Seven Things I Learned About Leading Change

January 04, 2014













As the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) first dedicated chief scientist in two decades, my office helped lead efforts to transform development through science, technology, and innovation. This meant transforming the Agency itself. In the past four years, these are seven key lessons I learned about leading change within a large institution.

1. Dare Mighty Things. A shared and inspirational vision is necessary to generate excitement, and create the momentum needed to overcome institutional inertia. The vision has to appeal to both the rational and the emotional sides of individuals. Our goal was to make USAID the unquestioned technical leader among development agencies globally by harnessing the power of science, technology, and engineering, creativity and design, and data and analytics. Our vision also needed to represent a clear end state – elevating science or innovation for its own sake was not enough. Although we recognized that the path to a transformative breakthrough could be murky, chaotic, and serendipitous, the end goal of what we were trying to achieve and how we would measure it had to be clear. At USAID, our initiatives were measured against a single standard: How did the technology or innovation improve the speed, efficacy, cost, scale and/or sustainability of our development efforts? This gave us metrics that were measurable and clear across a diversity of different areas from global health to food security. Our vision allowed us to do big things.

2. Consistency is Important. In an institution like USAID, changes brought by each successive administration may be viewed with skepticism, as ephemeral fads, by both the professional staff and the larger development community. Consistency of language and approach are very important signals to those constituencies, while a multitude of changing priorities may undermine all new programs. We saw the benefits of consistency in the Grand Challenges for Development (GCD) – a 20-50 million dollar open innovation competition to address the critical constraints of the world’s biggest challenges. The GCDs were initially brilliant at sourcing existing innovations, but not necessarily great at generating new breakthroughs. Although the first round of each Grand Challenge provided an insightful catalog of the state of the art, exposing the Agency to new innovations of which it was unaware, the innovations from that initial round didn’t change the reality of what was possible. It was only when we held second and third rounds of our first Grand Challenge for Development, Saving Lives at Birth, that we increasingly saw the development of new breakthroughs. The reliability of our funding streams for the GCDs and open innovation encouraged investments into the development of new solutions. This suggested that larger, consistent, multi-year efforts, like the Grand Challenges or the X-prizes, were better than infrequent or one-off prizes at galvanizing global action, creating transformative innovations or technologies, and changing the landscape of solutions and approaches.

3. The Power of Architects. Although my role was to serve as the Agency’s first dedicated Chief Scientist in two decades, my actual job description was much closer to that of an architect. We built the architecture for a robust science and innovation ecosystem in the Agency, reversing the trend of the previous two decades that de-emphasized the technical strengths of the Agency. This included creating the institutions and programs, as well as cultivating the culture that opened the space for science and innovation both within the Agency and outside (including the developing world). We sought to expand the boundaries of the Agency’s procurement limits through the use of prizes and challenges, crowd-sourcing the world, and by using external peer review in the selection process (the latter seems obvious, but was very difficult). We expanded the use of data and technology in development. We supercharged bureaus and missions with talented scientists and engineers. We championed scientific and technical excellence in the Agency, creating and implementing the Agency’s first scientific integrity & research policies (the latter underway), pushing for new or broadened authorities for science, technology, and innovation, expanding access to scientific and technical literature, and pushing for new advancement opportunities based on technical ability, for Agency professionals. Finally, we sought to change how USAID engages universities, creating platforms for students and faculty to co-design, and co-solve problems with the Agency. In the end, building the ecosystem for science, technology, and innovation had much greater impact than any individual action or initiative we could take. We noticed an indirect effect resulting from our actions: we opened space for others through example. There is no shortage of great ideas in the Agency. USAID is filled with extraordinary, committed, and bright professionals, who want to end hunger, save lives, and stop suffering. However, over time, and perhaps defensively against the detractors of foreign aid, the Agency bureaucracy had grown increasingly immutable to new approaches. This became a critical role for our team – to change the idea of what was permissible, or even possible, for the Agency.

