WHO IS PATRICK CHOQUETTE?
This is Episode 101 of the podcast and the 2nd in our new direction on Innovation in international development and humanitarian aid.
Now, when you think about the Peace Corps – the first thing that comes to mind for most of us (after the slogan “the toughest job you’ll ever love“) are bright eyed college grads in grimy clothing somewhere in, well, the middle of nowhere, working with people who have very, very little relative to the material wealth the United States is known for.
My point here is that the Peace corps is not the first organization that you think of when the term “cutting edge innovation” is put on the table. Finding water and basic livelihoods materials – yes. 21st century technology and change at the pace of some of the best in silicon valley – no.
But here’s the thing: Peace Corps has had an office of innovation for almost 5 years now, and there are some very cool things happening. To learn more about them, I spoke with Patrick Choquette, who has served as the director of Peace Corps’ Office of Innovation since 2012. He is the agency’s second director of Innovation and manages a small team within the Director’s office with the mission of empowering staff and volunteers with a work environment that breeds innovation.
As you’ve come to expect from guests here on Terms of Reference, Patrick is no slacker: In 2014, he was awarded the prestigious NextGov Bold Award for his accomplishments in creative problem solving and innovation. He has also previously served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ghana, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, a middle school educator, and was one of the first field operatives hired in Iowa for President Obama’s 2007 primary campaign.
You can connect with Patrick here:
IN TOR 101 YOU’LL LEARN ABOUT:
- What innovation is like and how it is promoted across the Peace Corps globally.
- How the environment plays a role in fostering a culture of innovation.
- The role of autonomy, and how having trust within the PC core philosophy has placed them at an advantage when it comes to innovation.
- The value of instant feedback, failing fast, and even resistance to innovate.
- Patrick’s views on competition, agility, disruption and frugality, as it pertains to innovations.
OUR CONVERSATION INCLUDES THE FOLLOWING:
- The Peace Corps (PC)
- Open Street Map
- Duolingo Classrooms
- Map Kibera
- Internal innovation
- Culture and atmosphere
- Autonomy, Trust
- Online Learning
- Language Learning, Spanish
- Early Adoption, Obsolescence
- Social Media
- Ebola Crisis
- SMS, Instant Messaging (IM) Apps
- Washington, DC
- Kibera, Nairobi Area, Kenya
EPISODE CRIB NOTES
People living with little. The Peace Corps work in places with natural resources but often with limited access to common technological advances.
Peace Corps has an Office of Innovation, within the Director’s Office.
Directing PC Innovation
How to breath in innovation within the PC?
Sometimes enjoyable, sometimes frustrating.
5 years of iteration.
Cases of use
Traditional barriers innovation. Large bureaucracy inside and out of the PC. Innovation means talking with a lot of people before implementation.
It starts on the ground, then the conversation levels up into office culture, risk management.
So innovation means building an environment that “breathes innovation.“
There is no PC innovation policy. The most important thing they have done is finding an agreement about the very definition.
“Innovation is the direct result of giving people the room to experiment. It is not a tool, nor a particular practice. Is the result of creating an environment.“
It’s the environment, stupid
“There is no way around it and no cheap way to get to it.“
Powerful PC managers have the duty to foster it.
First requirement: Autonomy. Trust, decision making power on a daily basis.
PC is already opposed to micromanagement. “We are the most innovative agency in the space right now,” thanks to the autonomy the volunteers get.
Traditional supervising methods would actually be detrimental.
Second requirement: Real-time, human readable data. Immediate feedback and a person’s ability to make change.
Volunteers receive a 3 month intense pre-service training, in country, including language, culture, skills. “It’s a very valuable piece of time.“
Patrick tries to include an innovation component to the training, but there is not a lot of time left. Language takes priority.
So, how about the time before being accepted and the pre-service? An online course was developed with its corresponding low completion rates.
The problem identified was motivation. It turned into a tracking issue.
They worked with Duolingo’s business manager. Duolingo developed a “classroom” dashboard to show completion rates weekly. Later, an online dashboard was developed to access real time performance data.
Intervening programs for internal use
1.5 years with the Duolingo partnership. It started with Spanish. Close to 2,000.
Partners went from 10 hours a week of language practice to 40 over 10 weeks.
“The most interesting thing are the assumptions. Everybody has some. It is what makes people excited.“
Gamification practices. What is the best motivator? “People posting videos of themselves speaking the language to a group of fellow volunteers.“
Even at PC there is resistance. “But it is healthy because it forced us to create evidence. The burden of proof lies on the innovator.” Even before Patrick there was no empirical justification for the current practice.
Things are changing quickly.
The leader of the Duolingo partnership program oversaw 1,000 people. It was critical to help him optimize his workflow, and for him to be able to create compelling evidence.
The program was intended to be decentralized, but it was clear that centralization would allow for better data collection and a more robust rate of iteration. Countries only have so many cycles a year.
A larger scale allows for a better thinking framework on optimization and sustainability.
Setting up technology needs to consider the small time frames of modern technology before obsolescence. “We want to jump to the next best thing as fast as possible.“
Agility levels the playing field among players across all sizes.
It allows for startup disruption.
Even though small and large NGOs don’t go for the same lines of funding, “there is competition in the atmosphere.” There are other volunteer programs, the level of competition they provide the PC is a matter of reflection.
Large organizations, or those whose funding is not subject to market dynamics, should foster a propensity for innovation from within.
5 people in the Innovation Office need to ‘compete’ for the attention of the other 895 who work at PC headquarters.
They are early adopters and quick to broadcast tech that works and makes everyone’s work more efficient.
People at HQ have understood to receive their ‘evangelistic’ message.
The Innovation Office fails fast.
IT has revolutionized the PC landscape. The Social Media team has become the PC’s point of reference for up-to-date ground information from whenever PC is active.
This includes updates on experiments and discoveries that feed the IO operations.
Open Street Map for the Ebola Crisis. Massive deployment, all hands on deck.
But they don’t have accessible data sets about access to scattered rural locations. No Street View for rural West Africa.
The PC has mapping experience and has been in the region for years.
An army of online volunteers jumped to map the region through OSM.
The IO tries to promote tech efforts to spin off in local initiatives.
The role of OSM for the PC and global development has been prominent, sometimes crucial for success and efficacy.
On funding innovation from within
IO exercises a low resources philosophy. “It’s a nice pressure for us.“
Innovation needs escapability, which needs low cost.
Non-traditional funding. They use their own time. If another office is interested in a new or improved program, IO personnel goes in, gets involved, shares the risk.
“I like the idea of keeping it nimble, lean, scrappy. PC is scrappy.“
Innovation turned no-brainer standard ops
SMS would be among the first. Now IM apps. “Nobody made the decision, it ended up happening.“
Radio is still prominent, standard practice for parts of training after deployment. Still effective.
Duolingo’s Luis von Ahn.
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