Cultural Transformation


How is it possible for an aid organization to develop new ideas and business models for fighting hunger within a single week? Simultaneously creating a new culture of innovation?

The Challenge

The non-profit Deutsche Welthungerhilfe is one of Germany’s largest relief organizations, providing a spectrum of services ranging from rapid disaster relief to rebuilding and long-term development projects. Since its founding in 1962, Welthungerhilfe has sponsored more than 8,500 projects in 70 countries in the amount of 3.27 billion euros. The organization’s strategic goal is highly ambitious: to achieve #zerohunger by the year 2030.

To introduce the innovation and agility required to move forward rapidly towards this goal, in early 2017 STURM und DRANG was brought on board as strategic adviser to the NGO’s Innovation Factory. The Innovation Factory is an incubator in which select Welthungerhilfe staff from every department all over the world develop innovative and highly effective ideas for hunger aid initiatives in a compact ‘sprint’ format of a mere seven days in duration. The resulting concepts must be compelling enough to attract funding and find international sponsors for implementation. Another objective was for those involved in the Factory to transport its culture and innovation methods back into their own respective work areas.

The Transformation

As a partner to the organization’s board and the newly formed innovation team, STURM und DRANG designed and conducted an Innovation Camp in Delhi at which innovation leaders from all departments learned about innovation methods and how to directly apply these in specific contexts. At the Camp, at least three implementable ideas were to be developed for subsequent funding and project execution.

Hailing from Mali, Afghanistan, France, Germany and other countries, 18 appointed ambassadors of the new culture of innovation met with STURM und DRANG for a week in Delhi to work on the three strategic topics of Rural Entrepreneurship, Behavioral Change and Government Advocacy. At the end of the week our ideas were developed, complete with funding and roadmap. Initial cooperation to implement the concepts commenced one month later, in partnership with local stakeholders in developing countries and with Augmented Reality providers, for example.

The pilot was so successful that a thematically focused Innovation Factory will now be held annually. Besides project ideas for fighting hunger, the Innovation Factory in Delhi started a cultural transformation supported by all the organization’s staff characterized by increased dialogue across functional and national boundaries.

“Much more has been accomplished through the Innovation Factory than I would ever have dreamed. It was a step towards a stronger innovation culture at Welthungerhilfe. And we came up with two ideas with surprising game-changing potential in the fight against hunger—one of which is a technological innovation, the other more of a cultural one—which I’m really excited about. We wouldn’t have achieved all that without STURM und DRANG.”

Till Wahnbaeck, Welthungerhilfe CEO

Step one: Innovators wanted

People are what make any company innovative, and behind every innovation process. STURM und DRANG consulted for Welthungerhilfe on conducting an international Call for Innovators in which staff members on every level and in every department of the organization were encouraged to submit ideas and contribute to bring their crucial dedication and experience to this collaborative effort.

The application process was less formal than in the past, partly in the interest of stimulating innovation, partly as a reflection of the collaborative spirit. This approach paid off, as the number and quality of applications submitted exceeded all expectations. The participants in the first round of innovation were chosen across a spectrum of countries and functions.

From fieldwork to (Innovation) Factory. © Aldo Vaz

Step two: Empathy wanted

What is it like to be a farmer in Maharashtra, India, where crop failures and debt crises have been grave enough to drive up the suicide rate? What is the worldview of the “angry rural youth” in Zimbabwe and what opportunities do they see for themselves? It was essential that the Welthungerhilfe innovators first feel real empathy for the people they envisioned helping, thus instead of intellectual business cases, the undertaking began as a journey to understand the lives of individuals. The results were surprising.

In considering advocacy issues the Innovation Camp attendees looked at ways to catalyze politicians and officials to adopt anti-hunger strategies. Instead of taking a black-and-white view according to which there are those who are interested in the common good while everyone else is simply corrupt, the empathy exercise made clear the gray areas that exist. For example, an official who doesn’t dare make waves because she doesn’t want to attract attention to herself. Or the local politician who is opposed to foreign influence based on his war experience. Or a person who doesn’t want to harm existing business relationships. Truly relevant responses were arrived at as the team delved deeper into understanding of the problem.

Step 3: The breakout

It’s not a lack of ideas or bad ideas that lead to failed projects, but rather a lack of precision in defining the problems. Once the core problem has been defined (such as a desire for urban living among rural youth), the search for solutions can begin. But there is a danger of falling back into old patterns and solution approaches by merely ‘setting up a process’.

To ensure a breakout from in-the-box thinking, STURM und DRANG started out by asking seemingly outlandish questions, such as: ‘How would I solve the problem if I were Harry Potter? What would I do if I were Steve Jobs? What would I do if the objective were to make the problem worse? What if I were God? This latter question actually led to a winning idea.

The concepts were presented on an international online soundboard and evaluated, ranked and refined that very night. Then the winners were allocated funding.

Agile prototyping using Legos: building ideas. © Aldo Vaz

Inaugurating a new culture of innovation

In addition to the development of pioneering concepts and prototypes, the Innovation Factory with STURM und DRANG heralded the dawn of a new culture of collaboration and innovation. During the week in Delhi, the organization’s personnel found out what it means to think and work outside of one’s usual silo, like when a marketing manager based in Bonn and an Ugandan field worker active in helping school dropouts got to thinking together about an idea to help people in Ecuador. The participants said they felt like they were really only now getting to know their own organization. These moments of dialogue generated enthusiasm and yielded a wealth of ideas, and lasting contacts that were made at the annual event.

Vibrant networking: a programmer, a governmental advisor, a project manager and an attorney. © Aldo Vaz

The results

The Innovation Factory concluded with the selection the most promising ideas, like

  • The Child Growth Monitor is an Augmented Reality app that helps communities to identify children suffering from latent malnutrition. This allows them to administer dietary supplements to avoid resulting health consequences.
  • A sharing system for farming equipment designed to eliminate monoculture and thus mono-nutrition.
  • Quran for Nutrition is the name of a cooperation with mullahs and other local authorities aimed at spurring behavioral change in the handling of foods.

The Augmented Reality app for prompt diagnosis of and rapid response to malnutrition. © Welthungerhilfe