Most people have embraced innovation as a way of working © Shutterstock

Innovation is in the UN’s DNA but it can be stifled by bureaucracy
Innovation is core to the UN but, as with any complex organization, sometimes it’s hard to deliver. It’s time to reinvigorate efforts to meet the SDGs
1 Jun 2023

When the UN Charter was signed in 1945, it presented a radical new approach to age-old challenges – a compelling, innovative vision for change. Looking at the world today, it’s clear we need to recapture that spirit of innovation to meet the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) timelines.

But this is easier said than done – especially in larger international development organizations with complex structures and bureaucracies. 

Some research we have conducted recently looked at how 20 such organizations are striving to streamline the way they innovate.

While most have embraced innovation as a way of working, they struggle to position the innovation ‘function’ within their wider structure and create an innovation culture. Only half of the organizations surveyed have adopted a comprehensive innovation strategy; just a quarter feel their innovation function is effectively resourced; whilst less than a fifth of projects were impacted by the innovation function in the past five years.

Access to funding is a common issue, with very little of the annual organizational budget (0-10%) allocated toward the innovation function. This makes it harder to scale up innovation projects, with breakthroughs often isolated and not shared.

So, how can innovation, and more specifically innovation functions, drive organizational change to accelerate the realization of the SDGs and increase the overall impact on people and the environment?

Re-energizing innovation

If innovation is to become second nature, leadership must make it a top priority, to clarify the ambition and enable the innovation function to collaborate effectively across the organization and externally.

An innovation strategy is more than simply a statement of intent – it’s a clear articulation of objectives and capabilities plus a plan of action, backed up by an agreed budget, resources, targets, KPIs and rewards, to ensure the widest possible impact. The strategy must also define how these activities fit into a broader ecosystem.

The UN’s Innovation toolkit provides a framework to guide development of the innovation function – although only one of the surveyed agencies have fully utilized it. In our experience, it’s helpful to use a maturity model to conduct an initial assessment as well as clarifying ambition levels and defining the way forward.

Exciting new ideas can easily be held up by bureaucracy. One way to bypass such barriers is to appoint innovation ‘champions’, who can access funds and partnerships, spread the word, and create a culture that values and fosters innovation.

Innovations need not be groundbreaking and system-wide. Incremental innovations – minor improvements on existing products, processes, or services – are just as important in terms of the value they bring, and often easier to deliver and sustain.

We have to explain why people should do things differently, and the benefits this can bring, to inspire and encourage experimentation, and banish fear of failure. However, it’s not enough to encourage staff to spend a proportion of their time on innovation; leadership is also about setting structures and creating incentives to make the culture more systematically innovative.

Learn from the best

World-class innovators have demonstrated over time how to repeatedly nurture and accelerate innovation. They tend to have a few things in common: a clearly defined strategy, and a dedicated structure to drive innovation, align operational processes, guide effective governance, streamline tools and promote strategic KPIs.

The innovation function itself is less about coming up with new ideas and projects, and more about inspiring others, creating an appetite for risk, and prioritizing resources. It’s also about balancing ambition and impact, and bringing the rest of the organization onboard. In this respect the innovation function acts as a catalyst and facilitator, taking ideas from inside and externally to help develop initiatives and partnerships.

A three-pillar operating model for the innovation function has ‘innovation excellence’ as a core, at the same level as traditional ‘operational’ and ‘programmatic’ pillars. The word ‘governance’ may sound like a straitjacket for creativity, but it’s actually a vital component, to align projects with the organizational goals and SDGs and maximize the positive impact on the people the organization aims to serve. Common standards, methodologies, and processes need not be limiting; they help guide innovation teams, improve collaboration, avoid duplication, and identify which initiatives should be scaled up and which should be stopped.

The UN and international development organizations share a common purpose, as laid out in the 1945 UN Charter, and more recently in the form of the SDGs. Innovation is baked into this bold ambition, but truly impactful innovation can only be achieved through joint efforts.

It’s time to unleash the collective intelligence of all these organizations and use their creative powers, driving an innovative mindset to push for positive and impactful change. 

* Dominique Perron is the EY Global Client Service Partner for the UN, Guillaume Andro is a Manager, Ernst & Young AG and Bertrand Ginet is a Senior Manager, Ernst and Young AG.
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