How to implement "innovation portfolio management" in a public R&D organization

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To feed and nourish ten billion people by mid-century, and to do so sustainably, our food production systems must become more productive, more efficient and more resilient. Soon. And in the face of a warming and ever-more extreme climate. To accomplish this, we need to upscale our use of innovations, which in past decades have brought about spectacular increases in global food production. 

We need those innovations today more than ever. We need farm crops and animals that resist disease and tolerate heat, plants that nourish soils as well as people and livestock. We need landscapes that conserve wild and natural resources as well as produce food. We need land-use policies that are equitable as well as judicious. We need empowered women everywhere to power national development. We need to find ways for food producers everywhere to adapt to climate change while reducing their climate and environmental footprints. We need to support billions of smallholders in lower income countries with satellites, drones and smart phones, with AI tools and digital platforms and financial services, with safe and profitable food markets, with novel seed systems, animal feeds and irrigation strategies.

Traditionally, universities, research institutions and government-run research agencies, as well as international and multilateral agencies and non-profit organizations, have been at the heart of agricultural innovations (whether technological, policy or institutional). But in contrast to the private sector, few of these public R&D organizations have taken a strategic approach to balancing the risks and rewards of the many and various innovation projects they are supporting. 

A notable exception is CGIAR, a global research-for-development partnership of some 10,000 scientists and support staff conducting research in 13 centres/alliances with hundreds of partners around the world for a food-secure future. CGIAR is intentionally and systematically employing “innovation portfolio management” methods to assess and guide its innovation work.  

A new research paper by CGIAR scientist Marc Schut and his colleagues at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the CGIAR Portfolio Performance Unit, other CGIAR centres, and Wageningen University analyzes CGIAR’s innovation portfolio management—its “methods, mindsets, and mechanisms”—and provides lessons and best practices for public organizations working toward the transformation of the world’s food systems. 

For organizations like CGIAR, which manage hundreds or thousands of innovations along an impact pathway, assessing whether innovations will contribute to responsible impact at scale is crucial. Innovation portfolio management is helping CGIAR to evaluate and prioritize its innovation projects based on their potential impact, alignment with CGIAR goals, and likelihood of success. 


Critical design elements and principles that must align with innovation portfolio management (from Brink’s Behavioural Innovation model, in Proud et al. 2023).

“It’s very exciting that CGIAR is serious about managing its innovation portfolio in a more evidence, coherent and purposeful way”, says the paper’s lead author Marc Schut. “This allows us to speed up innovation and scaling process, and better connect to the needs of our farmers and partners. CGIAR is one of the first global public R4D organizations adopting this portfolio approach, and we are very happy that we can now share our journey with other players in the public sector domain.” 

Innovation portfolio management requires data—accurate, relevant and high quality—and the same kind of data collected on all innovations, irrespective of their nature (technological or institutional) and current maturity (idea or scaling-ready stage). The metadata associated with innovations enables comprehensive filtering and comparisons among—for example—countries, innovation types, thematic areas and maturity or readiness level. The standardized way of data collection allows for ‘slicing and dicing’ the innovation portfolio data in many ways. 

Funding agencies such as AGRA, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), the German Development Cooperation (GIZ), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the World Bank have expressed interest in CGIAR’s approach. The Gates Foundation, for example, is working with CGIAR to design and mainstream a process to support the development of scaling strategies for innovations with greatest potential to transform food systems. 

The authors advise users to approach innovation portfolio management not as an administrative task but rather as a catalyst for organizational change. It requires strong leadership, phased implementation, robust incentive structures, and demonstration of tangible value addition. Ingraining innovation in the mission of an organization requires integrating innovation portfolio management with the organization’s finances, human resources, partnerships, legal frameworks, risk management and other work and departments. 

The authors emphasize the importance of taking a holistic, Behavioural Innovation (Brink) approach that combines methods, mindsets, and mechanisms: methods to produce timely, appropriate, and quality data that can inform analytics and decision-making, mindset to ensure understanding, capacity and buy-in, and mechanisms to inform allocation strategies towards responsible innovation and scaling.

They conclude by distinguishing five key lessons from their CGIAR case study: 

  • Take a holistic view on innovation portfolio management 
  • Involve leaders early in defining portfolio goals, criteria, strategies, and governance mechanisms 
  • Start small, work with early adopters, focus on minimal viable product and pockets of support, and grow from there 
  • Ensure strong incentive mechanisms 
  • Demonstrate how innovation portfolio management adds value

In managing its innovation portfolio in such a comprehensive and systematic way, CGIAR is helping to clarify, for itself and others, just what constitutes a ‘healthy’ innovation portfolio—one that provides responsible, demand-driven and scaled-out innovations most likely able to transform the world’s food systems. 

Read the paper: Innovation portfolio management for responsible food systems transformation in the public sector: Lessons, results and recommendations from CGIAR, by Marc Schut, Julien Colomer, Emma Proud, Enrico Bonaiuti, Iddo Dror, Edwin Kangethe, Lorena Esquivias, Cees Leeuwis 

Header photo: Samburu woman enters data into the Mbiotisho app. ILRI

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