We can do things differently, and we can do different things. Innovation is not only the most sophisticated technologies, sometimes it is the simplest of things. Be bold, be revolutionary, and disrupt: because without innovation, there is no way we can overcome the challenges of our time.”

(António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations)

This is how the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) Youth Network (IYN) “Fireside Chats with IFAD Leaders” initiative was conceived. From the simplest of ideas: that promoting and fostering a culture of dialogue and empathy at the workplace – where most our interactions take place – can be revolutionary, innovative and life-changing.

As member of the IYN steering committee, I was asked to co-lead and help design a safe and informal space where young colleagues could meet and share ideas with our organization's senior professionals. When it happened, I immediately began wondering what the added value of this new initiative could be.

The ask seemed challenging at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. IFAD had already offered initiatives like coffee meetings, mentoring programmes and other virtual activities aimed at facilitating professional interactions and countering the sense of isolation caused by social distancing.

As such, how could I set our initiative apart? What new elements could be incorporated into this new project?

Designing new interaction spaces through the UN Innovation Toolkit

Two tools from the UN Innovation Toolkit – the Innovation Storytelling tool and the Embrace Failures tool – helped my teammates and I through the creative and innovation process that led to the launch of the “Fireside Chats with IFAD Leaders” initiative.

The first tool, Innovation Storytelling, made me realize that the greatest innovations always stem from unmet needs, and that human beings have a basic need to connect with others and learn about each other’s stories and experiences, as it is especially from these that they draw inspiration. These thoughts allowed me to reflect on the needs of my peers and inspired the design of the Chats initiative. As a young professional myself   – an intern at the start of her career I tried to interpret the feelings and needs of my generation. Thus, in conceptualizing and designing the new initiative, I asked myself what its added value would be, and how it could serve as a meaningful space for interaction.     

My conclusion was that, given the abundance of activities already in place, we should promote a new (or simply rediscovered) human-centred narrative within our initiative. More concretely, I wanted to create a space where inspiring stories, experiences and visions could be shared to generate an emotional connection between the speakers and the audience. A space where we could "humanize" professional interactions and get up-close and personal with the main leaders of our organization. I wanted to create a space where we can show that behind every successful professional is a person like us, whose path has also been marked by challenging moments, indecision and failures.

Our previous point brings us to the second tool, Embrace Failures. We wanted the Chats to provide a comfortable and safe space where we could discuss people’s career development, achievements, success stories and experiences. But, most importantly, we wanted to create a setting where we could explore examples of failure to foster a culture that helps individuals expect, accept and openly discuss mistakes as part of their growth process.

Fostering a culture that embraces failures by sharing real life examples and lessons

Thanks to the great contributions of our guest speakers, we were able to accomplish such a culture. Meike Van Ginneken, Associate Vice-President of the IFAD Strategy and Knowledge Department, shared an instance when her enthusiasm for a new role made her to underestimate the challenges of managing a multicultural team. Her initial misdiagnosis taught her a lot about damage control and embracing failure.

Similarly, when Henrik Franklin – Andean and Southern Cone Hub Head of IFAD’s Latin America and the Caribbean Division – was appointed as head of a new team, he implemented a new practice with the intention of tracking progress and improving performance. He was disappointed to discover that months after his departure, the practice he had put in place was abandoned. This did not discourage him, but instead made him change his approach to team management. Failure made him reflect on the importance of diversity of thought, listening to and learning from others, empowering them and guiding them to identify the most appropriate solutions to their own problems and needs.

In this respect, The UN Innovation Toolkit proved to be an important guide. It supported us in outlining and building the foundations and content of our initiative.  The Innovation Storytelling tool was particularly useful as it helped us identify the characteristics of our audience and select the appropriate communication method, channels and frequency of communication. The Toolkit proved beneficial when we were reflecting on the narrative of our initiative, and the sentiment that we wanted our audience to walk away with at the end of our Chats.

The Embrace Failures tool helped us find a way to combine success stories with conversations about failure. We encouraged senior leaders to inspire the audience — through real life examples —to take risks, make mistakes and draw lessons from them.

The “Fireside Chats with IFAD Leaders” initiative is certainly not the most sophisticated invention. It is based on a simple Innovation Toolkit inspired idea — that a space that promotes open dialogue, empathy and inclusivity could have a positive impact on our organizational culture. Thus, through this initiative we were able to help members of our organization foster a safe environment where failures are discussed openly and used to drive learning that accelerates innovation efforts.