Systems-informed solutions should be our new bar, even if we’re still chasing the white whale of systems change.
Written by Global Knowledge Initiative’s Accelerating Innovation for Resilience Pilot Program Team
On their own, the solutions generated by innovation labs, accelerators, and competitions won’t solve complex problems. Champions of the innovation ecosystem have realized that sometimes our methods and incentives encourage individual solutions when we need partnerships and collaboration instead. Adopting a systems thinking approach with long-term planning, deep collaboration, expertise, and patience is crucial. However, these qualities aren’t always associated with the innovation ecosystem’s incentive structures or donor priorities.
Systems-informed Solutions vs. Systems Change
In Global Knowledge Intiative’s Accelerating Innovation for Resilience program (AI4R, you can learn more about the program here), we sought to push the boundaries of traditional innovation competitions and program approaches. While we felt that true systems change was likely beyond the program’s scope, timeframe, and resources, we set our sights on fostering systems-informed solutions and strengthening the enabling environment for innovation.
Systems-informed solutions address specific problems with a deep understanding of the system’s complexity. Systems change seeks to transform the fundamental aspects of the system to create lasting, systemic improvements. Both approaches emphasize the importance of understanding and working with the interconnected nature of systems.
Systems-informed solutions refer to approaches that consider a system’s underlying structures, interconnections, and dynamics to identify and address a specific problem. These solutions are designed to work within a complex system. By incorporating a holistic understanding of the system, innovators can minimize unintended consequences and promote more sustainable, positive outcomes.
Systems change is a broader concept encompassing the transformation of the underlying structures, relationships, and mental models that shape a system’s behavior. Systems change aims to address the root causes of complex problems rather than simply addressing symptoms or isolated issues. This can involve redefining the system’s purpose, re-engineering the power dynamics, and shifting the mindsets and cultural norms perpetuating existing patterns.
To achieve our goal of pushing the boundaries of systems change in the AI4R project, we undertook the following steps:
- Set the goal not to scale stand-alone innovations but to strengthen the enabling environment for innovation.
- Conducted an in-depth investigation with a diverse group of local actors and implementers to identify the root causes of the issue at hand.
- Utilized systems mapping tools to collaboratively develop “challenge” statements that served as the basis for the competition.
- Mapped and analyzed the network of local actors using social network analysis to understand their interconnections and potential for collaboration.
- Fostered systems thinking capacity among the participating organizations, encouraging them to approach solution design holistically.
- Provided coaching and support to help participants refine and evolve their ideas over time, ensuring they consistently considered the broader system and its complexities.
- Emphasized the importance of collaboration and relationship-building among participants and stakeholders to facilitate cross-organizational learning and cooperation.
- Designed a more extended process for the innovation challenge compared to traditional formats, allowing for a deeper exploration of solutions and a more thorough understanding of the systemic implications.
How successful were we?
While our ultimate goal was to increase the resilience of local humanitarian response in Bangladesh, we had three shorter-term objectives where we hoped to see measurable changes:
- Implement system-informed solutions that support, catalyze, or scale innovations specifically addressing or improving disaster response and resilience in Bangladesh.
- Bring diverse actors into the humanitarian response space to foster locally-led solutions.
- Improve collaboration and partnerships across diverse actors in Bangladesh’s innovation and humanitarian sectors.
We assessed our success and shortcomings using surveys, key informant interviews, focus group discussions, and “pause and reflect” exercises. We identified three areas where positive change occurred:
1. Developing systems-informed solutions
Both external coaches and judges noticed a significant improvement in innovation and system thinking knowledge and skills among participants. Participants found techniques like root cause analysis and user-centered research valuable tools, as they provided insight into new approaches for further exploration and piqued their interest. Both external observers and competition participants reported significant change and evolution of their solution design to be more systems-oriented and informed.
2. Fostering networks and relationships
Promoting collaboration is crucial for systems change but can be challenging in competitive environments. We attempted to balance the positive aspects of competition with establishing genuine connections and setting the foundation for partnerships. Despite the competitive nature, multiple new collaborative partnerships were formed between teams. Many teams formed better relationships and understanding of key stakeholders, while others connected with new sources of expertise, support, and inspiration.
3. Supporting locally appropriate and locally-led solutions
AI4R invited a diverse range of companies and organizations to participate. We initially worried that smaller or local organizations might struggle to compete against larger international entities. We were delighted when three of the four winners were local organizations, and two of the four were smaller organizations. The strength of locally-led solutions shone through. While international organizations had strong proposals, the smaller, local organizations understood the context and possessed situated knowledge to develop more creative solutions.
Additionally, we were encouraged to see local organizations take on leadership roles within the capacity-building program, including conducting open learning sessions on topics like humanitarian response and gender for the benefit of the entire group.
What would GKI stop, start and continue in future innovation competitions?
1. Continue building the capacity for systems thinking, but keep it simple. Aim for a shift in mindsets vs. building expertise.
Systems thinking is a vast field encompassing numerous tools, methodologies, and frameworks. Is it necessary to train everyone as systems thinking experts? That was never our goal, but we found it challenging to balance respecting the complexity of the field and creating practical, user-friendly tools and exercises that built the systems thinking capacity of participants. Despite our efforts to extend the program’s duration to accommodate skill development, integrating more complex systems-thinking methods requires more context and practice than the program’s timeframe allowed. Nonetheless, our methods generated interest and excitement among participants and significantly shifted their mindset in solution design.
