What are the origins of the SDG Lab Failure Report? 

The lab was created to focus on collaboration and innovation and the mindset required to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We think that a big part of the mindset is talking more openly about challenges and failure. We recognize that this can be sensitive, but we feel that it is fundamental because if we don’t talk about challenges and failure then what we have is a glossing over of those things and not true learning. So, as the saying goes, a failure is only a failure if you don’t learn from it. That’s where the Failure Report stemmed from. So we decided in reporting to our main funder, a government, to explain some of the failures we experienced, why we thought they happened and what we would do to improve. Another part of that is also being iterative. So, if we try something and it doesn’t work, we would be agile enough to adjust. 

Another point that I’d like to make here is that using the word ‘failure’ is important. People want to say a ‘lesson learned’ or a ‘stumbling block’. The fact of the matter is: having failures along the way is normal. We need to get more comfortable with that term.

Why did you decide to use innovation methodology to tackle this particular issue?

There’s a lot of writing about failure and failure reporting so we actually adopted a lot from there. I think we felt that the current systems aren’t working. So we wanted to try something new and different because I think it’s important for future application. It’s worth noting, we did also have a high level of trust with our key stakeholders so it was ok and safe enough to talk about failure with those stakeholders. It was innovative and we used innovation methodology, but we used it within the context of a deeply-built relationship where we felt we had the space to do that.

Thinking about the outcome, how was using innovation different from a more traditional approach?

Unfortunately I think the traditional approach, when it comes to failure, is to sweep it under the rug and not talk about it. The difference is that we were able to learn from what happened and adjust course based on those lessons. Another thing that’s probably worth mentioning is that none of the failures were critical or life-ending. If you’re in a situation where it’s more sensitive than that, it can be challenging. We actually got it out there and we learned from it. We let our funder know that governments and other funders can’t expect 100 per cent success if they actually want to achieve these goals. Period. We’re going to have to try some new things. And, by talking about what doesn’t work, we create the space to say: this didn’t work but this is what we learned from it and this is how we go forward—which is what I think is really crucial because if people are expecting 100 per cent success rate, it’s impossible and it means that we’re just going to be doing incremental progress instead of big changes. 

Why is it important for innovation to become an integral part of the UN’s work?

Just one word: relevance. Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean always creating something new. It can be about using something and applying it in a new way—something that exists and applying it in a new way. But in order to maintain relevance and particularly to keep up with the pace of change and information flow in today’s world. So that’s why I think it’s crucial for the UN adopt it—and adopt it in a broad sense. I don’t think it’s all technology. I think it applies across policy, ways of working, internal. So I think it’s broader than just what people might think of innovation and it goes a lot deeper than that. 

What would you like to say to other teams across the UN system about the power of innovation and its impact?

We have to deploy innovation in ways where there are a lot higher stakes: people’s lives and livelihoods are often in the balance in the work that we do. We’re not innovating just to create a new product like a business product. We are innovating to change people’s lives. To never forget the purpose and also to be kind to ourselves about maybe not always being able to be as cutting edge as technology companies. I think we’re going to be somewhere in the middle because of the work that we do. 

How do you think the new Innovation Toolkit will change the way the UN tackles its challenges?

Sometimes the hardest part about getting started is just knowing which steps to take. So I hope the Toolkit encourages other people in the system to look at their own situations and say, “Ah yeah, I can apply this here. I can apply that there.” So I guess just grounding it and making it real. 

How do you personally innovate your everyday?

I think the number one thing that I always try to embody in my work are two principles of innovation. Firstly, being user centric. So if I’m doing anything and I’m not clear on how to move forward, I try to get a lot of perspectives so it’s not me working in a silo or in my own little space. Secondly, I try and not get married to my ideas. So if something I’m doing isn’t working, I try not to let my ego fixate on it. But rather, move ahead and try something new. 

How do you sustain innovation within your team?

Mostly, honestly through a lot of communication. And I mean communication in both creating the spaces for us to exchange and to be constantly sharing information and ideas. But also, exchange in terms of really understanding how each person ticks and how they work. We do quite a bit of work in our team retreats in understanding people’s learning styles and understanding people’s working styles because innovation can be scary to a number of people. But sometimes it’s not about calling it innovation. Sometimes it’s just about bringing about the best tool that would work. So I think really just understanding the team, and then creating a lot of spaces for them to contribute.


Photo credit: UN Innovation Network