Measuring Success with Complex Innovations – a real world exampleJan 07, 2024
One of the things that most infuriates organizational executives about current innovators is the innovator's insistence that you can't plan and measure progress for their work. The rather cheeky message to leadership is that 'what we're doing is so agile and unpredictable, that you just have to trust us to end up in a good spot'.
Maybe (just possibly) that makes sense if you're exploring a new untested idea with a small pilot. The stakes and the challenges aren't very high. However, if you're trying to do something as complex as an ecosystem innovation, an ambitious idea where there are multiple people, organizations, resources and technology involved, then the investment in time, money, and collaborative work is far greater. "Just trust us" doesn't make sense to a leader who's being asked to invest heavily in an innovator's vision, and relying on their ability to deliver.
On the other hand, it certainly is true that a complex evolving ecosystem innovation can't be planned out in detail completely in advance. Rigorously planning the work, and inflexibly working the plan also doesn't make sense either. That's how you drive a bus off a cliff, instead of adjusting your direction to stay on the road.
So, what does effective governance of complex innovation look like? There is a middle ground. If the innovator develops a big picture view of the ecosystem they wish to create it's possible to define aspects of that solution that can be tracked and evaluated. Instead of measuring the details of each task, the evaluation shifts to evaluating how the elements of the solution work. It's the nature of the ecosystem and the outcomes it produces that are tracked.
This provides both structure (needed by leaders) and flexibility (needed by innovators). The plan no longer specifies exactly which task or output is to be created, but instead describes the kinds of results the ecosystem needs to produce. This is actually what the organizational leader really cares about, so it's a win win for both parties.
What does this look like? A good example can be found from the CDAC Network. CDAC works with countries facing potential crisis situations to develop communication networks that provide timely reliable information to communities and then listens to their needs and concerns. It's a complex ecosystem innovation that involves government, media, civil society and communities.
I worked with the CDAC team to create a measurement and evaluation (M&E or MEAL) framework that supports this kind of complex communication ecosystem building. Note how the elements to be evaluated focus on outcomes, and the measures are open ended regarding how the results are achieved.
In addition to providing structured flexibility to the innovator (they know what needs to be done but have options on how to achieve the goals), this also provides flexibility to tailor the ecosystem design to different contexts. As a result, the high level framework can potentially be applied to an island nation like Fiji or a much larger country in Africa or South America.
This thinking and approach is useful to ecosystem innovators working in business, government, and broader multi-actor collaborations. Regardless of context, if there is a complex challenge with a sophisticated ecosystem solution, you need both guidance and flexibility.
See this example of a flexible Measurement and Evaluation framework for a real world ecosystem innovation here:
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