How to establish an organizational structure that fosters innovation: 5 tips from WFP’s experience

By Gulia Rakhimova

WFP Innovation Bootcamp participants in Munich, Germany, 2019. Photo: WFP/Joerg Koch.

Establishing an organizational structure dedicated to innovation is like building a startup of its own because, essentially, innovation is about doing things differently. Creating such a structure and conditions for innovation may seem challenging, particularly for well-established organizations, where innovating appears riskier than maintaining the status quo.

In celebration of the 7th year of the World Food Programme (WFP) Innovation Accelerator, we are delighted to share the top 5 tips from our experience that can get your innovation unit off to a strong start:

These tips are based on an interview with Hila Cohen, Chief of Staff and Head of Business Development at the WFP Innovation Accelerator. Hila was one of the first team members who worked alongside Bernhard Kowatsch, Head of the WFP Innovation Accelerator, since the Accelerator’s foundation in August 2015. She hopes her learnings from the Accelerator’s journey can inspire other organizations to create a space where innovation can thrive and drive social impact.

Read on to find out more about each tip.

1. Define your core identity

The first step in creating an innovation structure is identifying what kind of innovation process you need in your organization. Ask yourself: What problem do you hope to solve? What role will your innovation structure play in solving the problem? For example, your innovation structure may serve as an incubator for developing employee-led projects — or it may focus on investing in external startups that contribute to your goals. Consider how potential projects will be developed and which stakeholders will be involved in the process. The key is to determine what you can do best to create value for your organization and your clients, and then start with a single product or service. Once you have a clear picture of your core innovation process, you can grow from that point on.

WFP set up its Innovation Accelerator seven years ago to identify and nurture high-potential projects using private sector approaches. The Accelerator’s primary function is to provide funding support and tailored acceleration programmes to prototype and test innovation projects in humanitarian operations. Since then, the number and size of our programmes have grown, for instance, by adding new pillars such as SDG Acceleration (2018) or Innovative Finance (2021). We now aim to achieve impact across multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) while preserving the same fundamental identity — accelerating high-potential solutions that can find a role in humanitarian work.

2. Build with your organization’s DNA in mind

Before devoting time and resources to creating an innovation structure, it is important to make sure that its goals and services fit the overall strategy of your organization. Because organizations have varied missions and needs, there is no one best approach to organizing innovation. Instead, rely on your organization’s mission, culture and current priorities to help you focus and optimize your innovation structure.

WFP trucks around the world come in every shape and size, covering all terrain so food gets to where it needs to go. This truck is fully stocked with food parcels being delivered to Aweeneya, mountainous western Libya. Photo: WFP/Khayal Productions.

In our case, the Accelerator’s structure aims to support and advance WFP’s global mission and operations. WFP focuses primarily on providing food and other assistance on the ground, including through cash-based transfers. Each day, we have 5,600 trucks, 30 ships and 100 planes on the move in some of the most remote and challenging parts of the world. Even the most groundbreaking startup may not succeed and scale with WFP if it doesn’t match the realities of these humanitarian operations. It has therefore been critical to design Accelerator programmes around this vision, matching startups with operational priorities and pilot-testing solutions with WFP’s field offices.

3. Stay lean

You don’t have to create a fully-fledged innovation structure from the start; in fact, it is not even advisable to pre-design all elements of your innovation framework at once. Developing an innovation structure is an iterative learning process in which you can continue building different parts around your core identity (see tip 1). You should leave room for failure and eventual improvement.

In February 2022, the WFP Innovation Accelerator hosted a hybrid Pitch Event with innovation teams and guests joining in-person in Munich as well as virtually from across the globe. Photo: WFP/Lukas Atzert.

Innovation bootcamps, one of the Accelerator’s earliest programmes, have evolved a lot since their inception. Our inaugural innovation bootcamp had three teams who pitched their project proposals only to three guests and potential funders. Over the years, we have increased the number of teams, enhanced the bootcamp curriculum and designed a more advanced pitch event programme. We also tested 5–10 day bootcamps to define the optimal length for the programme. Through participant feedback, we learned that our bootcamps were too long and created fatigue. This made us revise our bootcamps into 5–7 day intensive programmes. Having a solid bootcamp programme allowed us to quickly pivot to a virtual setup amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The last innovation bootcamp was fully virtual with 8 teams and a virtual pitch event attended by around 300 people.

4. Learn to navigate the corporate structure of your organization

From day one, core business processes and back-office operations such as legal, procurement, and finance enable the continuous running of your projects. As the backbone of your innovation structure, these business processes can have a big impact on how successful your innovation structure is.

Fenik is one of the projects supported by the Accelerator that offers innovative mobile refrigerators that run on water. Farmers are able to increase the shelf life of fruits and vegetables in the hazard-prone Southern Region of Malawi using Fenik cool boxes. Photo: WFP/Badre Bahaji.

As WFP’s innovation arm, the Accelerator inherited the structures and processes of its organization. This meant that we needed to know and comply with WFP standards and back-office protocols for the smooth run of innovation projects. Working closely with WFP departments on procurement, legal, partnerships, and programmatic areas contributed significantly to the success of our programmes.

The innovation unit and the organization’s wider corporate structure can complement each other while working towards a shared goal. Suppose you have an innovative proposal affecting the broader organization and want others to get on board. In that case, you will need to be aware of the stakeholders that can support you in implementing your idea. Show how your approach benefits the organization and its mission. Does it speed up the process? Does it free up funds and time for the organization? Explain the “what” and “why” behind your proposal. It is essential that involved stakeholders feel co-ownership of what you are trying to achieve.

5. Seek out and be open to feedback

WFP’s H2Grow innovation project uses low-cost hydroponics units to grow food. A farmer at a hydroponics garden in Kibera, Kenya’s largest urban slum, says the project provides a reliable source of food and income for women and young farmers. Photo: WFP/Gulia Rakhimova.

Naturally, an innovation structure will challenge existing practices, and getting support and buy-in for your initiatives from across the organization and your sector may not be easy. Early adopters can be a powerful source for learning what strategies have been successful and what challenges remain. Being part of WFP requires the Accelerator to demonstrate our solutions’ value and improve performance over time. Feedback from stakeholders, including the wider WFP, startups, partners and collaborators, and the people we serve, has been crucial to this process.

All of our innovation projects follow the human-centered design approach, which considers end-user feedback at every step. By adopting this methodology across our operations, we learn how to improve our solutions for the people using them. Likewise, consistent consultation with WFP’s field offices, WFP Technology Division and other programmatic teams enables us to have a deeper understanding of priority areas for innovation across the organization. This approach helps us to evaluate and enhance the quality of our work on a regular basis. For example, we ask event participants for feedback or gather insights through our annual Audience Survey to improve the way we share knowledge with the wider humanitarian and development community. By listening to end-users and stakeholders of our innovations, we identified gaps and gradually built around our core identity.

This has been our journey through the last seven years. Our work earned a variety of recognition, such as Fast Company’s Best Workplaces for Innovators and Most Innovative Companies and four Webby’s Anthem Awards. We will continue to leverage the most innovative solutions to end hunger and achieve the SDGs.

Find out more about us: http://innovation.wfp.org. Subscribe to our e-newsletter. Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn and watch our videos on YouTube. Read our latest Year In Review to discover what we achieved in 2021.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
WFP Innovation Accelerator

Sourcing, supporting and scaling high-impact innovations to disrupt hunger.