’re clear about what kind of innovation we’re talking about.

Further reading
Since drafting this post, the Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like blog has published a more critical, tongue-in-cheek critique of the development community’s emerging obsession with innovation. You can read their “#182 Innovation Tourette’s” post here.

71 comments

1 Veena Gowda { 11.25.12 at 10:51 am }

The innovation conundrum: When I started out trying to understand the complexities of international development … http://t.co/p9l1iNJ7

2 changefeed { 11.25.12 at 10:51 am }

->@kiwanja: The innovation conundrum http://t.co/6SiLFd5g

3 changefeed { 11.25.12 at 10:51 am }

->@kiwanja: The innovation conundrum http://t.co/6SiLFd5g

4 Ken Banks { 11.25.12 at 10:57 am }

Three takes on "innovation" (and the danger of becoming the hottest date in town). http://t.co/swO51Tbl #development #innovation

5 Marion McNabb { 11.25.12 at 11:16 am }

Three takes on "innovation" (and the danger of becoming the hottest date in town). http://t.co/swO51Tbl #development #innovation

6 Russell Watkins { 11.25.12 at 11:32 am }

Three takes on "innovation" (and the danger of becoming the hottest date in town). http://t.co/swO51Tbl #development #innovation

7 Linda Raftree { 11.25.12 at 1:11 pm }

The innovation conundrum – from @kiwanja http://t.co/v4L495JA

8 Carolyn Florey { 11.25.12 at 1:16 pm }

Three takes on "innovation" (and the danger of becoming the hottest date in town). http://t.co/swO51Tbl #development #innovation

9 Tom Hodge { 11.25.12 at 1:19 pm }

Three takes on "innovation" (and the danger of becoming the hottest date in town). http://t.co/swO51Tbl #development #innovation

10 Hapee de Groot { 11.25.12 at 1:48 pm }

The innovation conundrum http://t.co/jHgb51pZ via @kiwanja on the complexities of international development

11 CharlesMartinShields { 11.25.12 at 1:52 pm }

The innovation conundrum – from @kiwanja http://t.co/v4L495JA

12 Theodoros G Karounos { 11.25.12 at 2:20 pm }

The #innovation conundrum http://t.co/zXvmvR5g

13 DearLadybug { 11.25.12 at 2:46 pm }

The #innovation conundrum http://t.co/zXvmvR5g

14 DearLadybug { 11.25.12 at 2:46 pm }

The #innovation conundrum http://t.co/zXvmvR5g

15 Ritse Erumi { 11.25.12 at 2:48 pm }

The #innovation conundrum by @kiwanja: http://t.co/LQKWwitg #ICT4D

16 Annabelle Simmons { 11.25.12 at 3:33 pm }

Three takes on "innovation" . http://t.co/8jnytZp9 #development #innovation RT @kiwanja

17 Opey Akinlolu { 11.25.12 at 3:41 pm }

The #innovation conundrum by @kiwanja: http://t.co/LQKWwitg #ICT4D

18 giulio quaggiotto { 11.25.12 at 5:22 pm }

After innovation Tourette's http://t.co/kua5Tftj it's the #innovation conundrum for #globaldev orgs http://t.co/kLPlmzVj ht @hapeeg

19 The innovation conundrum | Global Health Hub: news and blogosphere aggregator { 11.25.12 at 6:18 pm }

[...] See the rest here: The innovation conundrum [...]

20 Isabelle Cholette { 11.25.12 at 6:49 pm }

Three takes on "innovation" (and the danger of becoming the hottest date in town). http://t.co/swO51Tbl #development #innovation

21 Victor d'Allant { 11.25.12 at 7:03 pm }

Three takes on #innovation, and the danger of becoming the hottest date in town ~ @kiwanja http://t.co/Rm4R4GGS @SSIReview @HarvardBiz

22 Raymond June { 11.25.12 at 7:21 pm }

The Innovation Conundrum: http://t.co/af5EeaFe

23 Paul Ellingstad { 11.25.12 at 8:12 pm }

Three takes on #innovation, and the danger of becoming the hottest date in town ~ @kiwanja http://t.co/Rm4R4GGS @SSIReview @HarvardBiz

24 Kagiso { 11.25.12 at 8:58 pm }

RT @meowtree @kiwanja http://t.co/ORXvNvOu on the pressures to comply in the pursuit for innovation, especially on "finding the right words"

