Sink or swim: now is the time for strategic change & innovation
Kiddy & Partners
The pandemic is forcing businesses to innovate at an unprecedented pace. The survivors can make innovation a long-term core strength by combining their experiences with newly proven principles.
Covid-19 is the ultimate ‘burning platform’, a powerful driver of strategic change. Companies have shifted their business models almost overnight and made, in days, major changes in IT and ways of working that would normally have taken months. Creative thinking and rapid prototyping overrode objections and bureaucracy. Innovation became a survival skill, but what were its key lessons?
Understand the power of constraints
Often, innovation is seen as creativity plus implementation. People take an issue, do some open-ended brainstorming, and enact a novel solution that meets the need. But, it turns out that we innovate best when given a difficult objective and tough constraints. Covid-19 did that. Businesses faced challenges like, ‘Establish a new delivery channel to serve vulnerable customers and launch it in 48 hours’. Imagine if they’d had 48 weeks; we know they’d have used all of them and might not have produced a better result. Constraints that drove new thinking and fast implementation.
Form teams with diverse thinking
Leaders struggle to manage crises, or even simply respond to them if they try to control everything. It makes them feel secure and, they believe, reassures fearful employees. That traditional approach can work in emergencies – like a fire evacuation – where a well-planned procedure must be executed. But in unfamiliar situations, it breaks down. Leaders can’t know enough fast enough to create new solutions themselves. Innovation means involving people at all levels - which fails if they all think the same way. Therefore, leaders must explicitly involve diverse views, capabilities and experiences. Demographic diversity will help and is important in its own terms, but the priority is to involve people who can see things differently and promote new solutions.
Enter, inclusive leadership: sharing power and decision making with others less powerful and fostering feelings of inclusion[4,5]. Through encouragement, recognition, respect and fair treatment, inclusive leadership significantly improves team innovation[6,7]. Creating safe spaces where diverse thinking is applauded and all employees feel valued is critical:
- Be curious: Seek out others’ perspectives and ideas regularly.
- Amplify the quiet voices: Do you hear from everyone? Can you invite the views of quieter members more or ask for views in a different forum (by email or 1:1?).
- Reflect on your response: Do you dismiss others’ ideas too soon? Even if dismissed on merit, how could your reaction have affected the likelihood they will bring their next, best idea to you? Be open and respond neutrally, non-judgementally.
- Be clear why ideas were chosen; have a clear rationale. This includes everyone in the thought process.
- Encourage constructive challenge and mistakes: Welcome improvements to ideas and create situations designed for experimentation and mistake-making. Better yet, admit your own mistakes.
Manage what makes remote innovation different
Covid-19 has forced more remote working. A sense of crisis can energise people, but research shows they sag under emotional and economic stress and they start to feel detached. The question that begs to be answered: How do you keep workers motivated and engaged in this remote period? Building on our previous articles, Coronavirus: the people management implications and leadership considerations for employees not furloughed, we recommend [8,9,10]:
- Allocate interesting business problems: Create opportunities for people to work together and on projects that align to their interests or areas of desired development.
- Create connectivity where physical presence is lacking: Replace the casual conversations when getting a cup of tea/coffee, walking to the meeting room, or sitting next to/opposite someone. Allocate more time to the start of meetings to share one great thing about work and one personal. Check in with people regularly (daily).
- Communicate and praise where praise is due: Hold regular update and planning meetings, e.g.:
- On Mondays, set out what’s happening in the week, who is allocated to what project and who needs help.
- On Fridays, reflect, showcase the outputs, provide recognition and check in on progress. Plan for the next stage in the process.
- Support individuals’ development: Provide the opportunity for regular coaching and feedback, to ensure mutual understanding of expectations, level of motivation and development areas. It may be less obvious when someone is struggling if you’re not in-person.
This really matters for teams that must innovate under pressure; creativity will falter unless leaders design the team’s work – and manage its members, remote or not – to reinforce those motivators.
Learn what worked for you and why
When projects go wrong there’s the inevitable post-mortem – with or without blame, depending on your culture – to find out why. But the lessons of success are often lost. The pandemic offers a unique opportunity to work out how you achieved what you did. Individual debriefing, surveys, team storyboarding, and cause/effect mapping all help discover the processes, assumptions and thinking that can inform future innovation.
Innovation becomes a core post-pandemic capability when you can discover the sources of your success, combine them with constraint-based, diverse thinking, and use motivators that unleash a team’s creativity wherever they are working. And if you are still in the thick of Covid-19, it’s still possible to start building that capability now.
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 Ocar, O., Tarakci, ,M. & Van Knippenberg, D. (2019). Why constraints are good for innovation, Harvard Business Review, November 2019. Accessed: https://hbr.org/2019/11/why-constraints-are-good-for-innovation
 McCleskey, J. A. (2014). Situational, Transformational, and Transactional Leadership and Leadership Development, Journal of Business Studies Quarterly, 5(4), 117-130.
 Sayed, M. (2019). Rebel Ideas; The power of diverse thinking. London, England: John Murray.
 Bourke, J., & Espedido, A. (2020). The Key to Inclusive Leadership. Harvard Business Review, March 06 2020. Accessed: https://hbr.org/2020/03/the-key-to-inclusive-leadership
 ENEI, (2016). Inclusive Leadership…Driving Performance through Diversity.
 Fang, Y-C., Chen, J-Y., Wang, M. J., & Chen, C-Y. (2019). The impact of inclusive leadership on employees’ Innovative behaviors: The mediation of psychological capital. Frontiers in Psychology, 06 August, 2019. Accessed: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01803/full