Interpol, Google & the Congo

Over the last two weeks we introduced the concept of introducing bees into your organisation & cross pollinating inside and out. There is magic in cross-pollination – and in the people who make it happen. Cross-pollinators can create something new and better through the unexpected juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts. They often innovate by discovering a clever solution in one context or industry, then translating it successfully to another. As I was ‘admonished’ by referencing the oft-used technique stealing with glee, Indra Nooyi, the change-minded CEO of PepsiCo, has her own language to capture the same phenomenon. She describes this logic as ‘lift and shift.’That is search for great ideas in unrelated fields, lift them out of the context in which they took shape and shift them into your company. As I embark on a brand & culture project that takes in Lima, Andes & the Congo it is heartening to know that Interpol is more than just a questionable Clive Owen film and has dramatically transformed its operation by looking outside.

When Ron Noble took over the helm at Interpol he had to overcome the ‘Hollywood’ perception and re-establish it’s credentials. Noble’s real challenge was more than just to make Interpol relevant in a changing world. It was to rethink and reimagine the agency’s very role in the world. Interpol had a ‘monopoly’ on alerting the world’s police about people wanted for arrest. Noble stated: “We had to figure out how to make Interpol’s footprint larger, but to keep it recognizable to police officers in the world. What services could we offer such that every law-enforcement officer in the world would have an interest in it?”

There was little in the agency’s history or traditions to answer the game-changing question. Noble couldn’t look to the past for guiding principles or untapped expertise. So he looked outside the organization for clues about devising new services that could respond to twenty-first-century threats. Specifically, he looked to Google, and the immediacy with which people from all walks of life turn to the ‘search engine’ as part of their day. To what urgent problem might law-enforcement officers be searching for answers, and how could Interpol develop a search engine to respond.

His answer: the world’s first database of lost or stolen travel documents. According to Noble, there were 850 million international arrivals in 2008. This figure doubled by 2018. Among those arriving passengers are fugitives, war criminals and terrorists – almost all of them traveling on forged or stolen passports, few of them subject to a passport check with truly worldwide reach. The mastermind of the first World Trade bombing entered the United States on a stolen Iraqi passport.

What if, Noble asked, his agency created a database of documents that would be as easy to search as Google – and, by virtue of the Interpol ‘brand name,’ reliable enough for government officials to trust? So that’s what the agency did, with a small team, a limited budget and no urgent demand from member countries, most of whom were oddly complacent about the flaws in their border-control procedures.

Noble and his team are motivated by a sense of possibility. “If we were a private-sector company with a database that grew from three thousand units to fifteen million, with usage that grew from thousands of searches to a hundred million, our market value would be through the roof. But that’s not our job. Our job is to build Interpol to the point that it becomes for law enforcement what Google have become in everyday life. “It’s not easy, but we’re going to get there. We’re going to change the world.”

Many organisations, argues innovation expert Cynthia Barton Rabe, struggle with a ‘paradox of expertise.’ Her answer is to populate organisations with ‘zero-gravity thinkers’ – innovators “who are not weighed down by the expertise of a team, its politics, or ‘the way things have always been done.” 

About to board a flight from South Africa to the Congo, loving the vision of Interpol.

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