4. Find the Bright Spots. Elevate and Champion. Repeat. Chip and Dan Heath have written extensively about the importance of “bright spots” in their book Switch. We saw three primary roles for the Office of Science and Technology: First, we were catalysts to help bring change to the Agency. Second, we were a customer service office for those who wanted to take on new approaches, but needed support. Third, we elevated and championed those who were willing to take the risks. These were our bright spots – the individuals who were willing to raise their hand when others were not. Saving Lives at Birth, the first GCD, involved a significant risk because our approach to the Grand Challenges was novel (we focused on sourcing and creating innovations from multiple sectors from energy to corruption, rather than on research advances in global health). Moreover, open innovation was also largely new and untested within the Agency. There was a another problem: Saving Lives at Birth involved not only significant investments from USAID, but also from the other development agencies and foundations that had partnered with us: Norway, the Gates Foundation, and Grand Challenges Canada. Millions of dollars were at stake. The potential consequences of reputational loss to the Agency were as great as any financial loss. So when a member of the leadership from the Global Health Bureau stood up and said that the bureau would take the risk, and lead our first GCD, my team put forth our fullest efforts to make them successful. The early adopters are already the iconoclasts, the inventors, the ones who believed in the vision, and our job was to support them behind the scenes, elevate their profile, bear the consequences if Saving Lives at Birth failed, and ensure they got the credit if we succeeded.

5. Innovation is Not Only About New Ideas. The Grand Challenges for Development, our prizes, and our science programs encouraged thousands of new innovators, scientists, and engineers to approach the Agency for the first time. Our programs generated many brilliant new ideas and innovations (see a small representation here). Although we were initially focused on creating new innovations, we recognized we needed to do more to support the innovators after they received funding. Over time, we also saw the innovation of new business models and financing as important as the technological innovations. The truth was that we would only be successful if the technology developed through our programs could be transitioned to scale through partnerships with USAID’s missions and bureaus, by investments of other foundations and development agencies, and through the power of the free market and social entrepreneurship. This is where we saw our role as differing from institutions like DARPA –scale had to be considered from the beginning, and the transition to scale had to be as important as the generation of new breakthroughs.

6. Learn by Doing, Including by Failing. In Washington, failure is deemed unacceptable and can be fodder for cutting budgets and ending careers. After my office created and hosted a science fair focused on design for the other 90%, which became one of the Agency’s most well-received events at the UN General Assembly annual meetings, we were greeted with a cavernous silence the following year when we proposed holding a “failure fair for development”. Taking risks is never acceptable when taxpayer’s funding and people’s lives are at stake, but paradoxically risk, failure, and experimentation are necessary parts of advancing both the science and innovation necessary to turn the grand challenges into opportunities (see my post on failure and risk). We found ways to mitigate risk. Collaborating with other parts of the Agency allowed us to bear the impact of the failure on behalf of others and thereby encourage them to try new approaches. Alliances with other development agencies and foundations allowed us to distribute risk among multiple institutions. External expertise through peer review provided us a double check against our own biases, and increased the rigor of our review. In the end, we recognized our role was to take risks, disregard naysayers, and push the limits.

7. Be Fearless. There was constant pressure for us to normalize our activities, to be cautious and work within the system, and to water down the language and ambitions of our programs and procurements. As a new office with an uncertain future, institutionalization was seductive. However, this was not our purpose. Given that the Agency had moved away from the technical side of development over the last two decades, we had a narrow window to bring about change and restore science and technology to its rightful place. Accordingly, we needed to be fearless, pushing the Agency as far and as hard as possible to embrace risks, to challenge orthodoxy and fundamental assumptions, and to rethink the traditional development model. We had to act as if it was impossible to fail, and to change the reality of what was possible. Disruption wasn’t our mission, but it was part of our culture and identity. Our office was a small part of the Agency, so we needed to be focused on the truly transformative ideas and approaches because the core work of the Agency was already well covered by other Bureaus – we had to focus on our comparative advantage within the institution. When we didn’t push back hard enough, our programs were less successful because they signaled business as normal. We couldn’t attract revolutionary ideas when we asked for the mundane. In the end, the ultimate success of these efforts will depend on whether the institution becomes more like the startup, rather than if the startup becomes more like the institution.


Alex Dehgan served as the Agency’s first dedicated chief scientist in two decades, and created and led the Agency’s Office of Science and Technology. As the Agency’s chief scientist, Alex sought to ensure that USAID was the global leader in employing science, technology, and innovation to solve global development challenges. Follow him on twitter @lemurwrangler. All views expressed here belong solely to him and are not attributable to USAID.

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