KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Making ourselves more innovative in the workplace

with 7 comments

Since my last blog post was a bit of a rant, I thought I’d share something a bit more optimistic that deals with some of the challenges we face.

A colleague and I recently co-ran a session about creativity and innovation for our office. Let’s face it – we are a secretariat office and so perhaps one of the last places you expect to see innovation, not because of the people we have, but because of the constraints we face in our role. But at the same time we do all want to be motivated, change things for the better and make a difference. Here are some reflections on our discussion.

The discussion focused mainly on personal creativity and innovation and how to foster and maintain it in our day-to-day work rather than on setting up and managing an innovation programme or agenda for the office.

I’ve embedded the Prezi we used below – although it might be hard to follow exactly what we were discussing without some context. One great thing about doing a visual presentation using Prezi in a corporate environment is that most people have not seen this approach before, so it is already easier to capture people’s attention than when using a traditional PowerPoint – and it is better at putting people in the right frame of mind to talk about innovation.

In our introductory presentation we basically gave a brief Introduction to the concept of innovation – what it is, why it can be difficult in our environment, what are a few examples of where it has happened within the UN etc.

This was followed by 3 personal tips/suggestions each from my colleague and me on how to be creative and innovative in our work.

My colleague’s tips focused on how to get ideas and inspiration. Here are the specific resources he suggested:

1. Listening to TED talks There are actually a lot of development and change management related talks which we hope to start sharing regularly in the office to get people’s creative thinking going (possibly a topic for a future blog post).

2. Reading “The artists way – by Julia Cameron” which gives a learning/personal development programme for people to follow to improve their creativity

3. Business innovation for Dummies  – a  very practical and readable book on how to innovate in the workplace from the “For Dummies” series

My tips focused a bit more on the implementation side of turning ideas into practice and included

1. The golden parrot award – basically “stealing with pride” ideas from other colleagues, offices or even disciplines and adapting them to your own work environment. More on the idea here in this great video from Chris Collison:  and I’d just also add for those uncomfortable with “stealing”, that we mean of course with attribution/credit to those who came up with the idea in the fist place.

2. After Action Reviews – basically my point was that these are an underutilized tool for looking at past experiences  and quickly taking stock in order to learn from them and incrementally improve them – since coming up with ideas is not enough if we don’t also reflect on how they work in practice.

3. The third idea was ”phone a friend” for which unfortunately I don’t have  a link to share Sad smile. The basic idea is that anyone trying out innovation needs a network of trusted advisors who can give feedback, or make suggestions. Ideally this network includes people who are not in your immediate work environment (and so can give you an outside perspective), or perhaps not in your field of work at all, but who you can trust to give you honest, critical but constructive inputs. Another type of phone a friend is to always ask the new person in your office for feedback because they are still ready to question  how things are currently done, and are still hopeful that things can be changed and are less susceptible to “group think” which can occur within an office.

After the presentation we asked colleagues to share their own tips on what they do to stay creative and motivated. After a slow start this led to a very interesting discussion on people’s personal working habits and what works best for them, and also some frank discussion on the challenges of trying to do something new within the system where people shared some of their past frustrations and current state of mind.

A whole range of personal approaches were shared on how people keep their motivation high, how they get over writer’s block or solve difficult problems, as well as generate ideas or new approaches to work. Interestingly many of these were focused around ways of keeping physically and mentally fit in general (exercise, meditation), maintaining a good work-life balance (spending time with children or with friends) and also stepping away from a problem when you are stuck, and focusing on something completely different, or taking a break in order to regain the mental faculty to solve a problem (or to allow your subconscious to work on the problem in the background). Another interesting element was the relationship between creativity in work, and engaging in creative activities such as music or drawing outside of work.

The other issue that emerged was the imperative for us to be creative precisely because  of the challenging environment in which we work, in order to overcome the obstacles we face in order to achieve our mandate. At the same time this requires a supportive environment from management, and peer support for one another. and I had the feeling that we all agreed to do our bit to provide this.

In the end each of us agreed to write down one or more ideas we would try for the next four months from among those we had heard in order to increase our ability to innovate, and to meet back after the four months are up to report back on how we had done – did we manage to follow-up with the idea, and what was the result. And like with any innovation, this might or might not be fully successful, but we will all hopefully learn something useful from the experience.

