It's All About The People

Reflections on Building the GenU Youth Challenge

Katherine Crisp with Brian Cotter, Bekhzod Makhmov, Hana Sahatqija and Tamara Zakharia
Gen U Youth Challenge finalist from Pakistan
08 May 2019

There is a lot written about innovation processes, tools and technologies, but I have always been fascinated by the people part of innovation. In a big organisation, the challenges to making change happen are usually about working with people - both your direct team and wider stakeholder groups.

Over the last 10 months, UNICEF Innovation worked with Generation Unlimited colleagues to design and deliver the first GenU Youth Challenge. We started with a blank sheet of paper in June 2018. Over the following months, I plead guilty to using and abusing the metaphor ‘we are building the car whilst driving down the motorway at speed’. But we did it! Over a 9 month period we built a process that engaged over 800 youth, many from highly disadvantaged backgrounds, in 16 different countries. We unleashed their inspirational creativity to design and prototype solutions relating to education, training and skills, employment and empowerment. GenU provided seed funding to 80 teams (you can ‘meet’ the top 32 teams here), with 5 teams having now been selected to receive $20k investment and bespoke mentorship.

Generation Unlimited

Designing the youth challenge has been an absolute privilege, working with a team of 4 amazing people, spread across different countries and timezones and all with other ‘day jobs’. A few reflections, which can perhaps also be turned into a bit of a checklist for recruitment when it comes to teams that are scaling innovation.

"The magic happens - outside your comfort zone" Activate 2017 talk by Katherine Crisp, Kosovo
Arber Maloku
"The magic happens - outside your comfort zone" - Activate 2017 talk by Katherine Crisp in Kosovo

1. Innovation mindset = being comfortable with uncertainty

When we started the Youth Challenge design process we knew where we wanted to go; we knew the deadlines and constraints; we knew some of the tools and principles that we wanted to use along the way, but we really didn’t know exactly how we were going to get there. Some people rise to this as a challenge; others break out into a cold sweat at the idea of not having a very clearly defined project plan. Innovation project managers need to be the kind of people who relish having a north star goal; and are comfortable navigating uncharted territory.


2. Innovation thrives on diversity and challenge

This is a bit of an innovation cliche; probably because it’s true! A team spread across 5 countries was challenging logistically, but it also meant we had 5 different sets of experience, attitudes, cultural understanding. We also felt comfortable disagreeing and debating points of disagreement, usually finishing on a stronger product.

Gen U team from Thailand
Gen U team from Kenya working on a prototype

3. ‘People people’ are key - it won’t work without the extended team

The core team was 5 people, but there were probably about 50 people who were absolutely crucial to making the Youth Challenge happen - teams in each country, the Gen U core team, the HQ Operations team (we were doing something new so even transferring the money wasn’t simple!), the various communications teams, and other invaluable ‘ad hoc’ supporters. For each of these people there were levels of uncertainty, unexpected challenges to overcome, workplans to tear up and change at the last minute....

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!

Someone somewhere has probably done at least some part of what you are trying to do before. As well as using lots of internal UNICEF resources (UPSHIFT, Generation of Innovation Leaders, Wearables for Good, HLM3 Design Challenge), we were lucky to have great friends, ranging from MIT Solve and MIT Inclusive Innovation to the d-school in Cape Town, who provided sounding boards on topics as diverse as re-framing pitching to storytelling and normalising judges’ scores.

Gen U bootcamp in Montenegro
Anderson Alves, Gen U participant from Brazil

The right tools are important...

...but there is no tool or silver bullet that solves collaboration across virtual teams. In my experience, the most important thing is to use the tools that your team uses in their everyday routines (go where people go!). WhatsApp, Skype, Google Docs, Sharepoint and Trello were the bedrocks of our team, although I could moan about issues with all of them ;-)


So perhaps this can be summarised as: ‘Recruit a diverse team, who can constructively challenge each other, are comfortable with uncertainty, good at working with other people, unafraid to ask for help and don’t mind receiving messages across very random timezones!’


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