By Vrouyr Joubanian, Head of Experimentation at UNDP Accelerator Lab, Lebanon.
This is a two-part blogpost outlining the past, present, and future of UNDP Lebanon’s Accelerator Lab. The first part covers our approach during the first several months, while the second one outlines a new approach that we’ve begun implementing.
The word experimentation may conjure up images of beakers and test tubes, but it is so much more than just a process of scientific method and can happen anywhere, not just in a sterile research laboratory. Broadly defined, experimentation is a culture; it is a disposition, a way of orienting ourselves to the work we do. Indeed, experimentation can be a way in which organizations prioritize systematic learning through doing and trying rather than just planning and anticipating. It is a mindset that values the lessons of failure as much as victories of success.
With this dynamic definition in mind, how might Lebanon’s UNDP Accelerator Lab be a hub for experimentation? Certainly, part of achieving such a goal would involve working with teams to instill the values and sensibilities of experimentation. But our work can’t stop at advocating for a certain way of doing things. The Accelerator Lab also needs to be a site of experimentation itself. In other words, what would it look like for the Accelerator Lab to experiment with how it’s doing business? What would it look like to engage with individual projects and the Country Office (CO) as a whole in new ways?
In our first nine months of work, the Lebanon Accelerator Lab has primarily taken on a consultancy role, plugging into existing projects and lending support where necessary. This has been essential especially given the crises that have unfolded in Lebanon since October 2019. As a lab, through this kind of supportive work, we have learned tremendous amounts of information about how UNDP operates as an organization. At this stage, however, we are keen to experiment with new approaches to engaging with the CO. As we explore in this post, we would like to see the Accelerator Lab evolve from a space of consultancy to a site of co-creation.
THE ACCELERATOR LAB AS SUPPORT TEAM
Where did this approach come from and what does it entail?
Our work thus far has been driven by a logic of support for existing projects and initiatives within the UNDP Lebanon Country Office. This approach is encapsulated in the kinds of questions that we initially asked when we began engaging with various teams within the organization. For example, we asked colleagues explicitly how we might support their existing projects. In this approach, we asked teams where they thought the Lab might add value to their work, and we asked them to identify their own challenges. In other words, in our early interactions, we foregrounded our role as a support team.
This approach was the logical outcome of our first several months on the job. Because our Accelerator Lab did not begin with a predefined focus, our first task last fall was to get to know the various units within the Country Office in order to identify ways that we might plug into existing projects. Just as we were beginning to get a hold of things, mass uprisings shook the country (more on that here), followed by an economic collapse and a global pandemic. These external forces have necessitated an all-hands-on-deck approach. We can see evidence of this kind of work in the sensemaking activities that we helped facilitate, which were aimed specifically at understanding the political, economic, and pandemic forces shaking Lebanon over the last several months. Thus, as a result of the on-going crisis mode, our work has taken on a supportive role.
Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Should we show or should we tell?
In the spirit of learning from failures—as the Accelerator Lab Network endeavors to do—we are beginning to identify the shortcomings of this approach. In particular, we have fallen into a familiar trap that we’re calling the chicken and the egg. As the old saying goes: which comes first? Do we show or do we tell? As an Accelerator Lab, which has been tasked with introducing innovation into the Country Office, do we advocate for our way of working? Or do we demonstrate it by taking on projects of our own? Through our work so far, we are learning that we think that the former is a more compelling way of achieving our goals. For our own edification, we need to go run our own experiments and to go through the process as we imagine it, not just as existing projects see fit. In other words, it is difficult for us to claim that the Accelerator Lab has new tools to offer without being able to point to a portfolio of work that assures teams that we add new value to their way of doing things.
What’s in a question?
To return to the issue of questions, we have learned that when you ask the wrong questions (as we have done), then you get the wrong answers. So far, we have asked projects to situate us into their own projects and processes before they truly understand what we do. Because even if we don’t have a clear vision of our process yet, project teams see us as “innovators who will help better deliver a project.” Therefore, our questions have often triggered a desire for new and innovative ideas but with very little sense of how to accomplish that.
Even worse, our line of questioning has encouraged projects to locate our contributions in an already existing process, which leaves very little room for innovation or new ideas. Often, we fall into the task of helping teams deliver their project on time. From our perspective, the root of this problem is the fact that we have asked projects to identify their own challenges, which often gets interpreted as logistical obstacles or needs rather than a zoomed-out portrait of how the project was designed in the first place. As we have learned, we shouldn’t put the onus of identifying challenges or problems on the project leaders themselves. Sometimes an outside perspective isn’t only helpful; it’s necessary.
Who owns the work?
Our existing approach involves a clear hierarchy in which the project teams are the owners and drivers of all of a project’s components. This is, of course, the natural outcome of our approach, but it also forecloses the possibility of innovation. Such a set up slows down the experimentation process. It also means that all decision making goes back to the project teams, who are accustomed to doing things in a particular way. Therefore, there is very little space for new ideas, new processes, or new approaches.
At this critical juncture, our current approach has had many successes and also a number of failures. Both are valuable as we envision our next phase of work within UNDP. We have learned a great deal about how the organization works and crucially we have been able to lend a hand where our colleagues need it most. At this point, however, it is time to apply that knowledge in a new approach is more closely aligned with our mission as an Accelerator Lab, which is to change how people are engaging with their projects. If this first approach is really marked by the Accelerator Lab understanding the kind of work that happens in the CO, then the second phase is about the CO understanding better what the Accelerator Lab does.
Click here for Part II of this post.