Moving to Innovation as Usual: Applying an Innovation Mindset to Decision-Making at USADF

Developing Individual Capacity to Integrate Innovation and Systems Thinking Into Decision Making

How might we build staff members’ capability to innovate such that our organizational innovation improves?


Serious investment and efforts have been directed toward solving the complex, entrenched development challenges confronting the African continent. Despite these long running efforts, however, too many of these challenges have persisted, creating an imperative for transformative action for those interested in a vibrant and flourishing Africa. The US African Development Foundation (USADF) works in partnership with civil society organizations, governments, and the private sector in 20 countries to support its vision of empowered, robust African communities. The torchbearers for this transformative action are the local communities where this change must manifest. Even as USADF invested $53 million in 2016, impacting 1.5 million lives, it recognized that more must be done. As USADF grapples with the question of how best to increase impact, the organization’s leadership emphasized the critical need to shift its organizational culture toward increased efficiency, experimentation, flexibility, and ultimately, the realization of its vision. Recognizing that culture change underpins the ability to achieve such an ambitious agenda, the USADF leadership sought a partner to help embed an innovation mindset in all of its employees, and ultimately deepen their capacity to transform the lives of people living in underserved communities.


The capacity to innovate successfully on complex, multidimensional challenges isn’t something people are born with; it’s learned.  For most problem solvers, this requires two components: (1) the cultivation of an innovation mindset, and (2) pivoting from siloed thinking toward systems thinking.  An innovation mindset allows individuals to leverage their talents to experiment and adapt amidst changing circumstances to elicit the most impact.  Taking a systems perspective allows individuals and organizations to fully appreciate the interconnectedness of today’s challenges, evaluate potential unintended consequences, and learn how to anticipate relevant systemic shifts.

“I didn’t think there was room for innovation but now I see that the time is ripe to set the innovation culture in USADF. I’m excited.”  ~ USADF Staff Member

In May 2017 the Global Knowledge Initiative was invited to build a customized immersion into innovation mindset for the entire staff of USADF.  Tailored for relevance to the breadth of the team–back-office staff, in-country implementing partners, and the CEO—the three-day interactive training experience was designed to shift the status quo at USADF toward “innovation as usual”.  The GKI team applied its Improved Innovation Decision Making guide and toolset to develop USADF staff skills and strategies to cultivate an innovation mindset, and take a systems perspective in program design, implementation, and monitoring.  The valuable insights GKI elicited over the training informed USADF’s new theory of change, and new opportunities for leadership to deepen the innovation culture at the organization and systematically nurture innovation activities.

Results / Outcomes

  • Identified 5 fundamental organizational challenges hindering the systematic adoption and application of an innovation mindset across the organization.
  • Resulted in immediate collaborative action for change: two organization-wide processes were prioritized to facilitate experimentation and improve communication.
  • Shifted the organizational perception to view innovation as key to high impact development outcomes resulting from USADF work.  By the conclusion of the workshop, 90% more participants agreed that an innovation mindset is key to realizing the USADF mission.
  • Observed a 112% increase in the number of participants who felt confident in their ability to bring effective, innovative ideas to the workplace.  This was in sharp contrast to participants’ self-evaluation of their capacity prior to the workshop, when the majority of participants felt only somewhat confident bringing innovative ideas to the workplace and somewhat effective in their innovative efforts.
  • Designed and facilitated three days of customized trainings for more than 70 USADF global staff convened from 20 countries.
Photo Credit: Julia Tanton, USADF