Wasafiri

What enhances innovation? Lessons from my work in Abu Dhabi

Introduction

Youth unemployment is a challenge in many parts of the world. The phenomenon of growing armies of unemployed young people is an alarming reality for governments and all people concerned with the well-being of society. I was in Abu Dhabi from 21st to 27th May 2012 working under the auspices of Common Purpose’s Itijah Venture (which means direction in Arabic). Itijah Venture brought together 40 emerging leaders from seven Arab and three European countries to grapple with the challenge of how to multiply, through information and communication technology (ICT) and social media, youth enterprises as a way of reducing unemployment among young people. Common Purpose invited me to co-design and co-facilitate the Itijah Venture. In this article, I share the key learnings I picked with regard to facilitating an innovation process.

The Results of Itijah

At the end of the week, Itijah Venture participants produced six prototyping ideas that they felt could significantly contribute to the reduction of youth unemployment in Europe and the Middle East. The six ideas were designed to leverage young people’s attraction to and use of ICT and social media. In the next few months following the Abu Dhabi meeting, participants will continue thinking together and developing the ideas into practical and living prototypes as a way of learning how to create large numbers of youth led/managed enterprise and jobs.

Process

The Itijah Venture process began a few months prior to the meeting in Abu Dhabi. The first step was taken when the Itijah Venture Advisory Board set the challenge as stated above. In many instances, training programmes simply take people away from their normal life activities and, for a few days, make them learn about tools, techniques and practices of leadership. This is not enough for imparting practical skills. Common Purpose, over the years, has learnt that the best way to run leadership development programmes is by locating the training within a particular challenge that is crucial to the client organisation or a group of people. In this way, the return on investment in training has greater chances of being realised and measured than when training and problem solving are done separately.  

The second step was the identification of emerging leaders to participate in the programme and sending them to gather data about the challenge. As soon as the candidates were selected, they were asked to go to “places of most potential for learning about the challenge”. Candidates went out to interview individuals or groups and observing situations where they could quickly learn about the challenge: what it is, how it manifests itself, what attempts have been done to resolve it; lessons picked from these attempts; and what stakeholders in the challenge fee can be done to resolve it. This is also known as sensing journey or learning through the eyes of stakeholders.

Upon arrival in Abu Dhabi, participants were introduced to and made a committed to certain ways of working that maximised collaboration and collective thinking. After the effective working atmosphere was established, participants went through a process of sharing the lessons they had picked during their sensing journeys. During the following two days, participants continued their sensing journeys by listening to subject matter specialists, entrepreneurs, and visiting places where they could learn through observation. Towards the end of the third day, participants started making sense of the information or data they had picked since they were accepted on the programme. On the final day, participants working creatively in small groups built sculptures that represented the ideas for prototyping. Participants played consultants to one another by challenging each other’s ideas, testing whether the ideas game changing.

Key Lessons

The following are the key lessons I picked from Itijah innovation process:

  1. Working in the moment: on the second day, one of the participants asked, “how come we are talking about youth unemployment and we do not have young people who are facing or will soon be facing unemployment?” My co-facilitator, Karen, and I knew instantly that we needed to find young people. Fortunately, one of the participants was from within Abu Dhabi. After a few phone calls we had three amazing young people who joined us. Their perspectives and ideas transformed the way we were looking at the challenge. One female youth said to the group, “Stop thinking like adults. See the world through our eyes, then you will stumble on ideas that may be helpful to us.” I learnt that when you are innovating, you need to work in the moment – make decisions as the situation unfolds. Innovation does not work when you are bent on ‘implementing’ the programme as you designed it.
  2. Value of Diversity and multi-stakeholders: Although the group of participants was reasonably diverse in terms of regions, gender, cultures, and age (to some extent), we did not pay attention to the importance of involving the most important key stakeholders – the unemployed youth themselves. I learnt that you need multi-stakeholder representatives to create conditions for coming up with new ideas that have a chance of working.
  3. Sensing and new knowledge: In their feedback at the end of the process, a number of participants admitted that they did not believe they could come up with ‘clever’ ideas on a subject matter they had no expertise in. They were pleasantly surprised that in the end they came up with ideas that ‘outside experts’ who came to listen to sculpted concepts thought could significantly contribute to enterprise development and job creation. I learnt that when you genuinely open your mind and go out and listen to and observe (sensing) the practical experts, every group can come up with innovative ideas.
  4. Staying with the problem long enough: from the first day in Abu Dhabi, a number of participants wanted to dive into brainstorming the possible solutions. My co-facilitator and I kept on encouraging them to focus on trying to understand or experience the challenge. This needed managing because some of the participants proudly described themselves as “action oriented”. They were worried that we would leave Abu Dhabi without coming up with any meaningful solutions. We invited them to stay with the challenge a little longer. At the end of the week, the “action oriented participants” were surprised at how easy creative ideas came towards the end of the process. I learnt that creative solutions tend to come with ease when you stay with the problem long enough. Jumping to solutions does not help.

Conclusion

Collective intelligence is possible and repeatable when a good (proven) process is followed, a diverse group is convened and key stakeholders are involved. 

 

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