Moving forward, we recommend the following:
- If you decide to use more complex tools for systems thinking or mapping to help define the challenge, ensure the results are broken down into digestible pieces for the broader community.
- Resource-intensive tools like social network analysis may be less useful; instead, focus on building relationships and trust within the network.
- Introducing simple root cause analysis tools may be all you need to promote a powerful mindset shift for innovators.
- Coaching support, mentorship, and feedback are more important to create a mindset shift than training.
- Systems thinking identifies complex challenges which can overwhelm innovators or organizations. Systems thinking must be paired with a process that supports organizations to collaborate for broader systems change.
- Introducing systems thinking tools can have the unintended consequence of encouraging innovators to design solutions that do too much or target too many users. A curriculum around systems thinking and coaching should encourage innovators to see the bigger picture while tackling challenges in a lean, targeted approach.
2. Stop asking participants to apply with their own solution. Start helping them come together to co-create solutions.
Systems change and systems-informed solutions require collaboration. Instead of asking innovators to apply with their own ideas, we should help them form new partnerships to develop solutions together. Our causal analysis generated valuable insights into root causes, which informed the co-created “challenge statements” for the competition. However, problems arose when we asked organizations to propose solutions for these challenges:
- No single organization could address these challenges independently, but there was no specific incentive to propose a joint solution or combined application.
- Many applications were trying to secure funding for pre-existing ideas or solutions rather than truly addressing the challenges that surfaced from the systems mapping.
- The most surprising and distinct challenges that surfaced, such as problems related to media or lack of research, did not receive proposed solutions because the necessary partnerships did not align with the applicants’ ongoing work. Moreover, we did not offer strong enough incentives to counteract barriers to collaboration with partners outside the participants’ typical working relationships.
Moving forward, we recommend the following:
- At the early stages, don’t ask for ideas or solutions; instead, request applicants to apply with their capacity and interest in co-creation.
- Offer significant incentives and rewards for teams collaborating to propose solutions and engage partners crucial for addressing root causes.
- Avoid incentivizing individual organizations to compete against one another.
- Allow more time for genuine co-creation and collaboration to take place among teams.
3. Stop inviting short-term advisors and judges into the process. Start building long-term relationships.
While pitch competitions and fast-paced advisory sessions can be exciting and draw attention to innovators, they may not always be effective. Inexperienced judges or unprepared advisors can waste valuable time for innovators or even demoralize them. Perfecting the recruitment of numerous judges and advisors is not feasible, and sometimes they may not meet expectations. However, exposing innovators to a diverse range of potential contacts is often necessary and advantageous. So, how can we strike a balance between these competing factors?
AI4R discovered that coaches are the solution. Each finalist was assigned a coach with extensive experience in innovation competitions and familiarity with the tools used in our program. These coaches met with teams regularly to review progress, offer feedback, and, importantly, counterbalance any conflicting advice or “mentor whiplash” that teams might experience. Coaches’ deep understanding of the problem and solutions enables them to advise on important contacts and relationships, helping teams focus on long-term connections or strategically approach short-term ones. Additionally, coaches equip innovators with the preparation and support needed to leverage numerous connections encountered during competitions.
We recommend the following steps moving forward:
- Engage experienced coaches early to support finalists, as they will likely be the most valuable part of the program.
- Utilize short-term advisors judiciously, ensuring they complement the support coaches provide and adhere to a structured process. Consider offering optional training sessions on mentorship and networking to bolster young innovators’ confidence to interact with advisors and judges. Focus on the top one to two connections needed, and focus on those relationships or outcomes.
- Consider eliminating external judges and have the participants select the winner(s) themselves.
4. Continue to pay people for their participation.
One aspect that AI4R did well and would expand in the future is giving funds for participation early in the process. As we push to work with more local organizations, we owe it to them to pay for their time and participation in the program. Additionally, AI4R was designed for participants to create and enact testing plans for their solutions. For our ten finalists, we paid stipends to help cover the cost of the time and testing. Further, we compensated coaches for their time, ensuring they could provide a deeper level of service and advice over a longer period. Finally, we provided small stipends to judges, enabling several judges to participate in multiple rounds of judging or other aspects of the program, allowing them a deeper understanding of the solutions and being able to provide critical, objective feedback on how the teams are progressing (or not).
Moving forward, we recommend the following:
- Recruit and compensate relevant coaches for accompanying participants on their innovation journey. Prioritize coaching over one-off advisory sessions.
- Select a small-to-medium-sized group of finalists early in the process and pay for participating in the program and competition. If you have multiple stages of the competition, consider how you can use stipends and smaller financial incentives to help participants design and test solutions in a realistic timeframe.
- Compensate judges so they can spend adequate time with the solutions to provide truly useful assessments and feedback. Try to use the same judges for multiple rounds to avoid whiplash feedback.
- Create space for the participants to lead, mentor, and “judge” each other. Many come to these programs with skills and expertise that others can leverage in the cohort.
If your organization has grappled with similar challenges, we’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment to let us know what’s worked (or hasn’t) for you.