CEO of PlazaBridge Group. Author: All That I Am Now That I Know, Strategist, innovator, tech-savvy leader, mom, wife, music maker, creator.
“Solving problems during a crisis demands speeding up innovation by repurposing the knowledge, resources, and technology you already have at hand.” —MIT Sloan
Increases in productivity, as noted by a Wharton study, have been a welcome surprise of the “work-from-home” era. Many of the fears regarding distracted employees dissipated quickly. Congratulations to all who successfully and swiftly shifted to enabling a completely remote workforce. When in history have we ever seen the speed of change as we have over the last six months? As the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
But is it fully? According to the same study, “the dip in innovation is the biggest downside to remote working.” In uncertain times, the tendency is to cut innovation efforts for cost-saving efforts and save-the-day strategies. I would beg to differ in this current era. We innovated new ways of working. We shifted business models. We pivoted, changed and rebirthed in many ways. However, we are missing the element of future planning for competitive agility by not focusing our efforts on future growth.
Now, it’s time to raise our heads above the clouds. Many companies may have stopped the bleeding but may not have guarded their future prospects for growth. Feeling antsy about investing in your future right now? That’s good; that is your gut telling you to move toward strategy and future-forward planning. Innovation is key.
Below are seven strategies to help you move toward thinking about the future and planning without risking your “eye on the revenue ball of today”:
1. Leverage the right tools. Tools are critical, but you most likely have now incorporated those tools for virtual meetings such as collaboration tools like Slack and Teams. What about other tools for creative ideation and brainstorming? Those same tools may work, but others such as Lucidchart and IdeaBoardz can help you capture ideas. Also, make sure to use the full features of the tools you have in-house. For example, Zoom has breakout rooms for small group discussions and ways to rejoin the bigger meeting.
2. Leverage the feelings of engaged teams that may be feeling more creative these days. Workforces have more flexibility in their days, and they are choosing tools that work best for them and feeling like their contributions mean more. There is a greater feeling of self-satisfying purpose when encouraging creativity and the sharing of ideas. As the Wharton study noted, “innovation and creativity often happen through collaboration.”
• Create a themed effort for innovation projects. Give each project a name that is fun. Ask for feedback from the organization on these projects. Engage them early in the process.
• Create a framework around ideation, recognition and rewards.
• Engage everyone in the organization.
3. Encourage small, intimate gatherings and check-ins. Maintaining strong connections with each and every employee may feel daunting. There are manageable ways to hold creative events that may spark new ideas in your company. For example, hire a golf coach to share techniques to improve skills. Ask the team to contribute their talents — guitar experts in the company could offer guitar lessons or form a virtual company band, or cooking experts could share skills for improving sourdough bread. Why are these creative share sessions important?
• As Marketing Land noted, “creativity is an indirect path to innovation by harnessing unique ideas to achieve key improvements in an idea or product.” Creativity opens up an untapped part of our “being” (I recognize this is a fluffy word, but it truly does open us up to new ways of thinking). You may personally recognize that you get your best ideas when walking out in nature, showering or waking up at 3 a.m. with a spark of “new thoughts.”
• Hold creative sessions, as noted above.
• Create a safe environment for people to share.
4. Use “Yes, and…” vs. “Yes, but…” or “No, that would never work.” Keep ideas in flow-motion. Shutting down an idea essentially shuts a person down and starts to drive self-doubt that anyone offering new thinking will just get shut down in the future. That causes the “so why bother” syndrome.
5. Artificial time crunch for ideation can be very effective. Consider how quickly we all moved to remote working earlier this year. Out of that necessity, we had to act fast — so fast it made our heads spin. Test the waters. Hold a fun remote session leveraging the breakout rooms of your virtual meeting space. Present the challenge or opportunity to create, and constrain the time for the small groups to 10 minutes or so. Come back to the big room, share those new ideas (with no comments or judgments), and then break out again. Repeat this four times. See what happens. I’d love to hear about your outcomes!
6. The right constraints may be good for innovation. A recent Harvard Business Review study that “reviewed 145 empirical studies on the effects of constraints on creativity and innovation … found that individuals, teams, and organizations alike benefit from a healthy dose of constraints. It is only when the constraints become too high that they stifle creativity and innovation.”
7. Diversity is key. Technology team members, marketing team members, HR, sales — mix it up for some diversity of thought and ideas. If you want to go a step further, hold ideation sessions with your customers and partners included. Bring in outside thoughts from contractors, consultants and/or development partners. The more, the merrier — but structure how and when you do these. Capturing ideas, documenting and maintaining a healthy log will be important.
Congratulations, you are on your way to creating an innovative culture. You are also building more agility in the company to think forward. Remember, execution is key in the equation of building competitive agility — which I will discuss in my next article.