Innovation in a UN organization – how to do it?

How can managers and staff drive innovation in a public bureaucracy? Here at ITC we held a one day divisional retreat to look at ways to innovate in our work. The Trade and Environment team participated along with 100 or so colleagues. ‘World café’ breakout groups discussed themes around innovation – what it means, what drives it in organizations, the barriers, opportunities and so forth.

DMD retreat innovation
What is Innovation? ITC divisional retreat

The chance to spend time talking with colleagues about innovation was useful and gave me tools for work with my team although the longer term, organizational impacts will take time to assess.

The group that I participated in came up with the following points:

a) Factors conducive to innovation include:

  • inter-disciplinary and specialized intra-disciplinary environments
  • cultural diversity
  • security of contracts
  • necessity to innovate (e.g demand from clients)
  • knowledge-sharing culture
  • willingness for the organization to accept some failures in projects (in order to allow project managers to take risks).

b) Barriers to innovation

  • competition between sections for resources e.g. de facto silos/cost centres
  •  lack of sharing knowledge

Group work innovation
Notes from discussions with my group

A blog by Brad Power in the Harvard Business Review summarizes the three factors that determine success for public bureaucracies to innovate.

“…it requires:

  • a team of insiders and outsiders to come up with new ideas
  • a clear external motivation to do something
  • strong leaders who believe in the ideas and push the bureaucracy to implement them consistently over a number of years”

Power also makes a clear distinction between private companies (with price signals to innovate) and public bureaucracies (with missing or unclear incentives).

“Sometimes (but not often) bureaucracies do make incremental changes to the way they do work, but they are usually not sufficient to meet citizen-customer needs. An innovation team composed of the “best and brightest”…can identify bigger changes, but those cannot be implemented inside a strong bureaucracy without a strong and clear motivation to change. Now, in a competitive free-market environment, a for-profit company can be motivated by threats to its survival, or by declining market share and profitability. The big challenge for a government agency, however, is that the motivation needs to be a congressional or administration mandate”.

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