When I joined the World Bank five years ago to lead a new innovation practice, the organization asked me to help expand the space for experimentation and learning with an emphasis on emergent technologies. But that mandate was intimidating and counter-intuitive in an "expert-driven" culture. Experts want detailed plans, budgets, clear success indicators, and minimal risk. But innovation is about managing risk and navigating uncertainty intelligently. You fail fast and fail forward. It has been a step-by-step process, and the journey is far from over, but the World Bank today sees innovation as essential to achieving its mission. It's taught me a lot about seeding innovation in a culture of expertise, including phasing change across approaches to technology, teaming, problem solving, and ultimately leadership.
Innovating technologies: As a newcomer, my goal was not to try to change the World Bank's culture. I was content to carve out a space where my team could try new things we couldn't do elsewhere in the institution, learn fast, and create impact. Our initial focus was leveraging technologies with approaches that, if they took root, could be very powerful.
Over the first 18 to 24 months, we served as an incubator for ideas and had a number of successes that built on senior management's support for increased access to information. The Open Data Initiative, for example, made our trove of information on countries, people, projects, and programs widely available and searchable. To our surprise, people came in droves to access it. We also launched the Mapping for Results initiative, which mapped project results and poverty data to show the relationship between where we lend and where the poor live, and the results of our work. These programs are now mainstream at the World Bank and have penetrated other development institutions.
So that's what I call phase one, where we had some important successes, but it became clear that we needed to take a more systematic approach to innovation. We realized that we needed a methodology, a process, and a way to measure results. We also needed a safe space to take calculated risks, and test ideas that were too early or disruptive to pursue in other parts of the institution. That's when we set up innovation labs.
Innovating teams: The lab idea—phase two—would require collaboration and experimentation in an unprecedented way. For example, we worked with other parts of the World Bank and a number of outside organizations to incubate the Open Development Technology Alliance, now part of the digital engagement unit of the World Bank. It worked to enhance accountability, and improve the delivery and quality of public services through technology-enabled citizen engagement such as using mobile phones, interactive mapping, and social media to draw citizens into collective problem mapping and problem solving.
We quickly realized, however, that we were not going to come up with all the great ideas sitting in our offices. We didn't have a monopoly on creativity. Innovations were happening all around us. We could use our innovation labs to surface and incubate innovations through internal challenge funds, and use external competitions to identify business model innovations to scale up through public or private partnerships. But to create the most impact, we concluded that our role should be to push a few ideas generated elsewhere in the institution, and help folks already doing something innovative do it faster and better. That turned out to be phase three. We said we're not going to incubate the ideas, but rather we'd be a platform to accelerate incubation, learn from each other, catalyze external partnerships, and mobilize resources. This is still part of what we are doing today.
Innovating problem solving: At the same time, we recognized that we face some really complex problems that the World Bank's traditional approach of lending to governments and supervising development projects is not solving. For this, we needed another type of lab that innovated the very way we solve problems. We needed a deliberate process for experimenting, learning, iterating, and adapting. But that's easier said than done. At our core, we are an expert-driven organization with know-how in disciplines ranging from agricultural economics and civil engineering to maternal health and early childhood development. Our problem-solving architecture is rooted in designing technical solutions to complicated problems. Yet the hardest problems in the world defy technical fixes. We work in contexts where political environments shift, leaders change, and conditions on the ground constantly evolve. Problems like climate change, financial inclusion, food security, and youth unemployment demand new ways of solving old problems.
The innovation we most needed was innovation in the leadership architecture of how we confront complex challenges. We share knowledge and expertise on the "what" of reform, but the "how" is what we need most. We need to marry know-how with do-how. We need multiyear, multi-stakeholder, and systems approaches to solving problems. We need to get better at framing and reframing problems, integrative thinking, and testing a range of solutions. We need to iterate and course-correct as we learn what works and doesn't work in which context. That's where we are right now with what we call "integrated leadership learning innovation—phase four. It's all about shaping an innovative process to address complex problems.
When social innovation works, we learn, adapt, and tailor solutions to local conditions. It's what I refer to as "labbing" possible solutions. It requires the courage to admit that we often don't know the answer and may fail along the way. But failing forward means learning faster and succeeding sooner. That's the spirit I hope to see in the World Bank of the future.
Aleem Walji is chief innovation advisor within the World Bank Group. He oversees programs related to big data for development, social enterprise, innovations in service delivery to the poor, and innovation process management.
This blog is part of a November-December 2014 series on innovation labs, a joint project between Bridgespan and The Rockefeller Foundation. Please join us during the coming four weeks as we publish a broad range of insights from innovation lab practitioners, funders, and participants.
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