Notes from Behind the Scenes: Preparing the landing strip for our #NextGen Accelerator Labs (1/2)

Part 1 — Seizing the opportunity of a “2.0”

With COVID-19 fresh in the backdrop, UNDP reaffirmed its organizational commitment to systems transformation work, and the Accelerator Labs as an integral component to this, by announcing the launch of a second generation of 30 additional labs. In the Asia Pacific, that means 19 out of our 24 offices will have a lab (an Accelerator Lab and/or a pre-existing innovation lab) by the end of 2020 — a signal that the UNDP is doubling down on it’s renewal agenda. This new wave offers both a recognition of the potential of this network, as well as the opportunity to take stock, surface lessons, and come in stronger from the onset.

Asking ourselves, ‘What is success?’, and ‘‘How might we set up both the labs and CO’s for more of it from the start?’

Having worked closely with the labs over the past year, our Regional Innovation Center team had some insights on what effectively engaging with the mothership might entail. A series of facilitated sessions between first and second generation Accelerator Lab senior management teams added a further layer of insights.

What transpired was the opportunity to maximize the chances of new labs hitting the ground running by preparing a better “landing strip”- a shared mental model and narrative, as it were, of what the purpose of the labs is, the type of ambition they signal and expertise they bring, as well as the type of new partnerships and investments they can help catalyse.

Practically, we acknowledge:

  • the need to move beyond leadership to wider CO socialization of the labs across each office on their purpose, skillsets, and areas of focus. If labs are not to be an island on the side, a shared narrative needs to emerge at all levels — from programs to operations.
  • signalling that the best use of the labs is to help tackle “frontier challenges” (complex, often transboundary issues) in the respective countries; moving away from single point solutions to system level transformation. This meant creating a common understanding of such a challenge across the office, unpacking it in such a way that help move away from the projectised nature of much of our work. It also means building confidence that, by building capabilities, we can as an organization cultivate a different level of ambition.
  • it’s important to identify more CO colleagues who are curious about innovation, naturally think in systems, and bring them on the journey, along with the labs. There is value in cultivating more champions, possibilities for more collaborations, and an investment in greater capability development of existing staff.
  • the ultimate success of the labs and their motto of ‘doing differently’ lies in both creating the conditions in offices to think in systems versus jumping to solutions (our current tendency).

Rather than prescribing a one size fit all journey for each country office for their landing strip, we decided to go for customized journeys, tailored to the specific needs and capacity level of each office. Some offices opted for a more light touch, collective introduction to innovation approaches and labs, while others decided to go “deep” and invest in a 3-week process of looking at their frontier challenge from a system perspective. This process, designed with the CHÔRA Foundation, will be shared in greater detail in part 2!

What did we learn?

  • Having customized landing strips works — Designing for 1:1 support and group sessions was critical, such that there is both customized support and a shared cohort experience of learning and exploring a new process with others in the region.
  • The challenge with jumping to solutions is it stops us from even understanding the issues- many colleagues noted that we have an almost automatic reflex to move into solutions mode, driven by our desire to improve things (but also by delivery pressure!). If we want to move to a more strategic and systemic impact, we need to hold some space to deeply understand and reframe issues, looking at structural imbalances (why is this system “stuck” in its current state?) and designing differently through inquiry, curiosity, and research.
  • The importance of definitions (or a shared vocabulary) so we have a clear collective understanding is more important than having the “correct” (systems) map — we are so jargon dependent we don’t often stop to clarify and understand what we each mean by those words, be it “sustainable tourism” or “effective governance”. As such, system maps are less about a representation of ‘the perfect’ territory, and more about our current collective understanding of the system, of where we see ourselves and others in it. It is a starting point- something we can now take out and test with others, and iterate on as we expand our shared understanding.
  • Building a shared mental model by doing- when dealing with complex issues, that are by their own nature unpredictable, having data is a necessary, but not sufficient condition to understand what is happening at a given point in time. We cannot project that data into the future and make “predictions”. In absence of that, we need to construct robust mental models and shared narratives that allow us to be prepared for different scenarios, no matter how much unlikely they might seem. Investing in developing that shared mental model for the frontier challenge is a way to preparing a more fertile ground for the lab to land.
  • The collective intelligence of a diverse team that cuts across portfolios, positions, backgrounds is both stronger and more systemic- it offers us a chance to foster dialogue, uncover wider insights, push the team to see the system more holistically (vs in siloed parts), and more effectively surface our knowledge gaps. If we can move past hierarchies driving conversations, it also offers an alternative to the current prevalent ‘top down model’ of knowledge transfer in the organization.

By Prateeksha Singh, Head of Experimentation at the Regional Innovation Center of the UNDP Asia Pacific, with support and co-writing from Bishnu Chettri (Innovation-Solution Mapper and Explorer, Bhutan), Sohara Mehroze Shachi (Team Lead of Research Facility, Bangladesh), Aphinya Siranart (Social Impact Investment Consultant, Thailand), and Giulio Quaggiotto, Head of Strategic Innovation.

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