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Unlocking innovation: hamster wheels and fly wheels

Posted by James Whitehead Global Innovation Adviser

15th Feb 2016

Hamster wheel or fly wheel? Credit: Oxfam

Are you on a repetitive hamster wheel in your work or are you powering a fly wheel, providing stability and increasing momentum and power to bring about change? James Whitehead, Global Innovation Adviser, reflects on the qualities and circumstances that allow innovation to flourish in development programmes.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can unlock innovation in INGOs (see this innovation research report), wrestling with how they can do this more effectively, and talking to people who have great insights on the subject.
We sometimes seem to be stuck on a treadmill of programme delivery with little space for reflection
I am so energised when I see fantastic creativity and collaboration that is helping achieve positive change for people. For example, the work which Oxfam and others are doing on influencing conversations in Davos or working on flood insurance in Bangladesh. However, at other times I'm less excited. We sometimes seem to be stuck on a treadmill of programme delivery with little space for reflection and no time to explore new connections and possibilities that might have a much greater impact on people's lives.

I sometimes think of it in terms of hamster wheels and fly wheels. 

The hamster wheel is where an organisation or team is frantically dealing with the urgent. On the hamster wheel staff have their heads down delivering what needs to be done by tomorrow, or worse, by yesterday. All our energy is focused on getting past the next immediate hurdle and there's no time to look out of the window at other incredible work that's happening in the wider world. There's no time to reflect and the challenges of the moment are given priority both in terms of time and financial resources. It's a situation in which there is virtually no investment of time, energy or money in the future, because the present can't spare the change. Not a great environment for innovation to flourish but one that may seem familiar to some. Do some of us in a strange way also quite like the security of the hamster wheel?
Leaders need to be honest in reconciling the fundamental trade off between investment in the present and investment in the future.


In contrast, the fly wheel (a heavy revolving wheel in a machine which is used to increase the machine's momentum and thereby provide greater stability or a reserve of available power) is that slow building up of momentum, competence and connections over time that enables things to be done that one could n't have imagined in the early days. For example, when I was part of Oxfam's Middle East programme, I loved seeing how our work on olive oil evolved and became more sophisticated over time - the growth of a network of connections linking farmers and newly formed farmers' federations, the Palestinian Authority, donors, universities, olive oil traders, campaigners and even expert olive oil tasters. It's about working purposefully with your head up and with the time to engage in the wider world. This organisational and networked capability provides the solid platform for innovation - either to summon resources and expertise to take another step, to take smart risks or to pivot into new areas.

Leaders need to be honest in reconciling the fundamental trade off between investment in the present and investment in the future. We have to steal resources from the present for an uncertain return at some unspecified time in the future. Taking time to read about developments in the sector or meeting someone who might be interesting reduces our time to answer urgent emails in the present; seconding a staff member to another organisation deprives us of capacity in the short term; investing precious unrestricted funds in exploring a new business model means we can't use it as co-financing this year.
 
Innovation can be about solar-powered lanterns and funky apps, but if we are passionate about unlocking innovation in our organisations, our people and our networks, we need to firstly address the hamster wheel issue, we need to concertedly build the momentum of the flywheel, and we need to recalibrate our investment in the future to meet the demands of a more rapidly changing world. 

James will be leading a session at the BOND annual conference with IDEO entitled 'unlock your innovation potential'. The conference will take place in London, 29 Feb to 1 March, book your ticket now to hear James and other leading futures thinkers.

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Blog post written by James Whitehead

Global Innovation Adviser

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James Whitehead