In our second series highlighting the 2017 Innovation Fellows, we are bringing you insights into ideation and prioritization. Now that the Innovation Fellows have chosen a Challenge – the next step is to understand what already exists and engage others in the ideation process.

When talking about innovation we often think that the concept is something carried out by a lone, crazy inventor in a basement. This is not the typical case: one-person innovations happen rarely; innovation itself is a much more collaborative effort. True innovation thrives when you put together people with different backgrounds and experiences to share their own, unique perspectives. Diversity and true collaboration is a valuable resource for innovation.

Therefore, Innovation Fellows are encouraged to organize and facilitate innovation sessions/workshops in their own offices and involve people with combined expertise. They facilitate idea generation with colleagues, partners, and refugees, with the aim to come up with a variety of ideas/solutions to be tested later. We often fall into the trap of solving problems, in the same way, every time. Therefore, it is important to create and consider as many options and as many different kinds of options as possible. This is not necessarily an easy task. The role of the facilitator can be extremely challenging just because thinking differently is hard.

Innovation Fellows also need to create an environment that is safe for participants to feel comfortable expressing their ideas, even to most ridiculous ones; playful for encouraging wild ideas; and engaging enough to get everyone involved. In the end, Fellows should have dozens, even hundreds of ideas out of which they have prioritized a few to be tested. Gate II is about learning the value of collaboration, facilitation, and looking for and thinking of non-expected solutions.

One of our 2017 Innovation Fellows bring you insights into what they’ve learned during Gate II:

Meet our Innovation Fellow Ambrose (Assistant Protection Officer)

  1. Can you tell us a bit about your Challenge and why you chose it?

My challenge question concerns the process of Refugee Status Determination (RSD) as performed by UNHCR under its international protection mandate, specifically in relation to what can be done to make the process more efficient without violating the minimum procedural standards required. As a challenge that most mandate RSD operations will have considered, I recognize the enormity of the subject matter; but as a former RSD officer with experience in different operational contexts, I believe that approaching the daily techniques and tools employed by individual officers (ie. to collect and analyse relevant information; and presenting assessment clearly and concisely) through the lens of innovation can improve both the quality and efficiency of RSD decision-making in practice.

  1. What was easy and/or challenging in facilitating the ideation with your group?

I found that the easiest part of ideation was actually to start: perhaps because the topic at hand was one that my past colleagues and I have already been periodically discussing, there was already a large store of information relating to good practices and potential (partial) solutions which I could dive into in my research and preparations. The ideation planning required time to structure the different fragments of thoughts in an organized fashion, but there was a general direction and known outcome sought.

It had become apparent to me during the course of Gate 1 that it was most practicable for the purposes of this project to target the innovation process on addressing the particular needs of users from a specific mandate operation – namely the RSD team in my Country Operation.

Although I am currently stationed at a different sub-office to the Country RSD team, I was able to communicate the goals of the innovation project and my requirements for ideation to the target user group through email, Lync and in person (during a mission). The target user group were engaged and motivated for the ideation process with relative ease – greatly helped by the support received from the Representative (a.i.) who not only encouraged participation from the country RSD team, but as a former RSD reviewer was able to himself participate in the process.

However, setting up the ideation session itself was significantly more difficult. I would identify the main challenge as ‘trying to arrange even a single session at a time when everyone in the RSD team was available to participate at the chosen venue’: given the nature of protection work in the Country Office, RSD officers often have to respond to unscheduled urgent issues, at times away from the Office. My initial plan to arrange ideation/lunch sessions on consecutive days during a scheduled mission to the Country Office failed due to scheduling clashes and work commitments. As I was only on mission for that single week, it was not possible to reorganize within the required deadline (in fact, I missed the deadline by a considerable margin!)

Discussing the issue with Emilia, I was introduced to a number of different online collaboration tools to set up ‘remote ideation processes’, including GoogleDocs, IdeaFlip, IdeaBoardz, Stormboard etc… Exploring the range of possibilities was an inspiring experience and I decided to set up an online brainstorming session using Stormboard as it contained the tools that resembled most the kind of session I had wanted to organize. During the preparation, I noted the following:

Ø  Strengths:

  • Free sign-up.
  • Provides a viable option for brainstorming between individuals operating from different parts of the country/world.
  • Straight-forward interface, quite easy to figure out and use. Instant support also available in the form of a messenger bubble.
  • A wide range of tools and templates available for use.
  • Supports different platforms (PC/Mac/iOS/Android) facilitating access and collaboration whenever internet connection is available.

