Putting the buzz in the word: Innovation

July 28, 2016
Local women in Colombia who participated in human-centered design thinking with Pact.

Innovation has long been a part of Pact’s institutional fabric, perhaps best exemplified by our trailblazing work in capacity development over the past couple of decades. But until 2013, innovation at Pact had been organic, not intentional. That’s when the organization took the necessary step of making innovation a deliberate, resourced function with the start of an “innovation practice,” the launch of the Innovation Marketplace, and the addition of dedicated innovation staff.

For the past three years, I have seen the organization’s innovation journey evolve. Today, we’re mainstreaming innovation across Pact, making it central to organizational culture, and honing its focus to improving our programs and processes.

We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘Can we re-think this?’ or, ‘Can we do this differently?’ When we’re designing programs, we’re focusing on what problem the donor wants to solve and not what we think they want to hear.

At Pact, innovation is “the intentional application of brainstorming, human-centered design, and local & external knowledge to improve our programs and process in order to create new value.” The focus on adding new value is how we measure our success.

We’re currently engaged in several exciting facets of innovation at Pact, including our Innovation Marketplace which services as a globally connecting innovation hub and repository of ideas, innovation competitions to spark creative solutions for improving a process or project activity, and innovation workshops to conceptualize new products.

One of the most interesting, and uncharted, ways we’re using innovation at Pact is through human-centered design during the proposal and project design phase.

Earlier this month I spent two weeks testing a human-centered design solution prototype with indigenous communities in Colombia. After two months of empathetic data-gathering and dedicated brainstorming we were excited to test the prototypes we’d built, which sounded great on paper. If we hadn’t tested it in the field and worked with the communities on a better solution, the project would most likely have been delayed or even failed. Using human-centered design, we were able to come up with a culturally appropriate solution that we know has the ability to succeed from the start.

This is only one example of the ways innovation is improving Pact’s work and ultimately our impact in countries around the world. I’ve had the pleasure of holding innovation workshops in South Africa, Cambodia, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Swaziland, Kenya and Nigeria where we used design-thinking and idea-generation exercises to develop solutions to the countries’ most pressing development issues. An idea born during the Cambodia workshop won $98,000 in seed funding and went on to be featured in Forbes, and another from Nigeria progressed to the final round of the first-ever Nigeria Health Innovation Competition.

We certainly didn’t invent innovation because innovation is really just creativity. But we’ve been very systematic about it, with dedicated resources and a set processes for harnessing and progressing new ideas. We’re embedding it in our day-to-day work, fostering an empowering environment where innovation-focused thinking is the norm for everyone across Pact.