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Does Design-Thinking Training increase Innovation?

9 April 2023

By Katja Hemmerich

person writing on clear board with an orange marker

Last week our spotlight emphasized the organizational impediments to scaling of innovation in the UN and how innovators have persevered and leveraged their own networks and, where they existed, innovation units or champions to overcome these challenges. In doing so, they demonstrate that implementation is the most difficult phase of innovation. This mirrors research on public sector innovation more generally, which shows that 55% of the impediments to innovation happen in the implementation phase. Less than 10% of impediments to public sector innovation occur in the idea generation and selection phase, yet this is where research and learning interventions predominantly focus. So our spotlight this week asks the question: does innovation training actually help increase innovation? Many innovation interventions, both within international organization and the public sector more broadly, teach design thinking as a means of facilitating an innovation approach to problem-solving. Design-thinking provides tools and skills so participants can better empathize with, and understand challenges from the perspective of the end-user, and use their feedback to innovate new solutions to existing problems. This has obvious advantages for international organizations which are interested in innovating to improve their impact for beneficiaries or other clients. Design thinking training, however does not take into account how innovators should navigate organizational barriers to the implementation of innovations. So a good course might generate lots of interesting ideas for innovation, but does not guarantee they will come to fruition. So, what allows some learners to turn those ideas into action and overcome organizational impediments? A group of researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Leeds and Sydney recently studied this question using a sample of 422 public employees who attended a prominent design thinking bootcamp run by the Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s Office through an initiative called Aspire to Innovate (a2i). Their findings provide some interesting insights for international organizations as well. The researchers identified 250 of those public employees (59%) who had gone on to develop and implement a successful innovation and then analyzed whether these employees had a higher propensity for risk-taking, cognitive and emotional empathy than the others. Their argument was that these competencies are helpful both in generating innovative ideas, and also in navigating the complex series of stakeholders and bureaucratic decision-making processes in order to successfully implement those innovation ideas. Their analysis found that successful innovators had a high propensity for risk taking and strong cognitive empathy (understanding someone else's feelings or positions). High levels of emotional empathy (the ability to feel the other person’s emotions alongside them) were not associated with successful innovators. The researchers theorize that propensity for risk taking and cognitive empathy make it easier for innovators to navigate the bureaucracy through a balance of 1) communicating and demonstrating value according to the relevant stakeholder (‘framing’) and 2) adjusting their innovation based on stakeholder feedback (‘fixing’). Emotional empathy makes it harder to tailor communications to stakeholders needs or recognize when an innovation proposal might need to be changed. These are not competencies that can be generated through training, so they already existed amongst training participants with the different propensities contributing to their level of success in implementation after the training. The strong linkage between propensity for risk-taking and innovation in this study echoes the study on innovation in the UN that we highlighted last week, which also noted that successfully innovators often clashed with their organization but pushed ahead because they were motivated by “a desire change the world’ rather than to seek organizational rewards”. The importance of cognitive empathy is also reinforced by the insights of the UNDP innovation unit which notes that strategic and political skills and “bureaucracy hacking” are as (if not more) valuable than technical and delivery skills” for strategic innovation. And this brings us back to the original question: does innovation training help increase innovation? Clearly the Bangladeshi example demonstrates that design thinking bootcamps can lead to greater innovation, if 59% of participants go on to successfully implement innovations. But as highlighted by UNDP’s innovation unit and the Bangladeshi example, those employees need skills to navigate the bureaucracy once they’ve come up with an innovation proposal. Taking a systemic approach and embedding design thinking into a larger strategy that factors in skills, processes and systems to help innovators navigate organizational challenges will maximize the investment in training and help those remaining 41% successfully innovate as well. At UNDP, the approach to innovation has shifted from a project-based approach to a more systemic portfolio approach aimed at increasing organizational capacity for innovation. In doing so, they are developing a competency framework which runs through the full cycle of recognizing opportunities for innovation, idea generation, implementation and adaptation and learning. Training, recruitment and skill-building therefore are built into a broader system that takes organizational impediments into account. As we pointed out from UNFPA’s initial evaluation of its innovation strategy, building organizational capacity for innovation is not easy and may not always be the best starting point. But UNDP’s innovation blog with lessons learnt provides useful learning for those organizations ready and able to take on such an approach, and therefore how to maximize training and skill-building efforts as part of a larger innovation path from idea generation to implementation. For those engaged in the 12 April 2023 discussion on innovation at the UNDP/UNFPA/UNOPS Executive Board, or other innovation discussions, we have compiled some useful resources (and last week’s discussion questions):


Key Meeting of UN Governance Mechanisms this week

  • The UNDP/UNFPA/UNOPS Executive Board receives its monthly update on UNOPS on 11 April 2023. It also receives a briefing on innovation in UNFPA on 12 April 2023.

  • Deadline for comments to draft country plans this week: 10 April for UNICEF's plan for Chile and 11 April for WFP's plans for Egypt, Kenya, the Pacific region and Zambia.


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