In times of crisis, societies innovate out of necessity. When the crisis is over, the urgency to act wanes, and we come to operate under a new version of “business as usual.” But are all the new ways of doing business necessarily better than the old ways? And, more importantly, which new systems are only Band-Aids for persistent and serious injury?
Unfortunately, these are questions many of us don’t want to think about. The answers are complicated and the results will be inconvenient. We’ve already been inconvenienced. Sifting through new procedures may overshadow the hundreds of small workflow innovations currently occurring in your company. If not captured, these will get lost in the melee of returning to business as usual.
The businesses that think everything will go back to “the way things were” are operating on a going-out-of-business strategy. Customer behaviors will have changed irrevocably; old markets will close, new ones will open. The pace of technological change will continually increase, as it did before the pandemic. The businesses that will thrive in this new environment are those that will continue to leverage the tools and processes they adopted during the crisis. They’ll be the ones to capture new opportunities and drive their recovery faster than the competition.
Here’s how to prevent the backward slide into “business as usual,” retain the right crisis-driven innovative processes, and insure your organization can adjust to a world with new business rules.
Roadblocks to innovating in established organizations
First it’s important to understand why innovation is or is not taking root in your organization.
Drawing from years of enterprise-level diagnostic work, we’ve identified the six most common innovation bottlenecks:
— Most organizations lack an end-to-end innovation system.
While the components to build an innovation operating system tend to exist in the organization they operate — and at times compete — as single entities.
— Innovation happens in silos.
Successes are not repeatable across the enterprise, and “innovation heroes” are not leveraged to thaw the “frozen middle.”
— Senior leadership buy-in and support are not enough on their own to drive innovation.
If there is a systematic lack of insight into activities under way, this crucial – and often difficult-to-achieve – level of support is wasted.
— Middle managers are not able to capitalize on high levels of support from senior leaders.
Though motivated to innovate, these managers are undermined by the churn of disconnected innovation activities, including a low awareness of understanding about what is happening where.
— Personal judgment — not validated data — tends to drive decision-making.
Because the data gathered is usually focused on describing how well a “silo” is performing, not how well it is transitioning value to the next “silo,” decision-makers are left to count on their experience alone to decide which efforts get more resources and support to build further versus which are left to wither away.
— Data exists in abundance, but is not coherent, defensible, and in many instances is not the right data required for decision-making. Too little time is spent properly curating problems or creating pathways for getting solutions into the hands of those who need them.
Increased emphasis on prototyping and experimentation is often done at the expense of properly understanding (curating) problems to work on and at the expense of building transition pathways for scaling solutions out of the innovation pipeline
Pathway to continued success
With a bit of due diligence, your company can avoid these sticking points and remain competitive post-pandemic. The key is to start now, in the heat of the battle, by capturing the changes your organization is making — and the processes by which the impossible is being accomplished. Laying those changes out in a framework that mirrors how innovation flows through your organization will help you understand how they relate to one another and your organization’s mission. It doesn’t matter if it’s a new collaborative software platform or a new sales process. And assess every change for its effectiveness in the future.
To maintain the innovation momentum that kicked in during the COVID-19 crisis, take these six steps
Record the COVID-19 processes that went into effect in your organization. This will involve “getting out of the office” and talking to people throughout your organization. Focus on things that helped consolidate and leverage existing processes for repeatable success while also leveraging existing core business processes to accelerate transition. For instance, where did you assume more risk by delegating decision authorities to a lower level? Was there a product line you modified quickly to deliver something new? Doing this will help you see clearly the makeup of your innovation pipeline and where there are gaps to address.
Copy the strategic governance function you are using now to guide problems to solutions. For instance, were certain approvals delegated down to lower levels? Perhaps there were special conference calls set up to quickly resolve issues. In this case pay particular attention to what levels of leadership are required to navigate blockers and impediments. Turn this into a permanent Executive Action Team (EAT) that regularly reports directly to your organization’s senior leadership. Use this to foster a centralized innovation reporting mechanism to leadership that keeps everyone on the same page about what innovation activities are happening where in your organization.
Capture the data used to make hard decisions during the crisis and map it to your innovation pipeline. Determine where the data should be integrated with other data to support the analysis required to determine what efforts move forward. Did you find or create new sources of data within your organization or find data sources outside your organization that suddenly became more relevant?
Capture the mechanisms for visualizing the crisis activities you are performing at all levels of the organization. Are you using a new dashboard or special analytic product? Now is a good time to collect those products and empower an existing function in the organization, if possible, to be a “dashboard” for the organization’s crisis/innovation portfolio. This will improve your ability to strategically communicate leadership intent across the organization as it relates to innovation. This newly empowered function should be the day-to-day portfolio management function, maintaining awareness of project status and highlighting any impediments to progress to the executive action team for action on a regular basis.
Look at your efforts to rapidly scale solutions. Leaping the “Valley of Death” from a prototyped solution to a fully funded and scaled one remains a significant hurdle for most organizations. Identify the things done along the Innovation Pipeline to improve odds for funding (such as involving key enablers earlier in a project’s lifecycle or to seek novel funding mechanisms) and make them part of your future pipeline. What things was your organization able to scale in a short period of time? An insightful study of these will pay dividends in the future as your “case studies” for what right looks like in the new normal.
Review your strategic communication campaign. Was it an integral part of the end-to-end delivery system, specifically designed to improve organizational awareness and understanding of the resources and tools available for innovating? Or did it get lost in the chaos of the crisis? What messages helped generate new resources or reinforce the innovation culture your organization is trying to build?
Staying competitive post-pandemic will require a different approach from the one businesses took before the crisis. Businesses possess the way forward already: make the most out of the processes that are already serving your company during these uncertain weeks. Odds are that necessity has already pushed you to adopt some winning tools and techniques. But first you’ll need to do the work of recording, understanding and assessing them.
This article was coauthored with Ali Hawks, executive director of the Common Mission Project, the nonprofit arm of innovation company BMNT.