December 11, 2012 casper

As someone immersed in the day-to-day work of attempting to drive a large organization’s approach to innovation, I have sometimes thought about permanently banning the word “innovation” from my own lexicon.  The term “innovation” is being bandied about pretty broadly in many fields—some might say to the point of saturation.  My own field, international development, is no exception.  I have concluded, though, that I won’t ban “innovation” from my vocabulary.  And my involvement in LAUNCH helped drive that decision—and much more importantly, as I will share, has greatly shaped my thinking about how to drive innovation in an organizational context.

What is driving all of this talk about innovation?  No doubt, it’s a seductive topic.  Discussion of the new and different—about potential breakthroughs—is a more exciting discussion than say, ‘lessons learned in harmonizing performance management metrics.’
But much more importantly, our current times actually call for a concerted focus on innovation.
Both at home in the United States and abroad, humanity’s common resources are stressed to an unprecedented degree.  The move toward (or away from) democratic change is shaking numerous countries to their core, while many developing countries are grappling with how to bolster their own food and water security in the face of climate change and growing populations. The list of pressing challenges, of course, goes on.  In short, innovations with impact and scale and of a different, systemic order are urgently required to address humanity’s most pressing challenges.  Conventional modes of thought and working and traditional institutional structures that yield incremental advances are not in many cases up to the task.
This brings me to LAUNCH.  For USAID, LAUNCH is an opportunity to play a catalytic role in the development of the next generation of potential breakthrough technologies and ideas for international development.  This is certainly a lofty and desirable set of desired innovation outcomes for USAID’s work with LAUNCH.  But, if we focused exclusively on these innovation outcomes we would miss something equally important for USAID.
Through our work with LAUNCH, we have done a tremendous amount of individual and institutional learning about the process of innovation. These process outcomes have been slowly bleeding over into other areas of our work in USAID’s Office of Science and Technology and, over time, I think the “viral” quality of our LAUNCH learning and our enthusiasm for the LAUNCH approach will continue to spread in our agency.  So, what have we learned?
  • How to drive an “open innovation” process.  LAUNCH is, in a sense, about open innovation, as it sources solutions/innovations from many corners and assembles a networked coalition of individuals and organizations to help propel those innovations forward.  This very approach is becoming important for problem solving in many organizational contexts, including our own at USAID.  In fact, we recently launched an initiative called “Grand Challenges for Development” that relies largely on an open innovation approach to attack some of the largest solvable problems in international development.
  • The power of unconventional “solvers.” This is a key axiom of open innovation practices and of many prize/challenge-based problem solving approaches.  Don’t count out the non-expert.  In fact, invite him or her in!  Several of our LAUNCH innovators came to their pathbreaking work from well outside of their current field or businesses.  For example, LAUNCH: Water innovator Mark Tonkin of DTI-r had very little experience in water filtration technology before embarking on his current venture.
  • We are in a unique position to convene and motivate networks. Even organizations like USAID and NASA that work with literally thousands of partner organizations, grant and contract recipients, partner governments, and others sometimes lose sight of their incredible convening power.  Our success in assembling a top notch LAUNCH Council and in benefiting from world class technical advice while developing “challenge statements” for each LAUNCH cycle has shown us that we have incredible convening power.  And with incredible convening power, of course, comes an opportunity to assemble a powerful network of problem solvers and a network that is connected to resources and other people to whom up and coming innovators need access.
I can only conclude that, after all, there really is something to all of this “innovation” talk.  I have seen it every day through my work on LAUNCH.  The team and I look forward to the opportunity to expand on what we have learned and to position LAUNCH for even greater impact.  And, naturally, we look forward to changing the innovation cynics’ minds!
By Will Schmitt – USAID