We are living in challenging times. For the past seven weeks and counting the COVID-19 pandemic has forced organisations of all sizes to pivot and scramble to cope with the fast changing health and economic landscapes that we are all now operating in. This volatile and challenging environment is not likely to change any time soon, and so the importance of innovating our way through change and crises is more important now than ever before.
Over the past few years, investment in innovative digital services, cloud, and distributed working tools and techniques has enabled businesses to develop flexible models where people and products can quickly adapt to and meet the demands of change – and these innovations are helping organisations put their best foot forward to navigate the current climate. Right now, the challenge of responding to uncertainty should be a driver for innovation, not a blocker – there is no second mover advantage in delaying innovation at a time where organisations (and individuals) simply have no other choice than to evolve the way they operate.
Affording time and space for organisations to continue to innovate in these challenging times will be critical to how we survive and then build solid foundations for growth in a new normal, and in helping to reduce the collective health and economic risks that future crises may bring.
What should our collective take on innovation be?
Clear and consistent Leadership - Effective, decisive and longer-term thinking is an increasingly important element for leaders who are guiding businesses through these tough times.
Keeping a clear focus, making a conscious effort to minimise the impact of the obvious distractions and uncertainties to your teams’ focus and goals, and ensuring that the right work, collaboration and communications practices are in place to allow innovation to authentically flourish will be vitally important behaviours and characteristics of successful modern organisations.
Embrace distributed working – Certainly for the digital sector, distributed working has long been a mainstream model for delivering innovation. As a consultant, I regularly work with and alongside organisations whose subject matter experts, like our own, are distributed across the globe and who bring together multi-disciplinary teams of experts to understand, tackle and continually improve services which are so very vital through this current time of lockdown and social distancing.
Agile and iterative techniques enable experts to come together regularly to understand problems and design solutions – use of distributed communication suites such as video conferencing and messaging software, group and team forums, distributed diagramming and ‘ideation’ tools, agile work tracking, knowledge sharing and remote User Research toolkits enable the whole team to remain effectively and productively engaged in delivering and continually improving innovative services.
Take evidence-based decisions – With so much uncertainty and a constantly evolving picture of the wider world, there’s a risk that decisions can be made on a short-termist or reactive basis. In this environment, a focus on evidence means that the team can stay engaged on tackling real problems and meeting their user’s needs. This evidence-based approach to decision making is also far more inclusive, and relies less on the traditional hierarchies and tightly coupled working practices that become more challenging in a distributed environment.
The collection and analysis of robust research, metrics and statistics helps build the cohesiveness of a distributed team - everyone has the same view of the challenge, and decisions can be made quickly based on evidence not opinions – a far more effective and rewarding experience given the distributed environments that will continue to be the ‘new normal’ once we exit this phase of crisis.
Automate – Making best use of operational automation techniques and cloud hosting means that services can be maintained remotely and continually and reliably improved without the need for physical access to infrastructure, and without the need for IT teams to be in close proximity to manage deployments and releases.
Upfront investment in fully automated release and deployment techniques, ‘NoOps’ approaches (seeking to minimise the need for manual effort in order to operate and iterate digital services), and intelligent service monitoring have the potential to free up highly skilled technical resource to concentrate on innovation - responding to rapidly evolving user and business needs, and quickly and reliably getting these into operation.
Whilst these techniques and technologies are important ingredients in developing sustainable approaches to innovation through change, it is equally important that strong and effective leadership helps organisations navigate turbulent times.
Leaders in the new normal must be able to create, maintain and protect ‘safe spaces’ for innovation, enabling teams to keep a clear focus on direction and outcomes, adapting and pivoting innovation to tackle ‘known unknowns’, and not letting anxiety or uncertainty about the ‘unknown unknowns’ unduly distract focus. These leaders will be able to join the dots between the solutions offered by innovation and the challenges we face right now.
Ultimately, innovation is not just about the development of new tools and services for their own sake, it’s all about delivering benefit from new ways of thinking and new technologies for new environments and realities – right now it’s about applied innovation.