“I am a huge believer that through innovation, through technology, through new solutions, we really can disrupt inequalities, we can equalize opportunities for women and girls. And with that, I think it's so important that we collaborate with entities like yours [UNSSC] who can help us on this journey to transform and deliver in new ways for the people we serve.”

Nigina Muntean is the Chief of the Innovation Unit at United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).  A medical doctor by profession, Nigina has lived and worked as a doctor in many low resource settings and knows firsthand how much innovation can change the lives of women and girls.

In this Spotlight interview with Berin Mckenze, UNSSC Learning Portfolio Manager, Nigina highlights the importance of fostering a culture of innovation within UNFPA and how the UNFPA Innovation Springboard Programme supports this vision.

Berin: The work done by UNFPA is of a scale and scope critical to the UN and to the communities that we serve. It is always a pleasure to work with you on your learning needs and to develop programmes such as the Innovation Springboard Programme.

Now, if we think about the context of UN 2.0, where we look to incorporate UN 2.0 into the way we do things so that we are better able to be a system that can meet the challenges that we are required to, what does it mean to foster a culture of innovation at UNFPA?

Nigina: I always say it's a journey. We don't see it as the end goal. When people ask what success looks like in innovation, I don't often have a simple answer. It's not "In five years, this is what we will achieve," because it then sounds like we're stopping there, and we can't. It is a process. How do we go through this journey? What are the milestones? We need to consider these aspects.

UN 2.0 is helping us frame that journey through the Quintet of Change to understand how organizations can change and integrate these interventions as part of their DNA.

This is where we align with the current thinking because two years ago, UNFPA did exactly this. We moved from treating innovation as a project to making it a part of our DNA.

Our role is to take care of innovators within UNFPA Country Offices, business units, or outside of the organization. This is what our culture is about. We acknowledge innovation, celebrate it, and learn from each other when it is not successful, understanding that experimentation is part of the journey too.

I would say there have been four major shifts over these last two years:

  • Pockets of innovations to a think-different organization.
  • Funding to financing.
  • Doing it alone to doing it together.
  • Doing innovation to managing innovation, using the convening power of UNFPA, identifying how we can support partners around us to innovate in areas that need it.

This has resulted in the following:

  • Leadership: Our leadership actively supports innovation, asking ‘We support you, what else can we do so you can be more innovative?’.
  • Certification: We made Innovation a part of UNFPA’s managerial certification. Managers at all levels must know how to nurture innovators around them.
  • Innovation Fairs and the Innovation Springboard Programme: We celebrate innovation internally, for example, we conduct Innovation Fairs and Awards Ceremonies every year. The winners receive an award. And by the way – the Innovation Springboard Programme was part of the award!

Berin: That’s fantastic to hear Nigina. What obstacles have you encountered, whether internally or externally, regarding creating an enabling innovation environment? How have you navigated some of that?  

Nigina: It's a challenging journey. We have a vision, strategy, and approach, yet changing is easier said than done. We conducted a survey across all Country Offices to pinpoint barriers to innovation and identified four major areas:

  1. Human resources: There's a notable scarcity of personnel to implement innovative solutions.
  2. Resistance to novelty: This is pervasive, not just within teams but also among external stakeholders. There's a comfort in the familiar, making it challenging to embrace new methodologies.
  3. Engaging the private sector: This proves more challenging in emerging economies and developing countries, where the private sector isn't as robust as in the global north. Our goal is to create a win-win scenario where businesses can thrive and advance human rights and women-centric solutions.
  4. Innovation storytelling: It is not easy to convey the real-world effects of our innovations. Our approach includes storytelling to illustrate not just technologies such as AI-powered chatbots but how UNFPA is fundamentally changing lives by providing essential services and information, leading to significant social impact.

In response, UNFPA initiated internal Innovation Clinics to address these barriers through peer-to-peer learning, external expertise, and tailored solutions. We emphasize a bottom-up approach, asking what's needed and how we can assist, learning from both successes and failures to foster a collaborative environment for continuous improvement and impactful innovation.

Berin: Wonderful. Now you've mentioned the UNFPA Innovation Springboard Programme, which we collaborated on with you. Thank you for your trust in that process. Could you outline how the  Programme aligns with your aims to foster a conducive environment for innovative thinking?  

Nigina: When we established the Innovation Unit at UNFPA, our intention was not to create a team that innovates for everyone, but rather to catalyze innovation throughout the organization. Our approach was reinforced by the 2023 UNFPA Innovation Springboard Programme learning journey which aligned well with our vision. This includes:

Skill enhancement: Initially, we conducted extensive interviews to pinpoint the needs of personnel. Skill enhancement was in high demand from the start. Previously, a handful of teams would engage in innovation pilots annually. The Springboard Programme allowed for broader participation and was designed to meet our specific needs:

  • Human-Centered Learning: At the end of the course, 75% of participants felt the Programme was significantly tailored to their specific needs, ensuring relevance and applicability to their roles. The UNSSC team made participants feel the course was designed for them and their needs as leaders. Participants were from different roles, countries and units. This means something in the Programme was so rightly designed that it really spoke to each of them, even though it was a group exercise. Each of them felt, ‘wow, that was really made for me the way I wanted and needed.’
  • Psychological Safety: Another critical aspect was establishing psychological safety, a necessary condition for fostering innovation. We talk about it a lot, but to understand what it really means, appreciate it, and learn how to create it, within your capacity, is critical. The Programme is peer-to-peer enabling and that is part of that psychological safety, which is so important for any creativity, for any innovation, for any just ideas sharing.
  • Innovation Storytelling: The Programme remarkably improved innovation communication skills, with participants reporting an increase in competence from 22% to 91%. That's almost 100% - an amazing achievement! Initially, only one in five participants felt that they had innovative storytelling skills and now, almost all say, ‘I feel much more confident’. That’s incredible. If I can communicate what I do in a way that moves others, impacts others, I feel much more confident doing it again and again, and I feel more confident to grow into that space. This is amazing because it is about how we help that individual to make change around them.
  • Peer Coaching: Peer learning was equally pivotal. Participants come from different geographies, countries, communities. The Peer Coaching in the Programme enabled that space of colleagues to feel together in their learning journey and support each other. It's important to recognize, ‘yes, I go for the same hurdles as you.’ or ‘yes, this is what we can do together to address these hurdles.’ Participants could exchange lessons and feel that they are all in one boat, learning together, evolving together.
  • Effectiveness: Lastly, 100% of all participants said they would recommend the Programme to others, saying that it was effective and created value. I think you can't wish for more. There is no more than 100%!

Berin: Thank you for your kind comments. We are honored to work with you. The Staff College is part of the UN. We speak your language, and we are here to design Programmes based on the diverse needs within UNFPA. It's an exciting part of our role to work with partners such as yourself, to nuance learning, and understand ‘how do we make this real?’ That has been a wonderful part of the process to work with partners, as I say, such as your team, Nigina.

Nigina: It was a pleasure. On behalf of all the team, and all those 100% who felt so happy, it was such an added value. Thank you so much.  

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