25 UNDP-CDG { 11.25.12 at 9:45 pm }

After innovation Tourette's http://t.co/kua5Tftj it's the #innovation conundrum for #globaldev orgs http://t.co/kLPlmzVj ht @hapeeg

26 Ifoda Abdurazakova { 11.26.12 at 4:48 am }

RT @TopsyRT: The innovation conundrum http://t.co/AF4s4jwo

27 Fabrizio Andreuzzi { 11.26.12 at 5:15 am }

After innovation Tourette's http://t.co/kua5Tftj it's the #innovation conundrum for #globaldev orgs http://t.co/kLPlmzVj ht @hapeeg

28 laylo.fotikh { 11.26.12 at 7:47 am }

#learning & building a #knowledge base on what works & doesn't is important for an organisation’s ability to #innovate http://t.co/dvADG6tN

29 UNDP Uzbekistan { 11.26.12 at 7:48 am }

#learning & building a #knowledge base on what works & doesn't is important for an organisation’s ability to #innovate http://t.co/dvADG6tN

30 Jessica L Lucas { 11.26.12 at 9:00 am }

The innovation conundrum: is 'innovation' the new 'gender'? http://t.co/wKoIl4Us

31 Ken Banks { 11.26.12 at 9:46 am }

"It's time to move from innovation as an ideology to innovation as a process". Three takes: http://t.co/swO51Tbl

32 RajilVEMBE { 11.26.12 at 9:47 am }

"It's time to move from innovation as an ideology to innovation as a process". Three takes: http://t.co/swO51Tbl

33 Aricent Group { 11.26.12 at 9:50 am }

#Innovation – from a mere ideology to actual process | The Innovation Conundrum. RT: @kiwanja http://t.co/umadajPG

34 HURIDOCS { 11.26.12 at 10:51 am }

Can there be too much innovation? Too much use of the word, at least, says @kiwanja in interesting blog post: http://t.co/AKzZWL2P

35 Sekitarkita { 11.26.12 at 11:17 am }

Can there be too much innovation? Too much use of the word, at least, says @kiwanja in interesting blog post: http://t.co/AKzZWL2P

36 Ken Banks { 11.26.12 at 1:58 pm }

Three takes on "innovation" (and the danger of becoming the hottest date in town). http://t.co/swO51Tbl #development #innovation

37 Joshua D. Johnson { 11.26.12 at 1:59 pm }

"It's time to move from innovation as an ideology to innovation as a process". Three takes: http://t.co/swO51Tbl

38 Solar Sister { 11.26.12 at 2:09 pm }

RT @kiwanja 3 takes on "innovation" (and the danger of becoming the hottest date in town). http://t.co/GOyvBFUO #development #innovation

39 jedibfa { 11.26.12 at 2:13 pm }

"It's time to move from innovation as an ideology to innovation as a process". Three takes: http://t.co/swO51Tbl

40 Ian Thorpe { 11.26.12 at 3:10 pm }

The innovation conundrum – great piece on the innovation trend from @kiwanja http://t.co/VSXxF3sQ

41 Tom Bollyky { 11.26.12 at 3:12 pm }

The innovation conundrum – great piece on the innovation trend from @kiwanja http://t.co/VSXxF3sQ

42 Samuel Loewenberg { 11.26.12 at 3:28 pm }

The innovation conundrum – great piece on the innovation trend from @kiwanja http://t.co/VSXxF3sQ

43 Chris Diehl { 11.26.12 at 3:42 pm }

"It's time to move from innovation as an ideology to innovation as a process". Three takes: http://t.co/swO51Tbl

44 TechChange { 11.26.12 at 5:03 pm }

So many good posts over the weekend! Here's a must read from @Kiwanja- The innovation conundrum http://t.co/d54BkRGo #SocInn

45 The Amani Institute { 11.26.12 at 5:06 pm }

RT @TechChange: So many good posts over the weekend! Here's a must read from @Kiwanja- The innovation conundrum http://t.co/58qgyLZy #SocInn

46 Cindy Bailie { 11.26.12 at 5:44 pm }

So many good posts over the weekend! Here's a must read from @Kiwanja- The innovation conundrum http://t.co/d54BkRGo #SocInn

47 Susan Shiroma { 11.26.12 at 6:00 pm }

RT @kiwanja: Three takes on "innovation" (and danger of becoming hottest date in town). http://t.co/j1l3uoRH #development #innovation

48 Ken Banks { 11.26.12 at 7:42 pm }

Thinking of calling your organisation or project 'innovative'? You might want to think again. http://t.co/swO51Tbl #socent

49 Dominic Campbell { 11.26.12 at 7:56 pm }

RT @kiwanja: Thinking of calling your organisation or project 'innovative'? You might want to think again. http://t.co/Cl6Y0BqU < v good!

