April 29, 2020

Innovating in lockdown may not just survive, it may even thrive

By Tony Boobier

Following on from the online co-creation workshop walkthrough that Hanne shared, have you been innovating online?

As we get used to more weeks of working from home, how have you been adapting to do more online? Beyond so many Zoom calls & emails, have you been investing in learning to adapt a wider range of tasks?

That is the challenge I set our panel of guest bloggers & I’m pleased to say that Tony Boobier has again been quick to respond. Regular readers will know that Tony is an international author, commentator & mentor, focusing on Insurance & AI. He has shared with us before on the topics of discernment, customised learning & project management.

In this post, Tony turns his attention to innovating whilst socially isolated in ‘lockdown‘. Can it be done? Does the environment even lend itself to this activity? Are we missing a real opportunity by not innovating now?

Over to Tony to share his reflections & questions to help you think through your opportunities…

From blog posts to Eureka moments

Innovating by yourself is a little like writing a blog article. You have the germ of an idea, and then you reflect on it and then write it down. Some ideas and articles come more quickly than others. 

Doesn’t innovation follow the same approach? One person has an idea, they try to structure it in some way, and then they try to operationalise it, that is, to bring the idea to life.

When once innovation was thought to mainly comprise some sort of Eureka moment which could only be done by geniuses, we’ve now come to learn that the best (and greatest) innovators have become mainly successful through hard work and a methodical approach. Their idea is constantly refined until it ultimately passes some form of “Dragon’s Den” test, and is able to attract or justify funding. Innovation nowadays has become ‘a process’.

The business of innovating

The topic of innovation itself is big business, with most of the business schools offering courses on the subject. There are even ‘Institutes of Innovation’ which invite members to consider a formulaic approach to innovation, which guide their students or members to; 

  1. Align the strategic intent of a business into what they describe as ‘objective-focussed roadmaps’
  2. Clarify the key drivers and levers of innovation, and how to manage and ultimately overcome objections
  3. Manage the context of innovation, that is, why innovation is needed, and create an appropriate culture both for innovation and change
  4. Operationalise the idea in terms of organisation, customer need and financial management

But can these approaches still ‘hold water’ in an age when we are working remotely and physical interaction is more difficult? More to the point, can we still innovate effectively under the shadow of a pandemic?

1) Alignment with Strategic Intent

Considering the first issue, that of the strategic intent of an organisation, historically this has been either that of profitable growth (usually through customer acquisition), operational efficiency (usually through cost reduction), or risk management. Innovation as we have come to understand it usually focusses on one of those areas, or perhaps a combination of them.

But hasn’t the C19 pandemic completely moved the goalposts? For many and probably most organisations, the name of the game has now become one of survival. The strategic intention of almost all businesses is to avoid collapse by maintaining their organisations in some shape or form so as to come out reasonably intact on the other side of the crisis. How does this affect the process of innovation?

2) Clarify the key drivers and levers of innovation

Maslow’s Hierarchy implicitly suggests that it is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to achieve what are described as higher-level needs (and the desire to innovate falls within that category) until such time as we feel both safe and secure. Many corporate workers already feel vulnerable. Both financially and physically vulnerable. Both of these conditions tend to undermine their desire to innovate.  

It’s not all negative though, and innovation can still happen in the most adverse of working environments. Many entrepreneurs still see the situation as a ‘glass half full’ situation, especially those who have lived with greater levels of risk during their professional careers. For some smaller more flexible companies, this has meant innovation through business reinvention. One London-based laundry company with a fleet of vans and drivers reinvented itself to deliver food and basic necessities directly to households in pre-packaged food boxes which meet basic necessities. 

The management of other ‘innovation elements’ in an online age – overcoming objections, creating an appropriate culture, and operationalising the outcome – can also be difficult. 

In terms of the management of objections, for example, with 80% of communication between humans being non-verbal in nature, how will we pick up the subtle signals of dissent, where an individual says yes but really means no? Or will that not matter anymore? Maybe attitude will be increasingly measured by the type of emoji used, coupled with some form of social media analytics? 

3) Manage the context of innovation

On the other hand, some are suggesting that digital communication has made discussion easier by being more focussed, with fewer distractions and potentially with greater accountability. 

It’s a time of change all around. At a more personal level, many employees have also needed to reinvent themselves to cope with working remotely and doing their jobs without the same level of social interaction that they had previously enjoyed. It’s clear that for many, work fulfils a dual purpose not only of creating measurable deliverables but also provides a degree of social interaction.

Perhaps how the workforce have repositioned themselves may provide an indicator as to how they will respond to a future AI-infused work environment, when there is a risk that many jobs will at best be changed, or at worst will disappear entirely.

4) Operationalise the idea

Already we’re beginning to see new protocols emerging, not only about how we have discussions online as a group but also even as we pass each other on the street. Which one of us steps into the road as opposed to remaining on the pavement seems no longer to be an issue of gender, but of age and practicality (ie someone with a pushchair, for example.) Perhaps we will start to see new online innovation protocols emerging? 

Will online innovation also start to signal the end of the innovation hub? Was the concept of innovation hub as a ‘shared space’ simply an interim step?  A digital future which includes online innovation might represent a new form of workspace, in the same way that the first industrial revolution moved the handlooms from the weaver’s cottages into the factory

Coming back to leadership questions

But coming back to the key issue of whether we can innovate online, I believe the key issues are mainly those of leadership and motivation. In the same way that, for example, contributors were invited to think about online innovation as a topic and in doing so sparked some creative thinking, leaders and managers have an increasing burden of responsibility to motivate their teams to innovate. 

That form of motivation perhaps could take the form of some ‘open questions’ from the leader such as:

  • ‘What do you think we might need to do to….?
  • ‘What lessons might we learn from a different industry, and how can we apply it here…?
  • ‘What do you think the customer really needs at the moment…?
  • ‘How can we put our skills and competences to the greatest use…?
  • ‘What’s the best way of discussing objections online…, or is there a different way?

Perhaps there’s a need to roll out some form of a new iteration of Edward de Bono’s approach of ‘Six Thinking Hats’, updated for the online age, and with specific application to the topic of innovation?  His ‘Six Hats’ approach was in effect a form of structured role play in the context of business management. It seems eminently appropriate for an online team call. 

Recycling as innovating anyone?

And there perhaps, at the end of the day, is the nub of it. 

Innovation doesn’t need to be a brand new idea but perhaps just a repurposing of an older one, or an idea borrowed from a different profession or sector and applied to your own. Maybe with a bit of leadership, structure and imagination, online innovation is as possible as before, and without the expense of innovation hubs. 

Could innovation not only survive, but thrive in this new working model?

Thanks to Tony for his thoughts on that. I think he makes a compelling case for us all to keep developing those new online protocols. How are you doing with your team? Have you found a new way to work together online? Does that include innovating & creating your future products/services?