Image ©UNHCR/David Azia

Beyond the Fellowship: Why innovation starts with the right mindset

As Simeneh Gebeyehu looked around the table at his colleagues, he had no idea how they were going to deliver water to the thousands of refugees in Tongo refugee camp who were facing a critical shortage. He saw no options. But Gebeyehu had recently completed an Innovation Fellowship. He knew there had to be a way. “I will never forget the challenge I faced on that day,” says Gebeyehu, an Assistant WASH Officer in Assosa, Ethiopia. “Had I not participated in the Fellowship in 2016 I wouldn’t have responded in the way I did.”

Gebeyehu had learned a process that starts with identifying a problem, generating and prioritizing ideas, prototyping then iterating and collecting feedback, and eventually implementing them. During his Fellowship, he’d created a briquette-making project that turned camp waste into energy-dense briquettes for use as fuel, which helped to waste management, and can create a strong bond between host and refugee communities while living together, and furthermore, the operation is on the way to saving thousands of dollars each month. Using the same approach, he took a plan to construct latrines for 15 households and turned it into one that delivered 882 slabs where refugees participated in constructing their own full latrines.

His colleagues were on the same page. They’d participated in an innovation workshop that gave them the basics of this new kind of thinking and problem-solving.  At the same time, it is extremely important to launch innovation workshops for refugees and host community members so that they can be innovative in solving their problems by their own. So together they turned their attention to the water shortage at Tongo. Gebeyehu came up with several ideas on his own and management backed one: the idea of installing piping and generator-powered pumps. It was successful, and refugees got water.

“We managed to mainstream innovation,” Gebeyehu says. “Our operation is now fully mainstreamed with the innovation approach and I can already tell you the success of the coming year will be due to that.”

There are so many problems to solve in the world of refugee assistance, from massive geopolitical challenges to frustrating individual obstacles. UNHCR Innovation Fellows identify one and find ways to address it. But beyond their focus on implementing a project is something bigger: the adoption of a new process. And even bigger, a change in UNHCR’s very culture.

“In order to get sustainable innovations and make the organization better, you do need to focus on mindset and culture. Organizational culture is not something to be dealt with when everything else is done, but it is a foundation of everything. It is about how organization’s people interact and work,” says Emilia Saarelainen, Innovation Fellowship Program Manager.

“The mindset UNHCR Innovation is trying to foster is challenging assumptions, changing perspective, the value of collaboration and openness for failure and risk taking. It’s one that leads staff to question if there is a better way of working, of communicating, of thinking.

“Innovation mindset is not rocket science- in theory at least,” says Saarelainen. “It’s about looking outside and seeing what’s out there, experimenting and trying things out, working together with others and continuous learning. You need people with passion and willingness to change.”

For Fellows, the Innovation Fellowship is just the first step.

“The project is important, but… But even more importantly…the process Fellows go through is an opportunity to try out new things without a fear of failing, and engage more people in their innovation activities,” says Saarelainen.

Spreading the innovative approach

Alpha Amadou Diallo, an Administration/Finance Officer in Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire was not in a position that would typically innovate around protection issues. But what he learned during his Fellowship gave him the confidence and the passion for contributing to the problem of responding to the needs of stateless people.

“At the end of the day, I learned hands-on what human-centered design is and I think I can better embed it in everything I do,” says Alpha. Alpha put his skills and knowledge from the Fellowship to work in tackling the lack of an organized and responsive referral system for stateless people. “In my day-to-day work, I try to take this innovative approach: never guessing what people want but asking them, and then truly taking what they say into account.”

With help from the Innovation Service, Alpha brought what he learned during his Fellowship back to his colleagues. And they listened.

Faced with an outdated inventory system, Alpha suggested to the operation’s IT Officer that he come up with a creative solution to manage low-value items. Alpha was impressed when the staff member went to stakeholders and asked what issues they were having and developed an application that allowed them to manage low-value items. “When he came up with it I asked him what process he followed, and it was exactly what he had learned at the workshop,” says Alpha. “And he wasn’t even there as a participant! He was there to help us with IT and the computers…But this guy understood that the first step is understanding the needs of the people you’re trying to find a solution for.”

Fellows are expected to engage people back at their operations and share what they’ve learned about approaching problems and addressing them. But the Fellowship does not dictate how they should do so.