50 Sarah Pseudonym { 11.26.12 at 8:06 pm }

Thinking of calling your organisation or project 'innovative'? You might want to think again. http://t.co/swO51Tbl #socent

51 sarahlay { 11.26.12 at 8:11 pm }

RT @kiwanja: Thinking of calling your organisation or project 'innovative'? You might want to think again. http://t.co/Cl6Y0BqU < v good!

52 Adam Bye { 11.26.12 at 8:13 pm }

Interesting MT @kiwanja: Thinking of calling your organisation 'innovative'? Think again. http://t.co/uRDDWyhJ (HT @dominiccampbell)

53 Karen Melchior { 11.26.12 at 8:16 pm }

Interesting MT @kiwanja: Thinking of calling your organisation 'innovative'? Think again. http://t.co/uRDDWyhJ (HT @dominiccampbell)

54 Shirley Ayres { 11.26.12 at 8:19 pm }

Thinking of calling your organisation or project 'innovative'? The innovation conundrum! @kiwanja http://t.co/8T33lwQJ HT @dominiccampbell

55 Susan Mackay { 11.26.12 at 8:19 pm }

RT @kiwanja: Thinking of calling your organisation or project 'innovative'? You might want to think again. http://t.co/Cl6Y0BqU < v good!

56 April Burbank { 11.26.12 at 8:42 pm }

RT @kiwanja: Thinking of calling your organisation or project 'innovative'? You might want to think again. http://t.co/pNcqAoAk #SocEnt

57 Rich Speight { 11.26.12 at 8:48 pm }

Thinking of calling your organisation or project 'innovative'? The innovation conundrum! @kiwanja http://t.co/8T33lwQJ HT @dominiccampbell

58 Annelies de Bruine { 11.26.12 at 8:58 pm }

Thinking of calling your organisation or project 'innovative'? You might want to think again. http://t.co/swO51Tbl #socent

59 Andrew Sherry { 11.26.12 at 9:27 pm }

Can innovation be the enemy of experimentation? http://t.co/AGtfcTre

60 Alexandra Telluselle { 11.26.12 at 9:33 pm }

Sometimes buzzwords kill the substance, if there is any. “@andysherry: Can innovation be the enemy of experimentation? http://t.co/7GXZAgxs”

61 Adam Gent { 11.26.12 at 9:54 pm }

RT @TopsyRT: The innovation conundrum http://t.co/EZcGr5RA

62 Martin Tisne { 11.27.12 at 2:11 pm }

RT @TopsyRT: The innovation conundrum http://t.co/7sA31wGD

63 James Neal { 11.27.12 at 3:14 pm }

"The innovation conundrum" – via @kiwanja … http://t.co/dLNIkeJm

64 David Okwii { 11.27.12 at 4:50 pm }

"Money doesn’t make you
innovative, although for innovative
individuals and companies it arguably
helps." http://t.co/a1HfynzK

65 mobileYouth Data { 11.28.12 at 12:01 am }

It's time we stop thinking of innovation as an ideology and treate it like a process that involves real people http://t.co/t5gRwcQA

66 jon camfield { 11.28.12 at 2:00 am }

#JonTag The innovation conundrum | Kiwanja http://t.co/HnBJ4IoA

67 Millie Begovic R. { 11.28.12 at 12:10 pm }

Nice sum up of few recent debates on #innovation: Innovation conundrum http://t.co/nZR7NsfH by @kiwanja

68 Ken Banks { 11.28.12 at 1:28 pm }

Interesting way of framing the question. R/T @andysherry Can innovation be the enemy of experimentation? http://t.co/vJRtccma

69 Rolf Wijnstra { 11.28.12 at 9:18 pm }

@RolfWijnstra @VanStokkom En nog meer over innovatie…
http://t.co/2wRK1jGy

70 Susannah Hares { 11.30.12 at 6:10 am }

Innovation: the hottest date in town. The most overused word in #globaldev? Brilliant by @kiwanja http://t.co/PQGYoLSM

71 Peter Holt { 12.03.12 at 9:40 am }

The innovation conundrum | Build it Kenny, and they will come… http://t.co/CTJXyddm

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