Why we hold an annual Innovations Summit

Village Enterprise staff blindfold one staff member

One busy Friday afternoon my to-do list was growing by the minute. Check in on our contract with the hotel. Could they do a barbeque the last night? Which car would pick up our team from the US at the airport? Our team at Village Enterprise had been waist deep in preparations for our annual Innovations Summit, the one week out of the year when our team gathers in one place, for months now. I hurried into our Assistant Country Director, Peter’s office and plopped myself down in a chair across from him as he launched a skype call about one of the topics we will cover during the summit: market linkages.

The skype ringtone filled the silence in the room. First Violah picked up, Innovations team in Kitale was on. Next Stellah joined, Finance from Soroti represented. Next came Tobias from Migori county and Stephen in the Nwoya office. After a few minutes we were connected with Lucy, Development Director speaking with us from San Carlos, California. Over the next couple of minutes, we had team members from every office, representing every department from field to finance.

As Peter launched the discussion, I sat back and listened as the team dove into discussing how we could immerse ourselves into the context of our business owners to better understand the challenges they face in engaging with markets.

Over the past few months, Village Enterprise has worked to adopt Human Centered Design as our approach to innovations. In global development, far too many ideas start in conference rooms instead of corn fields. Human Centered Design helps combat this by providing a structure through which new ideas can grow out of the lived experiences, challenges, and opportunities of the end-user. The process begins with a phase of research, building empathy for experiences faced by a potential beneficiary or end user. Then, a new product or service is designed based on synthesizing the findings from that initial inspiration phase. Finally, the product or service is prototyped and iterated based on user feedback until ready for scaling.

In preparation for this year’s Innovations summit, set for the week of September 17th, we’ve selected two primary topics core to our strategic goals: technology adoption and market linkages. Everyone on the Village Enterprise team has been assigned to a team working on one of these topics. In the spirit of Human Centered Design, each team is spending the weeks before the summit engaging in empathy driven research to understand the needs of our end-users (in this case our front-line staff and our business owners) so that we can use time together during the summit develop strategies for market linkages as well as new technology tools to pilot in the field.

Within a few minutes of our team discussing how to interview our business owners and brainstorming how we could learn from the experience of our field staff, the spreadsheets, the invoices, the ever-growing to do list faded. I was simultaneously overwhelmed and inspired.

How lucky are we, I thought, that we work for an organization that, every year, invests time and money in making sure our whole team gets to spend a week under the same roof? How cool is it that we are an organization that recognizes the importance of turning big ideas into prototypes to pilot? How special that Village Enterprise ensures that we tap the creativity and ingenuity of every member of our team to contribute to building our innovations.

Every year, our one-week innovations summit gets larger as our team grows. The meetings get longer, the logistics get tougher, the cost increases. In light of that, we have to remember why we do it. We have to take moments to stop and recall why it is the most important week of the year. The summit gives us a filter for our most important work, something to work toward and something to work from. This week together provides a platform for us to work together, from CEO to Field Associate, to develop our strategic direction. Finally, a week spent together in one place, performing in a talent show, reflecting on our failures and learnings, making smores, gives us an opportunity to develop a shared sense of our culture and values.

The next month before the summit will be stressful. Our to-do lists won’t stop growing, the planning will never end, the spreadsheets will become more and more complex. But I want to take more time to stop, to listen to my peers ideas, to reflect on the weight of what it means to be a part of this team, this work, and our wonderful Innovations Summit.

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