As a child I grew up reading Berkley Breathed comic strip, Bloom County. The tales of characters like Bill the Cat and Opus the penguin. Not to get too deep into the characters, but Opus tends to have a little bit of a confidence problem. In the holiday book, A Wish for Wings That Work, where narrator gently reflects Opus’ situation, “Penguin can say the word fly, but he simply cannot do it.” At the end, Santa Claus tells Opus, “Tonight it was courage that flew yours beyond others.”
For some reason, The Wish for Wings That Work came to mind when I was reading the findings of a December 2011 conference report Risk, Adaptation and Innovation in Humanitarian Action from the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It developed four key themes for further exploration such as evidence-driven humanitarian decision-making, accountability and transparency, risk, agility and partnership.
Perhaps one of the most striking, yet known challenge that the humanitarian community faces is that of risk. Humanitarians operate in high risk environments everyday but their ability to take risk is extremely limited. The conference discussion point to this challenge. “The humanitarian system is risk averse. What can be done to make the system more agile and more courageous to take on new ideas and approaches, including developing new partnership?”
The wrap up echoed this concern:“The humanitarian system needs to be more effective at managing risk. It also needs to become significantly more agile to cope with future crises. There was a general consensus that the system remained risk averse and lacked a culture that would help stimulate innovation. Humanitarians also tend to ignore failure rather than investing in learning from failure, which requires stronger leadership and a culture that embraces necessary risks.“
Disappointingly, the next steps action to the December conference is to have another series of regional conferences. Which I get, but how long can you have conferences before changes can be made? By the end of the conferences the topics discussed will be 2-3 years old and there are potentially a new set of challenges and actors. I’m not sure that conference after conference will create the change of culture and attract the resources and authority that humanitarians need to cope today with the changing face of humanitarian relief.
Today is World Humanitarian Day. A day where we honor those who dedicate their lives to giving to others. They are the most amazing people in the world. I was thinking about one wish I would have for them, and after reading the UN OCHA report, my wish is for innovation that works. My wish is that the UN to make a long term investment in building a culture of innovation that their own people are asking for. In a way, this wish is to not just honor those serving, but to empower them with new climate of creativity and the authority, resources and engagement necessary to try new ideas, engage new partners and to re-imagine how humanitarian relief is done.
I realize that innovation is a sticky wicket for institutions like the UN who have a high bar of accountability. At the very heart of innovation is failure. Failure is something that isn’t tolerated but how can there be a space where failure is safe and accepted. Innovation isn’t a linear thing. It more of a creative force that moves like an art form fueled by experimentation and iteration. It is very different than what might be valued in many institutions, the ability to optimize processes.
Innovation means giving people the resources and authority to push the envelope, fail and get back up and try again. Where can UN employees go to tinker with their ideas? How can they re-engineer and re-imagine systems that don’t work, especially folks on the frontlines of aid? How can they interact with people who might help but are in other agencies? How can this promote shared resources across the UN? How do findings from lessons learned make it into a continuous improvement loop and are the basis of UN policy itself? And of course, in the world of “do more with less” how can authority and resources be aligned to allow for the experimentation and iteration necessary to try and try again?
I have had the great chance to work with some fabulous people at the UN. The UN gets a lot of flack for being a “bureaucracy.” I don’t really see that. What I have seen are people who want to F-L-Y. What they just might need is a little lift into a space where risk is accepted. There are projects but when its not a mission priority, it becomes a side project. What they might really need is the time, authority and resources go from experimentation to implementation to best practice.
While we honor the lives of great humanitarians whose life work is to serve others, I want to make a wish for innovation that works. I’m not just asking for this, but according to the findings of December’s UNOCHA conference, the programs of the UN are asking for this too. A space where employees can work on ideas without thinking about how it will be resourced. Where they might need the time away from their day job to explore how to do things better, interact with others beyond their organizational border. They might need resources and authority to experiment and a climate that will build a new culture where experimentation can flourish.
I hope that the UN can have the courage to create a climate and inspire a culture of innovation that will give UN innovators the wings that they need to fly.