As major emergencies and crises continue to proliferate and change the humanitarian field, UNHCR keeps evolving and adapting. But since any organization is comprised of its people, it is they who must be flexible and open-minded, versatile and creative. In this sector, people cannot only be smart and informed; they must be adaptable and innovative too.

At its best, lifelong learning helps create such professionals. Lifelong learning implies an ongoing and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge; an endeavor that UNHCR’s Global Learning Center (GLC) supports and develops in staff and affiliate workforce. The learning it offers is targeted toward colleagues’ needs, applicable to their work, flexible to accommodate schedules that skip across time zones, respectful of different learning styles, experiential and practical.

The kind of education it offers goes beyond the traditional transmission of knowledge and information. In addition to building technical skills, the GLC also focuses on soft skills and how to use that knowledge and information to innovate. This kind of learning is about connecting the dots: gaining new understanding and making connections between things that may have seemed unrelated before.

The humanitarian field is in special need of professionals who embody this kind of approach, and who take life-long learning to heart.

UNHCR staff/affiliate workforce work in very complex situations that demand innovative thinking and deep resourcefulness. And the fact that UNHCR has the kind of rotations that send people from Burundi to Brazil means staff benefit from continuing to learn all the time. Individuals who commit to learning about innovation – and how to apply this to their daily work – are able to develop their creative capacity, their problem-solving skills, and their willingness to experiment.

The same can be said for UNHCR as an organization. At the distinguished age of 66, it has clout and respect, has enjoyed success and good relationships. But in an ever-changing world it needs new solutions, new partners and new ways of working.

But can you teach an organization, through its people, to be flexible? To be comfortable with failure? To be more inclusive, more responsive, more daring?

It was a fortuitous accident and some sloppy lab practices that led Alexander Fleming to discover penicillin. Sheer ambition and bravado drove the Wright brothers to address “the flying problem.” And Edison’s famous quote about finding 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb revealed his view of failure as one of his greatest tools.

Innovation often begins with that willingness to be creative in the way children are as they try things with confidence, not embarrassed or fearful about the potential consequences of being wrong or unsuccessful.

We grow away from that as adults. From the first incorrect answer in school we begin thinking a little longer about whether we are right before we raise a hand to answer the next question. But learning how to take an innovative approach, even if success is not immediate, gives UNHCR staff the tools and techniques they can use as they seek new solutions to the challenges and problems they face every day.

Learning to innovate helps us grow and contribute as professionals, helps the organization improve, and directly contributes to better serving refugees. That’s because the innovation approach is collaborative and iterative. Solutions are not developed in isolation, but rather they engage refugees and other people of concern and stakeholders in finding possible answers, testing them out and refining them in a way that meets everyone’s needs.

That kind of process requires certain skills that can be learned, and the process itself can be quite an education. It is chaotic and full of uncertainty and almost never linear. Going through it requires a certain mind set, and a willingness to leave one’s comfort zone, take risks and have a little faith that the results will be worth it.

The Innovation Fellowship is a great example. This opportunity supports Fellows as they learn new skills, innovate within their own operations and try out new things. It offers them a way to practice new approaches and a safe space to fail. The projects they work on are often highly successful, but the process they learn and share with colleagues is just as valuable.

As catalysts in their own operations, the Fellowship is a great opportunity for others at their duty stations to benefit from exposure to that innovation training and skill-set and support.

In Côte d’Ivoire for example, an Innovation Fellow is engaging his operation in addressing a challenge related to statelessness. The operation is very supportive, and realizes the mutual benefit of finding a solution. That Fellow just facilitated a two-day workshop and invited colleagues from field offices, government, civil society, and former stateless people. Together, they used the innovation methodology to identify the challenges and possible solutions, which will be tested out as a result of their collaboration. Workshop participants seemed to appreciate the approach, and bringing people with a variety of backgrounds together to address a common issue will likely lead to answers that are better informed, more effective and more sustainable.

If everyone at UNHCR took an innovation approach in their work, there might initially be a lot more failure. But it would be the good kind of failure: quick and cheap, with immediate feedback that leads to important changes before something gets too big. And it would light the way to the next round of ideas, and the next, until the whole organization was comfortable ideating together, learning from the ups and downs and seeing new possibilities for meaningful solutions.

If you currently work at UNHCR, consider joining the next class of Innovation Fellows. Apply Now.



We’re always looking for great stories, ideas, and opinions on innovations that are led by or create impact for refugees. If you have one to share with us send us an email at [email protected]

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