“We don’t talk a lot about the cultural or organizational change itself,” Saarelainen says. “We do talk about innovation and the elements of it, such as the role of end-users and experimentation and why they are so important and a crucial part of innovation.  Initially, we walk through the process, and then by actually going through the innovation methodology and implementing this, they hopefully recognize the value of it as a tool.”

Alpha certainly took the message to heart. He calls the Innovation Fellowship and the follow-on work “a journey of improvement.” And he sees it as a journey to be taken with others. He organized a workshop to train all of his project’s stakeholders on innovative approaches they could take forward in creating the referral program for stateless people in Cote d’Ivoire. And it worked. Coworkers in the operation have already used the innovation process Alpha showed them to identify innovative solutions to problems that had previously needled them.

As an Administration and Finance Officer, Alpha is not in a position that would traditionally have a leading role in transforming protection systems. But as UNHCR culture evolves to value and propagate innovation, job titles may have no bearing on who can bring new ideas to the table and galvanize support to make them realities.

Alpha says he feels an obligation to spread the innovation culture, especially as he hands his project over to his colleagues to finalize the plans for data analysis and protection and collaborate with partners to put referral mechanisms in place.

“Now the burden is on my protection colleagues to pursue the project,” he says. “I just laid the foundation for them.”

A senior cadre of innovators

The promising thing about investing in these Innovation Fellows is that one day, they will be in more senior positions and have the opportunity to spread this mindset even further. As the Fellows take on greater and greater management responsibilities and are able to exert more influence in the organization, they will carry with them the skills, tools, and innovative mindset they’ve already begun to develop.

“As I’m growing with UNHCR and gaining more influence, I’m trying to coach my colleagues, teammates, and people I supervise and make them understand that this approach, for me, is more effective,” explains Alpha. He sees his co-Fellows doing the same. They’re all struggling; it isn’t easy in an organization as old as UNHCR to create a cultural change. But the Innovation Fellows seem to agree that although transforming organizational culture is hard, it’s possible.

“I think of myself as part of a new generation of UNHCR managers,” Alpha says. “Slowly but surely as new colleagues are being recruited…we have the opportunity to show them a different arc. To show them from the get-go how things work here and let them know we’re all about change and innovation. We don’t want to stay still. We want to make the most we can with the least.”

A focus on people

Many of the Innovation Service’s contributions come in the form of technology and partnerships, two areas where stagnation can lead to underperformance, inefficiencies, and missed opportunities. Both are critical. But according to Saarelainen, they’re not enough.

“How do you actually create a mindset?” asks Emilia Saarelainen. “If you want innovation you need to focus on people and that’s the very basis of the Fellowship.”

“What is the value of that technology if it’s not really adopted and utilized in the organization?” she asks. “You need the people to have that mindset to first of all look for those technologies or solutions and understand that there is something more outside our organization…(that)…might work in our operating environment as well.”

And if they don’t? The Fellowship aims to instill in participants that failure is okay too.

With this innovation mindset, uncertainty is not something to shy away from, as Antonio Di Muro discovered as he worked on improving internal communications in his Bari, Italy operation.

“An idea can generate other ideas,” Di Muro says. “And being involved in an innovation process also implies accepting the idea of not knowing completely in advance where you are exactly going.”

The willingness to take steps down an unfamiliar path is not yet shared by everyone at UNHCR.

“In general terms, I see there is a lot of interest for innovation in the colleagues directly in the field and a lot of support from high-level management,” Di Muro says. “But at a global level, there is understandably some sort of caution in the middle management since innovating also means the risk of investing in something which, in the end, could fail.”

But through his Fellowship, Di Muro concluded that UNHCR has an obligation to take calculated risks. He has become an advocate for innovation within the humanitarian sector, which has long felt itself cushioned by a lack of competition.

“Beneficiaries of our service do not have the opportunity to choose whether or not to use our service; they are in need of it, sometimes desperately in need,” he says. “However, the mere fact that our beneficiaries are not paying for our services does not mean they don’t deserve the best possible service, and a service capable of adapting to changing needs in a changing world.”

Innovation Fellows like Di Muro are playing a leading role in creating the organizational change that will allow UNHCR to adapt along with it. But he and the others recognize that it will take time.

“The organizational change comes through behavioral change,” Saarelainen says. “And it’s not easy. It’s very slow. It’s also difficult to measure. It’s not often a quick return on investment where you see an immediate result.”

“And,” she says, “it’s needed.”