Innovation and DOCO on Prezi


Written by Ian Thorpe

January 26, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses

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  1. “we are a secretariat office and so perhaps one of the last places you expect to see innovation, not because of the people we have, but because of the constraints we face in our role.”

    This is a question of perspective. You think that you face constraints in your role, but those constraints are a feature of your role, not a bug: this is how bureaucracies are designed.

    “But at the same time we do all want to be motivated, change things for the better and make a difference.”

    If the above is true, then it may be that you are in the wrong job. It is almost entirely unlikely that you would be able to overcome the constraints of your role if the constraints are your role.


    February 5, 2012 at 9:57 am

    • Paul – I have to disagree. Working in a bureaucracy can of course be incredibly frustrating (see my previous blog “working with one hand tied behind your back” but at the same time bureaucracies, and individuals within them are drivers of social change in just the same way that NGOs, communities and the private sector are.
      Bureaucracies are not just systems, they are also populated by people, most of whom want to be motivated and who want to do something useful. The very real constraints (achieve the near impossible with extremely limited resources while staying within a set of complex and rigid rules) are both a challenge and frustration, but also a source of creativity since individuals need to be resourceful to make things happen.
      I remember the wise words of a former colleague “I don’t work here because of the way the organization is, but because of what I believe it can become” – as long as you believe in the mission of your organization, and that the potential is there to achieve it (however difficult) then it’s not a lost cause.

      Ian Thorpe

      February 6, 2012 at 10:03 am

      • “I don’t work here because of the way the organization is, but because of what I believe it can become”

        I completely understand this position, but the key word there is “believe”. It’s a faith position, and it’s not one which I share.

        I think you do your argument a disservice by conflating bureaucracies and the individuals within them, to be honest. Perhaps a better way of explaining myself is this: an enterprise is more than the sum of its parts, while a bureaucracy is less than the sum of its parts.

        That’s certainly been my experience with the UN, WFP and UNICEF – there are many good people working for them, yet they never seem to operate at the level those people would need to really get things done, and we all spend our time working on the system rather than in the system.

        Think about when these organisations were set up, who set them up and why. These institutions would be familiar to anybody from the interwar period; and if you think that structures like that are still appropriate in the twenty-first century, you have a lot more imagination than me…


        February 6, 2012 at 10:16 am

      • @paul – enjoying this exchange. Yes, I fully agree that the bureaucracies we work in were designed in another age for another age. They are still, for better or for worse, the main ways for certain types of policy and operational work to get done. I guess an issue where we probably differ is on how to evolve our current institutions to make them fit for the purposes they now have to serve. I see value in both doing this from inside looking out as well as from outside looking in.

        It may also be my lack of imagination or courage, but on a personal level I feel I can do more inside the system than outside it.

        Ian Thorpe

        February 6, 2012 at 10:24 am

      • The difference is slightly stronger than that, I think. For evolution to work, organisms that are a poor fit need to die out in favour of those that are a better fit. What the international system does with the UN is basically crowd out those efforts that might be a better fit by providing institutional and financial support that are essentially a life support system for failed or failing organisms.

        So I don’t think that these institutions need to change (indeed, I don’t think they can change in any meaningful way) but to die, and be allowed to die, in order to allow those evolutionary processes to deliver better institutions that meet our actual needs, rather than needs that were imagined by the political elites of the postwar consensus sixty years ago.

        p.s. I don’t think you lack imagination or courage. I think that different people are temperamentally suited to different types of work environment. This is part of what defines their job choices (or used to, until all the jobs dried up) and everything else is post facto rationalisation of those choices. Certainly that’s true in my case, and it seems to be true for most people I’ve met.

        (See also

        Paul C

        February 6, 2012 at 10:37 am

  2. […] and if you assemble a good team (or reassemble a team that you know works well together), and do things to stimulate your own creativity. you might well find that you have more insight into a situation than you imagine, or at least […]

  3. […] a follow up to a recent presentation given by a colleague and myself on making our office more innovative, I started sending a weekly e-mail around the office featuring an inspirational TED talk. From our […]

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