On Fostering Innovation

“People don’t know what they don’t know.”

It’s a sad reality of our life.

One thing that commonly happens in social enterprise or with NGO’s, is that when they enter a community, they have a great tendency to impose their ideas and then leave after the project ends. A lot of time this change doesn’t catch on because the NGO representatives are seen as foreigners. Sometimes the local community does not connect with them, and does not find their work relevant. And even if any change does happen, it’s only short-term change and is not sustainable.

In other words, it doesn’t take long for things to return to the way they used to be.

That’s why it took us at Kuza multiple programs to understand how sustainable change can happen within a community like the program we’re running with our partners Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture; that is by empowering a young person who already has established relationships within the community using our Uber-like platform so he can help the people around him learn, connect and grow. Because the relationships are already in-built, trust exists within the community, and maximum impact can be attained with minimum effort.

The replicability of this model is incredible, as it applies to different types of informal communities — not just smallholder farmers. The model can be applied to construction workers, or sanitary workers.

The Kuza journey has always been a journey of experimentation. It’s what we like to call a 99% failure and a 1 % success story, with the 1 % growing exponentially. But that’s the natural path of innovation; through failure. It is known that Post-It Notes has been a result of a failed experiment. Why that is usually the case is because dealing with failure helps one understand what went wrong and learn from it in order to improve the product or service.

While there are many forms of the innovation process, the most general one is shown below:

However, this requires a culture that is open to innovation and has a positive outlook towards failures. An example is Adobe that has a Kickbox program where employees are given a bright red box, which contains tools for fostering innovation [1]. This is different from common business practice where managers go to work everyday with the goal to remove failures.

Another barrier is the mere negative connotation connected with the word “failure.” Thanks to our school system and the environment in which we grow up, many people hate to be associated with the word. This leads to people staying within their comfort zone, and not liking to deal with situations where a lot of uncertainty exists, thus stopping them from attempting anything new. One way to battle this negative connotation with the word ‘failure’ is using the word ‘Pivot’ as has become common in the Silicon Valley scene.

At Kuza, we’re encouraged to think different about everything from the role titles to how we design educational programs. For instance, we’ve been experimenting with the concept of Learning Battle Cards which is a tried and tested framework and tools to see how we can use them to develop programs that will be suitable for our beneficiaries.

Noting that the educational space is changing so fast, and traditional training programs don’t really capture the continuum of ways that people learn, the cards are a design thinking tool that helps gamify the process of designing programs.

As a final note, it’s important when adopting an innovative mindset within any corporation to realize that immediate success is not as good a teacher as a series of failures, as the former can be attributed to beginner’s luck while the latter helps one dissect as to where the iterations are to be made.


[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/mzhang/2015/08/19/adobe-kickbox-gives-employees-1000-credit-cards-and-freedom-to-pursue-ideas/#5861b514b0fc