Innovation in Large Organizations: How the UN’s Richard Ragan Doesn’t Get Stuck

Ragan has seen it all, from North Korea to Nepal, but even at the United Nations people can end up “just doing their job.”

Richard Ragan


Richard Ragan has served as the United Nations World Food Program Country Representative in places as wild as North Korea, Zambia, and Nepal. Forget the touchy-feely stuff about working for the United Nations; management in any large bureaucracy is tough. After four years in Nepal, Ragan is now on his way to his next post in Ethiopia and stops to talk to Fast Company about bringing innovation to work culture and, as a snowboarder of the Himalayas, what he thinks climate change holds for the future of the human species.

You manage a large UN agency for entire countries, from North Korea to Nepal to Zambia. What is your biggest management challenge?

Each place has a unique set of challenges, but without a doubt, raising resources is always the toughest part of my job. The World Food Program (WFP) has a unique funding model; it’s the only UN agency that relies entirely on voluntary contributions. If we can’t get the job done, or our approach to a problem is weak, donors won’t finance us. As difficult as this sounds, I’d say we’ve been pretty successful, though, because WFP is now the largest humanitarian agency on the planet.

How much does the local culture versus the UN culture affect your daily work? In that light, what are the major differences working in each country?

The unique thing about the UN, say versus working for a government, is the diversity. To me, this is what makes the UN special. While we (my UN colleagues) all tend to share the same basic principles, our individual approaches to problems usually vary. I believe this sort of “hot house” environment helps develop solutions that aren’t so formulaic. Sometimes, though, UN politics–in the Security Council, the General Assembly, or in a specific country–can obscure the real victories that staff around the world, often working silently in relative obscurity, achieve every day. Honestly, this is the thing that I’m most proud to be part of.

Richard Ragan

Is it difficult to be innovative and creative while working within such a large organization like the UN?

I think it varies from Agency to Agency. One of the things
that attracted me to WFP was that it seemed to be the least bureaucratic
of the UN Agencies, and after 11 years I still believe that to be the
case. In most cases, the only thing holding people back are themselves.
To mention a few sort of “out of the box” things that WFP has done in
Nepal, we’ve used food to teach people about democracy, tried to be an
example by becoming an” off-the-grid green office” and created Nepal’s
first piece of 3-D animation. Not really your typical UN WFP program of
work, but I think really critical achievements (in addition to feeding
over 2 million people each year). The truth is anybody can show up to
work and get stuck “just doing their job” but there are so many
different ways to “just do your job better.” Whenever I get the
question, “So what do you do?” I always sort of think to myself well how
would this person like me to answer this? I could say, well I work for
the UN World Food Program, but then my instincts take over and I may
say “I’m a father, a husband, a climber, a snowboarder, a painter, a
swimmer, or someone who loves music.” Isn’t that a more interesting way
to see yourself?

As you leave Nepal, what are your greatest lessons learned?

That to understand someone you have be able to gauge the pace of a sideways head-shake. Seriously, patience…and not just because of the traffic. Americans–(I’m from the U.S.)–tend to be in a rush. Also as a diplomat we know we’re only here for a short time so we want quick results. The problem is that most of the things we are struggling with have been issues LONG before we arrived. After 4 years I feel like I’m just starting to understand how things work, and now I’m leaving. I’ve also been fortunate enough to spend a great deal of time in the mountains and I’m completely convinced that if we don’t get serious about climate change, humans are likely to suffer the same fate as the dinosaurs.

National Team

About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.