Ø  Weaknesses:

  • If viewing the entire board using a smaller screen (eg. my 11-inch MacBook), the writing becomes so small that it is unworkable. However, adding and moving text and boxes under zoom made organizing the visuals more difficult. I did not find the small window on the top right helpful.
  • To participate, each person would essentially be required to register an account, making participation less attractive.
  • There is a technological pre-requisite to participate, and generally requires reliable and fast internet connectivity.
  • While free to sign-up, voting tokens are restricted to 5, limiting the alternatives available in voting methodologies.

Unfortunately, my efforts were hampered by web-censorship issues, meaning that although there was with strong internet connectivity available, access to the website was not regular and stable – even with the assistance of a VPN. (Note I have since discovered that there are collaboration tools developed by local companies that may have worked, but at the time I did not want to expend further time on trying to find technological fixes, particularly as I was not in the Country Office region most of the time. Nonetheless, I hope to use these tools for ideation/prototyping feedback later in this innovation project.)

Instead, I managed to arrange another group session during a following mission to the Country Office, held in a nearby café, with a less ambitious agenda to fit a 2-hour session after work day when the RSD Team and Representative (a.i.) were available to participate. In order to avoid ‘infecting’ the outcome, my role was kept strictly as facilitator; and while the session can be regarded as a success, I found the following challenges noteworthy:

  • Keeping an open mind: the core aim of my challenge question has undoubtedly been extensively discussed as a Team in preceding years. As such, it was difficult at first to move beyond ‘conventional and established wisdom’. This includes myself and my conduct in facilitation.
  • Despite the strict instructions, some comments inevitably led to wider ‘experience sharing’ – useful in providing scope but also encouraged discussions not necessarily useful to ideation per se (given the limited time available).
  • Enforcing ‘rules’ was difficult.
  • The make-up of the group could have been better thought-out as the dynamics even between those in RSD affected the suggestions offered – particularly in the ‘reverse engineering’ round. Having a strict policy of individuals speaking in fixed sequence was not effective for this as the issue was more with the substance of what was being suggested rather than failing to give responses.
  • It was at times difficult to move from ‘conceptual points in the abstract’ to useful ‘concrete suggestions’ which can be properly defined and implemented. Eg “using technology to improve…” but then, how? What kind of technology? Which process? Also, creative suggestions at times also created new challenges to an efficient process, undermining the purpose of the challenge question.

It should be noted that during the period of arranging this ideation session I also engaged in a ‘self-ideation’ exercise, using tools introduced in the readings to generate ideas. This had the overwhelming advantage of being completely within my control, but it was very difficult to extract myself directly from my original biases and the thoughts that I had developed both in my professional experiences as an RSD Officer, and my preliminary research.

  1. What were the main outcomes of ideation process for you?

The ideation process produced a wide range of ideas which I could categorise as follows:

  1. Some inappropriate given established Legal and Procedural Standards and Due Process requirements (note that the challenge question presented at the ideation session purposefully omitted operational standards to ensure unencumbered ideation);
  2. Some impractical, given available operational and technological capacity;
  3. Some suggestions that require engagement at a higher policy level and has wider implications on how UNHCR conducts RSD and expected outcome;
  4. Some practical suggestions to improve how RSD is conducted by individual officers which can be realistically explored.

Suggestions under (4) concerned in particular the recording of interviews, the structure of assessment forms and ‘drafting assistants’ which has become the focus of my prototype.

  1. What surprised you most about the process of ideation?

The fact that there was so much variety and structure to ideation processes was one of the big surprises for me. I learned about the importance of pre-planning, and having a disciplined and independent facilitator. The experience also changed my views about the effectiveness of using different tools, and observed the ways different personalities responded to different methods in generating ideas.

  1. How has your perception of innovation changed in the first 6 months of the Fellowship?

My initial working perception of innovation was in retrospect very basic and outcome focused, whereas I now recognize (worthwhile) innovative processes as time and resource intensive, requiring qualities beyond simply creativity, including keen awareness of context; communication; discipline; organized thinking but an open mindset; integrative thinking; and tenacity, to name a few. The value of the innovative process is not only limited to the outcome achieved – indeed, it is likely that many will lead to unsatisfactory results or even failures – but lies equally in the process that is followed to reach that goal.

It has been repeatedly emphasized that innovation is not linear, but I have come to understand the benefits of following the general structure introduced in the Fellowship, as each stage helps to make complicated and intimidating issues manageable, and prescribes a logical method to focus the mind and approach problem-solving which maximizes consideration for the resources and ideas available (across disciplines). Furthermore, going through these stages of the innovation thinking produces unforeseen ideas and methods that can potentially contribute to addressing issues beyond the limited scope of the challenge question.

It has, in short, challenged my general approach to thinking about ‘problems’ and finding ‘solutions’. I expect there will be many more surprises to come!