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Moving from Innovation Island to Innovation Peninsula

Aleem Walji's picture
I’ve learned the hard way that setting up an innovation lab within a larger organization does not guarantee more innovation. In some ways, it triggers an auto-immune response rejecting what comes out of the lab rather than from ‘inside’ an organization’s core operations. It’s a natural response as most people think of themselves as ‘innovative’ especially in the absence of a clear definition of what is innovation.
Whereas in science most people understand the importance of research and development labs, it’s a harder sell in the social sector. Labs can have a negative connotation in the sense that they are removed from reality or stand apart as islands within larger organizations. How do they stay relevant, add value, and most importantly infect the ‘host’ organization in a positive way?
In my experience, this has required a shift from thinking less about innovation as an island, but more of innovation as a peninsula. Unless an innovation lab is attached to something bigger than itself, its impact will be limited and often unnoticed. The operational core - call it the continent - needs to be invested in the success of an innovation space. If it’s not, success or failure won’t make much difference to the core of the organization. What I consider success, is when what works or doesn’t is noticed, key lessons are captured and converted into learning, and the little innovation tugboat begins to alter the course of the ocean liner (pardon the switch of metaphors).
During the past five years at the World Bank, we have learned that doing a few bleeding edge things - no matter how successful – didn’t significantly move the needle in core Bank operations - primarily lending and technical assistance.  In fact, most of the time, the outside world took more notice of our ‘lab’  than our own colleagues did, especially our role in launching the Open Data initiative and the Open Aid Partnership. When our top leadership did notice what we were doing and ‘declared’ that all parts of the institution should do as we did, we became targets of skepticism.  We knew we needed another strategy if we were going to matter and Infuse more innovation in the organization.
So we started looking for and found many natural allies across the institution. We quickly learned that many people cared about innovation and were in fact innovating widely, but under the radar. Becoming too visible too soon meant risking getting shut down. Frontline staff faced many constraints related to time, money, and management support. They lacked knowledge about what others were doing in similar domains and wanted to share lessons of what worked (and didn’t) across geographies and sectors.
That recognition changed everything for our innovation practice. We’ve started working with the Bank’s senior leadership to create incentives, more tolerance for taking informed risks, and creating more time and space for staff to test solutions to solve our biggest client challenges. We know that not everything will work, especially not the first time, but many old problems need new solutions. We started asking frontline staff what we could do to support and amplify their existing efforts – like using big data for development impact – and they were much more willing to engage with us.  My ‘aha’ moment was when I realized we should stop being Hawaii – no matter how beautiful – and start acting like Florida. We needed a stronger connection with the continent to be relevant and more impactful.
The most important role we could play was creating a virtuous cycle to help reduce systemic constraints to innovation systematically. This is no easy task and there are no guarantees of success, but shining a light on what many staff are already in an effort to accelerate and scale-up what’s working outside our ‘lab’ is surely worth the effort.
What I’ve learned along the way is that leading from the middle can be much more effective than leading from the front. When you make the success of others the most important metric of your own success, things work a lot better.   
 

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