It’s a topic that clearly matters to top executives. A recent study by The Conference Board found that:
- Improving innovation is the second most important strategic imperative for 2021 (behind accelerating digital transformation).
- The lack of an innovation culture is the fourth biggest obstacle stopping organizations from achieving their 2021 imperatives (behind COVID-19, lack of talent, and resource constraints).
- Innovative thinking is the most important skill executives are seeking in future leaders. Executives thinking about the proverbial day after tomorrow should ask themselves three key questions.
1. What behaviors did we adopt during the pandemic that we want to continue?
One benefit of a virtual world is the opportunity to have more inclusive, open discussions. Consider a virtual strategic workshop Innosight ran for a leading Singaporean company. The discussion topic was the future environment in which the company would operate, and the implications for its future strategy. The CEO wanted to encourage divergent viewpoints, so participants included the top leadership team, the Board of Directors, key external stakeholders, and a hand-picked group of up-and-coming executives.
In a typical physical meeting in Singapore, top leaders and Board members would occupy a VIP table in the front of the room, with the up-and-coming executives relegated to the room’s edges. Their voices would typically get lost. Over Zoom, however, everyone’s rectangle is the same size. Vibrant discussion and debate ensued. Harvard Business School Professor Linda Hill notes how “creative abrasion” often sparks innovation.
How, then, to continue this kind of inclusive, democratic discussion?
2. What habits did we fall into that we want to stop?
Zoom fatigue is a real thing. Research by Microsoft shows that concentration begins to fray about 30-40 minutes into a meeting, and that stress begins to increase after about two hours of videoconferencing. These physical issues feed strategic challenges faced by many executives: engaging in creative problem solving or holding contentious discussions given the constraints of virtual meetings.
Or consider entering or exiting meetings. Virtual meetings often begin not with sidebar conversations and laughter but with people sitting silently, tapping away on their computers. They end bracingly whenever the meeting host presses “end meeting,” without ways to glide down engagement.
How can your organization break these habits and bring back the humanity that fosters connection and creativity?
3. What opportunities are there to rethink and reimagine?The pandemic has shown that some of the fundamental assumptions we had before the pandemic — that people have to be together to work together, for example, or that traveling to see customers or clients was essential to maintaining these relationships — were just plain wrong. It raises the question: what other implicit assumptions are constraining our innovation potential?
For example, many organizations assume their biggest innovation barrier is that their people simply aren’t up to the challenge, because they are, well, normal people rather than innovation hotshots born and bred in Silicon Valley. Organizations are learning this isn’t the case as their employees have stepped up to the challenge of solving some of the biggest challenges created by Covid-19. For example, Ethicon, a Johnson & Johnson Medical Device Company, was able to leverage its manufacturing network, 3-D printing technology and a collaboration with Prisma Health to make and distribute a VESper™ Ventilator Expansion Splitter at no cost — going from concept and design to launch in just 10 days. It’s a cool story you can read about here.
DBS Bank based in Singapore has shown that even a regulated entity in a process-obsessed country can develop a culture of innovation, functioning not as a slowly moving stodgy bank, but, in the words of its CEO Piyush Gupta, like a 28,000-person startup.
How can your organization use the pandemic as an opportunity to step back, rethink and reimagine how it approaches innovation-driven growth?
The tools in Eat, Sleep, Innovate: How to Make Creativity an Everyday Habit Inside Your Organization, a 2020 book written by this article’s authors, provide a practical way to address these three questions. Specifically, the book suggests that the best way to drive habit change in organizations is through the thoughtful use of behavior enablers, artifacts, and nudges, or BEANs.
BEANs fight the kind of two-front battle that is critical when dealing with habits. Front 1 engages our rational, logical side through behavior enablers like tools and checklists. Front 2 engages the part of us that acts without conscious thought through artifacts and nudges like visual reminders. A recent Harvard Business Review article, for example, describes how a “Zoom jester” could fight Zoom fatigue.
Jesters obviously played a role in entertaining a monarch’s guests, but they also played an important, less obvious role. As the “fool” in the room, they could speak truth to power, saying tough things that would be hard for others to articulate due to fear of reprisal. Similarly, the Zoom jester would have the authority to tell people when they are monopolizing conversations or meandering. The formal appointment of a jester and a checklist detailing their role would serve as the behavior enabler; a fun Zoom background and a crowdsourced set of “tricks” to spice up meetings would act as reinforcing artifacts and nudges.
The book’s companion website, eatsleepinnovate.com, has more than 100 BEANs to inspire you and your organization and you seek to address the questions in this article and improve your ability to use innovation to navigate through today’s continued uncertainty.
About the Authors
Paul Cobban is the Chief Data and Transformation Officer at DBS Bank.