Articles, Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Alice Obrecht on Innovation and the Success-Fail Spectrum

Alice Obrecht is a research fellow at the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP), an organization dedicated to improving humanitarian performance through increased learning and accountability. Alice leads ALNAP’s work on effectiveness and innovation. She is the co-author, with Alexandra Warner, of a recent report, More Than Just Luck,* which examines innovation in humanitarian action. Alice spoke with Jane McConnell about her research and the insights it gave her. Interview was first published in “The Organization in the Digital Age” in December 2016.

Jane: ALNAP, then HIF, were among the first organizations to look into understanding what innovation looks like in the humanitarian sector. This was back in 2008, 2009. In your research, did you identify innovation differences between humanitarian and private sector organizations?

Alice: We did not look at private organizations in isolation, but only considered them in terms of how they partnered with humanitarians. Depending on how the private sector–humanitarian partnership is structured, there can be culture clashes on partnership projects. For example, there were striking differences in their approach to, and understanding of, agile. The use of agile methodologies, especially in relation to information technology, is really important to the private-sector understanding of innovation.

But this understanding of agility is monetized. Private-sector companies are happy to be agile as long as someone else is paying for that agility. So even where humanitarian organizations were taking an agile approach to developing a piece of software, it seemed they were quite surprised at the additional costs of those kinds of cycles. Aside from this, there are restrictions that make it difficult for humanitarian organizations to be agile. There is some rigidity to their approach, because they are even more constrained by deadlines and funding cycles. So money is an important factor. They also struggled with some of the time delays introduced by a non-linear approach to project delivery. One way of addressing this is for private sector partners to do the development for free, but retain intellectual property rights over the final product—which creates its own set of challenges, given that humanitarian innovation is meant to serve a broader public good.

Jane: How were differences overcome between different organizational types?

“Translators who speak the language of both worlds— humanitarian and corporate— were very helpful.”

Alice: For those projects that were successful, it really helped to have a translator who could ‘speak the language’ of both worlds. Sometimes that translator was an individual in the humanitarian organization who had worked in the private sector or in IT. They could translate across boundaries. Sometimes the translation role was fulfilled by a third-party organization that had a close relationship with the humanitarians. This could help with expectation management, as well as identifying methods for monitoring progress.

I know a case where there were disputes over what constituted an iterative cycle in the development phase because the humanitarian partner would have to pay for it. They felt the private sector company just didn’t understand what they were asking for in the first instance and that this was their mistake, not a change that emerged naturally from the testing and use of the software. But how do you work out those differences if you can’t speak both the languages of the humanitarian user and the IT developer? It can be quite challenging.

Jane: Was it easy to make comparisons and draw generalized conclusions across the different projects you included in the report?

Alice: Not really, because no one worked with a clear definition of what success was, or even what innovation was. So we had to put in a lot of work into the methodology, to make sure that, while we were doing qualitative research and case studies, that these were designed in a way to allow for strong internal and external validity. Even then, the projects are so different, it can be difficult to really determine whether the different aspects of the innovation process manifested in similar enough ways in each project to warrant comparison and generalizability.

On the issue of what defines successful innovation, there appeared to be a spectrum of failure, ranging from good failure to bad failure. To some extent, all innovation involves a degree of failure, learning and experimentation. Even successful innovation projects involve some failure. But what intrigued us were the external factors that can impede an innovation team from achieving success.

Many interrelated questions suggested themselves as we considered this: What could prevent wide adoption, even if you have a good product or a good innovation? What are the political barriers and bad incentives that can block wide adoption? What are the aspects of the problem or solution that you didn’t know about when you started the innovation process but now appear to be critical to bringing about an improvement to humanitarian action? What is out of your control? What can you influence in the broader ecosystem? All these factors can contribute to varying levels of failure or success.

In the private sector, you have a very clear mechanism to tell if you failed or not: whether or not you have been able to take a product to market and profit from it. It is far more difficult to gauge success or determine accountability in the humanitarian arena.

Jane: How do you see the future of innovation in the humanitarian sector?

Alice: The World Humanitarian Summit happened this May, and it seems one of the outcomes of this is a new global alliance for innovation that may have a huge funding stream attached to it. That is good, of course, but we need methods and fora for sharing what is going on in terms of innovation activity in the sector, ones which explicitly address failure and learning. So, for example, a publicly available report saying, “Here is what we tried to do. Here is what we learned from it. Here are some recommendations for people who are trying to tackle this problem or here are some lessons learned for how to work with governments on an innovation project in a conflict setting.”

The ‘good fail’ scenario is when the original idea turned out to be ineffective or unfeasible, but lessons are generated that can support future successful innovations.**

The HIF has worked hard to communicate to their grantees that if you don’t meet all of the objectives of your innovation process perfectly, that is OK, as long as you have had a rigorous learning and evidence-generation process along the way. You just need to learn, show people how you are learning, describing mistakes and helping other people to avoid them. That has been a very difficult mind shift.

* You can access the report and a summary of it here: This report was produced by ALNAP with the Enhancing Learning and Research in Humanitarian Action (ELRHA)’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF).

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