Imagine a large public organisation. Imagine team presentations in front of members of the management board. And then imagine standing ovations, tears of joy and disappointment, teams celebrating under confetti rain — even though they “failed” to deliver. And all of this in Germany. I was baffled, too.

Using innovation to help change organisational culture

Earlier this year, the German agency for international development — Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GiZ) — asked for our support on an ambitious project: the GIZ Innovation Fund. As part of their wider digital strategy, a small team set out to give employees around the world the opportunity to experiment with technology to have a greater impact through their work. This would allow them to create digital exemplar projects for the organisation. The wider objective is to fundamentally change the organisational culture.

Consequently, everything around the project was done differently. Everyone in the organisation was invited to submit ideas. The six best ones were selected by a jury (including some private sector people) and through staff voting, a first for GIZ. In the end, more than 250 ideas were submitted. Staff campaigning for votes caused a server to crash.

Creating an accelerator programme for employees

The program for the six teams consisted of a kick-off boot camp, an accelerator program and financial funding to support the teams through prototyping and testing their ideas. After six intense months, MVPs were pitched to a jury, members of the management board, and colleagues in the headquarters. As well as live-streamed to 480 people from all over the world. It all culminated in the final pitch event where the two winning teams received further investment for scaling up.

This all might sound pretty straightforward to people with experience in bringing innovative thinking to large organisations. However, a program like this always looks good on paper, it’s the details that make it successful. We’d like to share three things we believe played a vital role in the success of the project:

GIZ: Discover, Define, Develop, Deliver – The Final Pitch Event of the GIZ Innovation Fund. 2017

The final pitch event

3 things that led to hugs, tears and confetti rain

1. Hands on support by expert designers

To kick off the accelerator program, FutureGov facilitated a two-day Bootcamp with everything you’d expect: user research, prototyping, agile delivery. You name it. We made sure that all participants had the chance to put the things they’d learnt into practice and apply the thinking to their own idea. This early-stage, helped participants realise that their project might not work. So this was just a starting point.

A new, design and user-driven way of thinking can’t be taught within two days. In fact, it can’t be taught at all — only through implicit learning like observing, trying and imitating experienced designers, people can understand what it means to think and act like one.

This is why we used the global network of Impact Hub to find local expert designers in South Africa, Lesotho, Jordan, Brazil, Thailand and Germany, who would support the teams throughout the entire process.

The expert designers showed the teams how to understand their users and use insights as inspiration. How workarounds can help to overcome barriers and how solutions can be broken down to be implemented in a short period of time. The experts themselves became part of the team and shared their experience hands-on. Participants slowly adopted a different way of doing things and quickly became advocates for starting small, but thinking big and putting the user’s need first.

2. Failure as an option

If an idea is good or not can only be judged with certainty once it’s tested. In the startup world “fail fast, fail often” is a common quote. Large organisations, however, often struggle to translate this mind-set into their context. How can failing — especially if public money is involved — ever be acceptable? Often it’s lip service and when it comes to dealing with “failure” organisations follow their old patterns of hushing up.

One of our teams working on easier access to water in Jordan did “fail”. The team could not convince their partners to start small to deliver big change. The partners insisted on the traditional way of making big long term plans — and were rather sceptical about stronger customer involvement. Because of this, the team made the decision to drop out of the program.

How GiZ responded was extraordinary. Instead of hushing up, the team was given a chance to present their journey and the lessons they learned to the organisation. GiZ recognised that the team’s experience was of great value to the entire organisation. As a response to that team dropping out, a new award was introduced; not only the two teams with the best MVP but also the team with the best learning journey.

3. Not being afraid of the spotlight

If you try something new you always take a risk. What if nobody participated in the call for ideas? What if the ideas were all bad? What if no team would deliver anything useful? Usually, these risks would push a project under the radar. Only to communicate about it, once it had worked. In fact GiZ did the opposite. From the beginning, the project was pushed straight into the spotlight of the organisation. Presenting in front of board members as part of the plan from the beginning.

All of this unleashed unseen excitement among the teams. To know that the entire organisation was watching motivated the teams to go beyond expectations and deliver outstanding work.

Knowing change takes time

The project was a great success — participants felt it was the best professional development program they have ever been on, GiZ has gained experience and exemplar case studies with new technologies such as chatbots, BlockChain and app development. Even the team feeling most disappointed about not winning has found alternative investors.

The only unhappy person was the janitor. During all the exuberance of the final pitch event, no one thought about cleaning up the confetti. In the morning he had serious words with us about the mess. Maybe we need a new policy about the use of confetti bombs at GiZ? This brings us back down to earth. Culture change won’t happen in a day, but six months is enough to make a start.

If you’d like to do something similar or look at ways of encouraging digital innovation in your organisation, in the UK or especially in Germany, please get in touch with me at [email protected]. I’m always up for “Kaffee und Kuchen”.

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