5 lessons from a conversation with USAID’s chief of design innovation

December 22, 2016
Seema Patel, Chief of Design Innovation at USAID’s Global Development Lab, speaks to Pact staff in D.C.

Innovation is a nebulous topic that often means 20 different things to 20 different people. This week, Pact hosted Seema Patel, Chief of Design Innovation at USAID’s Global Development Lab, for an armchair conversation that sought to demystify many of the interworkings of USAID’s innovation arm and how it works with the rest of the agency.

For the nearly 50 staff in attendance, the open, candid conversation helped us better understand the Development Lab’s work to further innovation across the project lifecycle and throughout the development sector with implementing partners, other U.S. agencies and fellow donors.

For every organization grappling with how to advance creativity and new solutions in the international development space, here are our five key lessons from the conversation:

  1. Innovation is not a “nice to have” anymore; it’s mandatory. We need to be comfortable with calling out innovation and reclaiming the name “intrapreneur.” It is everyone’s job to be innovative, flexible and have the courage to take risks.
  2. To be innovative, you have to check your assumptions. Human-centered design is one helpful tool that is garnering much attention. Adopted from the private sector, it’s a framework that gets us out of our “expert” mindset and helps us solve problems by testing what we’ve come to think we know and creating space for rapid testing.
  3. It’s important to take small risks and see if they pay off in the long run. Test 10 small solutions and if two work, look to see where they succeed and then start to scale. In a deeply resource- and time-constrained environment, we often don’t feel empowered to test or experiment, but it’s critical to our future success.
  4. USAID needs to engage better with implementers to determine how to design better proposal descriptions. Do we look at the proposal as “5+5=x” or “x+x=10” ?
  5. The desired skills for development professionals are changing. There is an advantage in having a multidisciplinary background. Top skills the Lab looks for are humility, empathy, good listening, big-thinkers, do-ers, quick decision-making, facilitation and a collaborative spirit.

So, how do you define successful innovation? For Ms. Patel, successful innovation is...nothing—when adapted, it is a normal part of everyday life.