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Failure to Scale - Crossing Humanitarian Innovation's Missing Middle

innovation practice sector - aid and development strategy and design Jan 07, 2024

The 2011 publication of Eric Res' book, The Lean Startup, solidified an approach to innovation based on Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial approach to developing mobile apps and other digital products.   Innovators were told to develop light weight pilots (minimum viable products), and then test them quickly so they could 'fail fast' if the idea didn't pan out.   

A wide range of commercial businesses, government agencies, and even aid sector actors embraced this model of low cost fast moving innovation.  By 2013 the aid sector had setup a number of innovation programs that were developing pilot projects on a wide range of important humanitarian challenges.   

But there was a problem.  Almost none of the growing number of pilot projects were going to scale.  It was as if the aid sector's innovation programs were breeding a host of baby bunnies, but none were growing up.   

The pressing question was, "Why?"   One possibility was that the aid sector innovators weren't doing the lean startup practice right.  Maybe they just needed to do a better job of what they were already doing?  This is an appealing explanation since it implies that success is just a matter of greater diligence, without a need to confront different or harder problems.  

As experienced real world innovators, Ian Gray and I looked at the problem and saw a far different challenge.  The pilots being produced were successful.  However, the next stage of their development was far more complex and difficult, and the lean startup practice didn't have a toolkit for addressing these 'messier' requirements.   Things like sustainable business models, providing support in low resource environments, and building collaborations all required a lot longer and more complicated solution.  

Only after traversing this 'messy middle' of the innovation process would it be possible to replicate the proven and workable solution.   This idea was initially presented at the first Humanitarian Innovation conference in Oxford England.  It was then further developed in a pair of papers for the World Humanitarian Summit.  And finally those papers were consolidated in a presentation to the IEEE.  That consolidated paper, which provided the foundation for much of my future work in humanitarian and aid sector innovation, can be seen here:  

Engineering Scale Up in Humanitarian Innovation's Missing Middle

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