Got a new idea?

You presented it to your colleagues or boss? How did it go? Not so good?

Well, you’re not alone. Last week at the Inside NGO annual conference in Washington, D.C., keynoter Adam Grant from the Wharton School told us that it takes 10-20 exposures to a new idea to develop familiarity with it.

Adam’s opening remarks set the perfect tone for the conference where finance, HR, compliance, IT and other professionals within the international development community gathered to discuss, share, and collaborate on new (and not so new) approaches to achieving operational excellence within their respective development and humanitarian organizations.

From a learning perspective, it was great to see a significant increase in content around learning topics compared to the last couple of conferences.

I also found professionals across the organization discussing learning. My colleague Ross Coxon co-facilitated a session with Mark Nilles from InsideNGO on the role of online learning in the development sector that attracted finance and compliance professionals as well as learning and HR staff. In addition, Tim Boyes-Watson of Mango and I had the opportunity to discuss our collaboration to develop a certification in financial management skills for program and other non-financial staff at the Finance Director’s roundtable. The Learning and Development roundtable was packed with rich discussion about creating learning organizations.

In addition, there were sessions about evaluating learning, increasing interactivity in classroom training, and more. Clearly, L&D is continuing to play a more strategic role in building the talent system at many INGOs. This strategic learning conversation will continue at the Global Learning Forum, presented by LINGOs and hosted by PATH in late September, so come join the discussion <end shameless plug.>

One of the perennially most popular sessions at the conference, Lifehacking NGO Style also had a big learning theme. In this session, co-facilitated by Bill Lester and Surya Sayed-Ganguly of NPOKI and Alex Banh of The Asia Foundation, there is a wide open discussion as people share apps they use to be more productive and effective. This year saw many tools that not only make work more social but also make it easier to share ideas, knowledge, and learning: Podio, Mural, SmartSheets, Microsoft Office Mix, and more… So, it was evidence that people are increasingly looking to harness the learning from within their organizations. Yet, for L&D professionals in the sector, it is also a reminder that our colleagues in the business functions are less interested in learning for learning sake but want tools and content that will integrate into their work streams.

Fail Fast

I heard a lot of buzz about the “Fail Fast: Failure is an Option” session even though I did not attend it myself. Kudos to the presenters including senior leaders from Plan USA, FHI360, PATH, and NPOKI for shining a light on how we can learn from our mistakes. In a sector striving to innovate in order to achieve better outcomes and deliver more value for increasingly skeptical donors, we need more comfort with failure. Or at least more comfort with making small bets, failing fast, and creating a forum inside our teams to learn from these mistakes and fail forward to a better idea. Adam Grant also highlighted how it requires generating at least 200 ideas before we can find a really innovative one. If we fear failure, we are unlikely to be willing to generate and test more than a few, low-risk ones.

But where are all the people?

The InsideNGO team did a great job with a full roster of sessions and provided ample time at lunch and the receptions to support networking. However, like every other conference I have attended in the past year, the ability to connect and network more proactively is a challenge. Every conference now has a conference app and a Twitter hashtag as a standard offer. Yet, getting people to use them seems to be a real challenge. The vast majority of attendees did not activate their profiles in the app, and the number of people tweeting was a very small minority. From a learning perspective, it seems such a missed opportunity.

We know there is a vast amount of expertise in the conference hall, yet how do we find the person with the same challenge? Taking a cue from Adam Grant, maybe we need to increase the exposure. For example, when registering, ask people to submit their biggest question for conference attendees and post that in the app (instead of job title—seeing “Finance Coordinator I” in a profile is not helpful!) Or how about creating structured time each day to walk people through connecting with 5 colleagues they don’t yet? Add people’s Twitter handles to the name tags. In the end, it’s about making structured networking a built-in learning tool as opposed to leaving it to the randomness of the lunch line—although I met some great people at lunch!

Thanks, Alison!


The conference closed by awarding InsideNGO co-founder and President Emerita, Alison Smith, the Lifetime Achievement Award. It was a wonderful tribute to Alison who has contributed so much to our community not only through her role at InsideNGO, but as a board member at Interaction, and board member and former chair at LINGOs, and so much more. Thank you and best luck in your next adventure, Alison—a true leader in learning!




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