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Moving Beyond the Hotel Conference Room: 6 barriers to innovation

Emily Endres   |   July 14, 2016   |   Comments

Civil society organizations and other local change-agents are vital to the sustainability and success of global development efforts. These local actors are able to tap into social capital and act as mediators between governments and communities. Their approaches are borne from a deep understanding of the local context. In many cases, they’re already influencing policy, inventing new technology and shifting social and cultural norms that result in improved health and prosperity.

Because of the important role civil society organizations play in global development, international development organizations and donors want to support capacity building as well as knowledge sharing and learning within this group. Millions of dollars are invested each year in events and programs designed to disseminate information, share knowledge and build skills, but little is understood about what happens after learners leave the hotel conference room. This is called “the Monday morning problem.” After a learner develops or encounters a new approach or skill that they want to integrate into their program or organization, what barriers do they face when they go back to work on Monday morning and try to implement the new idea?

Since 2014, Results for Development (R4D) has provided resources and learning opportunities to 120 water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) organizations, in partnership with Dasra and the Millennium Water Alliance. The goal is to support the work of these local change-agents, and to identify the types of support and environments in which learning and adaptation thrive or languish.

Below, we summarize what we’ve learned so far. Read the full report here.

6 barriers to implementing new ideas

We interviewed over 30 WASH program managers based in India and East Africa. They identified six major barriers to implementing new ideas learned from their peers or from other knowledge sharing activities.

  1. Lack of reach-back support. When program managers learned a new skill or approach, particularly in the context of a workshop session delivered by an expert, it was difficult to implement that new tool or skill in their organizations without the ability to contact the expert with follow-up questions. Many of the people we spoke to described access to a mentor or expert throughout the process of implementing a new idea as critical to their success.
  2. Lack of customizable tools. Many program managers we spoke with said that it is difficult to find tools that fit the unique needs of their organization. When tools are shared during a learning event, they are often shared in PDF format or hard copy, creating a barrier for a program manager who wants to start using the tool on Monday morning. Sharing tools in a format that can be used immediately can save program managers valuable time.
  3. Lack of resources. Innovation requires testing, iteration and a willingness to fail as part of the learning process. Programs found it challenging to go through the testing and iteration process while attending to all of their day-to-day responsibilities. Some programs that received funding specifically to test a new approach expressed that the funding was extremely beneficial to the innovation process, but they were often challenged by the short timeframes they were given to show results. To turn learning into more permanent change, programs said it would be helpful to have a dedicated person to take on additional tasks, funding to test the new idea and sufficient time to observe and document results.
  4. Lack of buy-in from staff at all levels. A new idea needs support at every level—from management and staff. Without support and commitment from managers, the idea will likely not be implemented at all. The idea may become impossible to implement if it is not approved. Conversely, management may approve it, but fail to make it a priority for staff.Attempting to implement a new idea without the buy-in of all staff—in other words, taking a top-down approach—can also make adaptation more difficult by creating a negative culture around the learning process. Leaders need to make buy-in a priority and create space for the ideation and testing process at every level. Middle-managers need to have the time and resources to test new ideas, and lower level staff need to feel empowered to contribute to the process and understand the importance of doing things differently.
  5. Lack of flexibility within the organization. It is difficult to implement new ideas in a rigid organization. Organizations that prioritize the status quo lack the flexibility to engage in the try-fail-iterate process needed to improve on existing practices. Some organizations we spoke to created flexibility within the organization by setting up expectations as early as the first interview with potential new staff. Interviewees were told that they would be expected to regularly try new things and to contribute to the testing process for new ideas. In addition, some organizations had processes and tools they used to test new ideas. These processes, when they are not overly cumbersome, can help organizations be more organized in the way that they try new ideas without losing their flexibility.
  6. Lack of flexibility from funders. Many programs identified strict donor requirements as a barrier to implementing new ideas. Donors that require programs to use specific templates for monitoring and evaluation, or that discourage programs from diverging from set timelines or work plans, create challenges for programs that want to try something new.  Doing something differently takes both time, and risk-acceptance—and while funders crave innovation, they do not provide the types of flexible and long-term funding needed to truly drive it.

So what can we do differently?

As a result of our conversations with local program managers, a few key actions have surfaced for in-country program managers, funders, and organizations that are designing and implementing activities designed to facilitate the learning and capacity building process.


  • Create reporting requirements that allow programs to be flexible and agile
  • Support programs in course correcting and trying new approaches throughout implementation; avoid punishing deviation from original work plan.
  • Provide funding that gives programs the time, human and financial resources to learn and adapt

Learning Facilitators

  • Design learning events that allow participants to learn by doing
  • Survey participants before the workshop to understand problems they are currently facing, and design content to address challenges
  • Distribute “soft” versions of tools that they can immediately used or customized


  • Seek input and new ideas from lower level staff
  • Ensure buy-in from staff at all level
  • Allocate appropriate resources to test and implement new ideas & give lower-level staff time to support the effort
  • Invest in mentorship from both peers and experts

What’s next?

Through the remainder of this year, R4D will continue listening to local on-the-ground implementers to identify best practices and recommendations for change to better support the learning and adaptation process.

Contribute by sharing your experiences with us @Results4Dev on Twitter, or via email at Visit our website to learn more about R4D’s work with the WASH Impact Network.

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