Innovation and design thinking: Managing service innovation in the United Nations

The Client

A United Nations development agency, headquartered in Europe, with 5 regional offices and over thirty field offices in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, aspired to tackle some of the most wicked problems within its mandate by creating a new public sector technical assistance capability to complement its existing services.

The Challenge

An innovation journal was kept over the 4 year period to manage the controlled experiments

Introducing a new expert capability into the organisation was identified early on as a serious global change management exercise that would take many years to evolve and would require a fundamental shift in the dominant thinking and culture of the organisation.  However, like most strategic innovative change, it was a leap into the dark for the leadership since the final ‘target operating model’ for the new capability was highly uncertain and there was a very complex arrangement of organisational ‘levers’ for them to pull.  For example, the new capability required field offices to engage with donors in new ways and design new, expert-driven technical assistance programmes.  Due to the relatively small size of TA programs, new thinking was also required on how to correctly price, manage and support them to ensure financial sustainability.  The new capability also required new ways of organising to facilitate and support the innovation process to enable it to co-exist with the dominate operating model.

The Solution

In order to tackle the high degree of uncertainty, an adaptive innovation management approach was selected over traditional project management approaches.  A small team of external and internal technical assistance experts formed the core of the TA initiative and were tasked with conducting a series of controlled organisational experiments to test a number of hypotheses about which organisational levers to adjust.  At the same time, the team also ran a series of controlled business development & resource mobilisation experiments to test if there was actually a market for the new capability and whether or not the new capability could achieve financial sustainability in a meaningful timeframe.

The Result

Services were tested in the market and very positively recieved.

Over a four year period, the team developed a very keen understanding of what the new expert capability should look like, how it should be governed, how it should be organised across the HR, regional and field office level, and – importantly – how it should interact with the dominant operating model to ensure sustainability.  In addition, the team proved the market and resource mobilisation questions by support country offices to sign over $90Mn in new technical assistance business (approx 10% of annual new business).

Contact our expert with direct experience in this case study: Edward Carroll.