‘What words come to mind when you think of Innovation?’ That was the opening question of the Innovation Workshop on Tuesday November 21st. A silence awaited, and ideas sparked. ‘New’, ‘efficiency’, ‘new uses’, ‘new perspective’, ‘technology’ and ‘increased productivity’ were some of the initial thoughts that came to mind amongst the Oxfam Novib Academy (ONA) Interns.
The Innovation Workshop was given by Saskia Geurtzen, an Innovation Specialist within the Innovation Team at Oxfam Novib (ON). She is responsible for managing the process behind the Innovation Fund and supports teams who have a project from the fund. Saskia kicked off the workshop by giving a theoretical overview of innovation and showed how it is applied in practice within the organization.
The practical exercise on client-based innovation was a fun way to find out what Oxfam Novib employees want to improve about the organisation. It was also a useful reminder that even when someone is very convinced of a great new idea, it’s not necessarily in line with what eventual users really need.” – Miriam, ONA Intern
Innovation can be defined as creating new uses or combinations that breakup with the old ones (Schumpeter, 1942). Innovation within the field of international development is critical due to the rapidly changing environment we live in. Users, or potential project beneficiaries for instance, are the central point of the environment, and these users are changing with the environment
Types of innovation
There are three types of innovation; incremental, radical and disruptive innovation. Incremental innovation is the process of making adaptations that add value to existing services or products. For instance, within Oxfam Novib, incremental innovation takes place in the form of Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning procedures in all projects. Radical innovations bring change that has not been seen before, they are breakthrough initiatives that can change an entire process or organization. A disruptive innovation, on the other hand, is an initiative, such as a project, product or service, that is introduced within a certain industry, to create a new market that delivers services better than already existing initiatives. In this way, these new initiatives disrupt the existing market. As a result of technology, many forms of disruptive innovation ‘get rid of the middle man’.
Applying our knowledge
Following the theoretical overview, Saskia challenged us to apply what we had learned. In groups of three, we had to identify a problem we deemed important within ON. We then had to approach employees within the organization, and ask for their input regarding the identified problem (i.e. if they also consider it a problem, how they would go about addressing it, what is being done to address it, etc.). Once the data was collected each group had to translate this information into a visual proposition canvas (like the one below).
Collaboration within thematic units
The group who presented the canvas above, believed that a current problem within ON is the lack of collaboration and interaction between different thematic units as well as within teams. Each group member was an intern for a different thematic unit; IMK, Financial Flows, and Youth. A representative of these thematic units was asked further questions. The responses gathered were oriented towards ‘improving the collaboration, communication and interaction within thematic units first’.
Each representative had different ideas as to how this could be realized. For instance, the IMK representative proposed the use of SMART-sheets, and the Youth-team representative proposed role-playing each other’s roles as a more fun and informal way of learning from one another. Nonetheless, they believed that although the intentions for change may be there, the incentives to take action are lacking. Therefore, organizing informal, fun, and interactive activities were identified as promising initiatives to get the motor running and eventually foster more collaboration within teams.
The exercise we did taught us the importance of finding solutions for problems people are facing, not just innovating for the sake of it” – Annelin, ONA Intern
Collaboration across teams
Another group of interns identified the challenge of collaboration across different teams within ON. Colleagues recognized that collaboration is critical for acquiring information from other teams that will be relevant for their projects. Through increased collaboration across teams, teams cannot only make thematic contributions, but they can also learn from each other by openly sharing challenges.
This group of interns suggested to have brief collective breakfasts and coffee speed dating to improve collaboration across teams. The group also proposed to have a Brown Bag Lunch series ‘Fail Fast → Succeed Soon’, where team representatives are invited to briefly present their failures. By talking about the failures we’ve experienced amongst teams, we’ll succeed sooner!
‘Cozifying’ the canteen
A third group of interns thought that perhaps ON employees would appreciate a ‘cozier canteen’. As they walked around the office and asked colleagues for feedback regarding the current atmosphere at the canteen, the following remarks were made: colleagues at ON would like to have more furniture, a microwave and a fridge, and less expensive and more varied food options. The main goal would be to create a cozier environment, which could be accomplished with a step-by-step approach. For instance, installing curtains, sofas, a microwave and a fridge, would already make the canteen a more inviting place to have a meal, or meetings between colleagues.
However, we were still left wondering how innovative our ideas really were. So we went back in time to May of 2017, when Saskia first gave the innovation workshop as an intern herself. The same task was assigned, and coincidently the same organizational challenges were identified; Unaware of what some of the proposed solutions were back then, the coincidence is striking. ON employees have expressed the same challenges for six months, yet few changes have been made. This is indicative of the pressing need for actions to be taken, but even more so, the need for innovative solutions.