Ann Mei Chang has worked for some of the most forward-thinking companies in the world. Her turns at Google and Apple, before transitioning to Mercy Corps and now the helm of USAID’s Global Development Lab, perfectly situate her to harness the power of the public and private sectors, all while helping to transform the way the US “does development.” We ask her for a few tips on what the best kind of innovation looks like to her.
1. To start, what is the US Global Development Lab?
The Lab is the newest bureau within USAID and leads the agency in transforming our development efforts through modern tools and approaches. By using science, technology, innovation, and partnerships, we believe we can find ways to end extreme poverty better, faster, cheaper and more sustainably.
2. What defines an innovativeproject, or rather a successfulinnovative project?
The difference between simple invention and innovation is that invention is creating something new, while innovation is creating something new that actually delivers real value. The success of an innovation should not be judged based on a glitzy demo, but rather on the impact it delivers. We believe that a strong evidence-based and iterative approach is necessary to enable innovations to succeed by ultimately improving the lives of millions.
3. Do you have an example of bad innovation (in the development or private sector)? Perhaps, it is something the 21st development professional should avoid at all costs?
I’m sure we’ve all heard of numerous “innovations” which tell a great story, but have never been adopted by more than a few thousand people. Good innovations focus on the problem and user first, focus on collecting evidence to create a tight feedback loop, rapidly iterate and fail fast.
4. What are some critical skills development professionals need in their efforts to foster innovation?
We need to reframe innovation, even at the individual level, as “how” we do things, not what we do. Individuals can focus on delivering health projects for example, but they should be asking themselves: “How could data provide me with greater evidence? How could human-centered design help me design for greater impact? How could mobiles or e-payments enable us to reach more people, more cheaply? Is there a way I could crowd-source ideas for a better result?” Development professionals who ask and seek to harness the new “how” of development are the people I love to work with.
5. How can organizations support these creative thinkers — modern tool-users — within their ranks?
Reward innovation, allow for failure, and embrace learning and change. Don’t limit your teams based on their current role or program, but rather encourage out-of-the-box thinking. More importantly, focus on execution over flashy ideas. I fundamentally believe innovation is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.
Fear of failure. If people fear failing, they’ll take the safe approach and the result is mediocrity. I’m a big fan of “Fail Fairs,” which have been popular in the Information and Communication Technologies For Development (ICT4D) sector. They encourage sharing stories, learning from failures, and making it all fun.
Chlorine Dispensers — they are cheap,convenient and safe. Chlorination can reduce the incidence of diarrhea up to 40 percent and provide safe water for 72 hours. In randomized control trials, distributing tablets in communal water source dispensers, rather than to households, showed usage increase to 49 percent compared to the current usage at 5 percent, all at around 50 cents per person, per year at scale. With support from USAID, these can now be seen popping up at community water sources around East Africa, reaching millions in Kenya, Uganda and Malawi.