“We’re here to create something new”, Brigitta opened the GIZ Innovation Lab on 2-3 November. The invitation had spoken of innovative solutions for global challenges, and of pioneers that lead the way forward. The space was beautifully decorated and encouraging, the participants from all corners of the world. “This is a journey, and we’re here to explore”, she continued. “There’s only one rule: There are no rules.”

The implicit agenda: inspire the next version of GIZ’s leadership development programme. It’s already a life-changing experience, participants reported. We heard stories of new skills and motivations, support networks and friends – and of organisational resistance and the urge to quit. Being a change agent is not for the faint-hearted.

“We really want to go beyond organisational change here”, I heard one of the programme leaders say. “What do leaders need that want to tackle our big, sticky societal problems? How do we transform entire systems?” The courage to start small was one suggestion. The ability to think big, too. But above all: a reflective practice, and the willingness to question my own behaviour, my self-image and the systems I’m working in.

Oh, and marketing.

My head was spinning at the end of the first day. Getting lost in buzzwords, I was wondering “What are we actually doing here?”, and grateful to Mohan when he threw us a challenge:

Imagine you had to design a seven-step leadership development programme for GIZ staff. You have 45 minutes. Work in groups of 4. 

Constraints nurture creativity – and the resulting programmes, while far from complete, actually had a lot of promise to build on.

And what about the internet? 

My mission at the Innovation Lab had been to explore how virtual collaboration and online tools could be of use for future leadership development programmes. The current platform, Global Campus, was suffering from abandonment and frustration. At the same time, participants had self-organised and connected through social media. A common story. In the social media lab, participants told of their resistance to using online platforms: It takes too much time, they said. Access is difficult. They dreamt of an integrated solution, of user-generated content and online events.

What do we want to use these tools for? What is the purpose? I asked. It seemed that maybe, the conversation didn’t need to be about tools, but rather about skills. What does it mean to be a leader in the internet age? What are skills that we can practice and teach, no matter which platform we’re using?

We started our Open Space session with the question: “Where have you seen the Internet enable social change?”. I was blown away by the answers. We heard of e-government systems in Bangladesh that reduce corruption. There were stories of e-Centers in rural Indonesia that give marginalised communities access to information, from health to agriculture and banking, and stories of Facebook-led campaigns in South Africa. We saw organisations become less hierarchical, more transparent and responsive. Clearly: there is time to use the internet for big changes.

But how? We looked at how successful change-makers use the internet. They are information hubs: they generously share opportunities, they communicate often and widely. They create spaces for communities, often using freely available tools and model good behaviour, asking questions, developing helpful guidance. They know their community and listen and respond to those usually not involved.

Is there a correlation between these internet-enabled leaders and the transformative leaders GIZ is hoping to develop? I’m pretty certain. No leader can ignore the internet if she wants to have an impact in today’s world.

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