Written by Veronica Chinangwa, Data Coordinator

Innovation is the new big word in the business and development sector that everyone seems to be fixated on. We often see newspapers and magazine covers awash with the news and gossip of the latest whizz-kid with the latest innovation, usually tech, that can do what was previously unimaginable or impossible by past generations. But what those bold declarations on those glossy magazine covers do not show you is the sweat, blood and frustration in the back-end. Innovation speaks more to the unseen learning from several failures, best forgotten, and the many occasions where innovators force themselves to adopt a nothing-less-than-take-charge boldness when faced with challenges, finding solutions and surviving against all odds; all in all, staying sane enough to remember and stay true to their original goals.

In this great laboratory called life, we are all striving to fit in, find opportunities, create room for solutions to solve all our age-old problems. However, the one thing that separates an innovator from others is an attitude of ‘intention’. The generation of ideas can be easily achieved, but the nitty gritty that follows bringing ideas to life take attitude, an attitude that can only be manufactured intentionally by those that are working to solve the problem, an attitude that can only be encouraged under the right circumstances and environment.

When our team explains to people what we do, its very simple. We validate data that comes through to us from the field, checking it for any errors or accepting it if it looks good. That means if I have my laptop and my cell, I can work from practically anywhere. Right? Not exactly.

Our office space is big enough to sit a team of 8, and we call it the Call Center. Sounds stuffy? We think so too. Its always noisy, we have weird impromptu meetings that range from the simplest, ‘I need help’, to sometimes the most serious ‘we have a problem’ and then later morphs into debates about life, relationships, politics and whatever else we can conjure up at the time.

However, as I sat down one morning and found myself the sole occupant of the room for that day, it hit me that I had nobody to ask questions, bounce ideas off of or even help with a particular problem they were facing. It was then that I realized that our office was a place where a whacky idea is generated, debated over, challenged and later molded into creation.  Yes, our daily crazy ritual of social banter had allowed us to create a space where ideas can be restated, rebuilt, rejected and reconnected into coherent, clear action plans that we own and receive full credit for.

You see, when the call center was created, we had guidelines but no set-in-stone rules except one: any mistake, fallback or failure would reflect on the team as a whole. If one failed, we all failed! For weeks, we sat in an office, fought, clawed and fought again until we learnt to respect one another and understand the different things that made each one of us tick. As a team, allowing room for error, open communication and a non-traditional compliance-focused environment surprisingly led us to a space of no fear. Fear erodes the very core of any relationship’s values and goals because it hinders people from achieving their highest level of creativity, which ultimately hinders sound decision making and the platform to generate whacky ideas.

call center.

Supporting diverse perspectives in the team allowed for the creation of a safe, inclusive and free learning environment for the job that we all were trying our best to be good at. The dissolution of fear made it easier to explore multiple points from different perspectives, while also allowing us to accept that some of these ideas may fail.

Ironically, it was our failures that propelled the team to do the very best we could possibly muster. Change became the key aspect of the project because the more complex the work became, the faster we needed to try out ideas, and throw out the things that did not work. Our very jobs depended on us making possible strides to improve the working relationship between our organization and the enumerators in the field. The more we talked, dissected and brainstormed on seemingly simple things, like communication management, to aspirational things like how else can we make ourselves useful for the project, the definition of what we do, and why we do it, became richly complex. We were involved in training, data analysis, supervision, technical support, field support, data validation, enumerator evaluation, project support (finance, logistics) and much more. Not only had we achieved our goals, we had successfully carried out each and every single task and responsibility on our job description and then some. I know, it felt great! But mostly because it had happened without us even knowing it would.

Thinking back, I realize that our motivation was not rooted in achievements or high fives. We intentionally (possibly unaware of it) positioned ourselves to improve the working environment we had with all the people that we work with to create a space for innovation to thrive.

Moving forward, it’s almost scary to look at what we have created. Not only has it generated interest, but it also means more responsibility, more actions, more problems and an even bigger need to improve on our work. The temptation to shift into a controlled, traditional and rule-based environment to keep the pieces from falling apart is great, because adapting becomes even more difficult. However, achieving this level of innovation has not only provided us with game changing strategies, it has also allowed the team to be recognized for their hard work, reflective and effective style of making plans and implementing ideas, and, this is the best part, seeing a crazy idea move from the illegible scribbles on a whiteboard to actual real-world results. Nothing beats that feeling!  

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