How to innovate in the middle of a global pandemic

Until 2020, many organisations aspired to innovate as a positive way to be radically different and stand out from their competitors. That might have been in relation to internal systems, processes and employee development, or in the products and services delivered to customers.

Then a global pandemic arrived and disrupted everything for us.

We’ve adapted. However, managing long-term uncertainty takes its toll. Simply put, we run out of steam. If in the last 10 months you’ve experienced brain fog, feeling just exhausted and that if you have to stare at another videoconference screen you might lose the plot, you’re not alone.

Human beings crave certainty. It’s a basic survival instinct. When we don’t feel safe it triggers a threat response and our bodies are flooded with cortisol and adrenaline and we get ready to fight, flight or freeze. Our blood thickens and moves away from our prefrontal cortex (where we do our thinking which explains brain fog) to our vital organs. This was helpful when survival looked like running away from or fighting a wild animal, but less helpful in today’s working environment. It’s also exhausting.

My advice for innovating amidst heightened feels of uncertainty is to go back to basics. If you manage a team, remember their ability to innovate and everything they’re working on is impacted if they’re feeling in a state of anxiety.

Take the temperature One-word check-ins on how people are feeling is a quick and useful tool at the start and end of meetings and training to get a sense of where people are individually and as a group.

Over-communicate If people don’t have all the information, their brains fill in the gaps. We’re predisposed to think the worst will happen. Over-communicate even if you’re repeating yourself. If you don’t have the information yet, don’t forget to let people know that so they don’t jump to the conclusion that you’re not telling them something and assuming that something sinister is round the corner.

Stay connected Each and every person is different. Take time to understand what feeling connected means for them. Is it a daily check in – or do they need less (or more)?

And with our workplaces undergoing bigger changes than we ever imagined and every team under pressure to deliver so much, perhaps one way to innovate now is through incremental change; the patient and restless pursuit of improvement by making small changes that add up to make a big difference.

Breaking up your innovation into manageable chunks may have its appeal when a lot of other things feel less than manageable.  Take a succession of small steps to innovate that add up to make a big impact.

After all, the GB cycling team used an incremental innovation strategy which lead to its ongoing success. The principle of making hundreds of small improvements to their equipment, training, lifestyle and diets – lead to Olympic success. At the 2012 Olympics they won twelve medals, eight of them gold.

I can’t promise you a podium place at the Olympics, but I can promise you that innovation, even if measured and initially undramatic, will be good both for your organisation – and for your prefrontal cortex.

A version of this blog first appeared in the People Director Partnership annual report 2020. Thank you Richard Goff for inviting me to speak last year and you can find out more here and here.

Want to build your resilience and innovation skills? Join me for a one day online course on Tuesday 9 February. More details and sign up here. Snap up your early bird spot today.

Are you back at work?

Today is the first day back at work for many of us.

I’ll not lie when I say it was tough getting started this morning. For starters I couldn’t get out of bed. Then when I managed to get up and find my laptop I forgot most of my passwords. Then I had to relearn to type as well as how to find information, process it and then act on it.

I’ve had two weeks off which was much needed and whist I didn’t go anywhere or do anything, it was still over all too quickly.

It was weird – decidedly quiet and low key. However, on the upside no family arguments and I still managed to watch my fair share of mindless television and some good films and all while grazing on cheese and chocolate. I also squeezed in a lot of dog walking, chatting on Zoom and napping.

The first day back after a holiday is usually a bit tough but this year it felt even harder than usual. Maybe it’s not going to an office, maybe it was the exhausting emotional pantomime of ‘oh yes you can, oh no you can’t’ from the powers that be resulting in last minute changes of Christmas plans. Maybe we all got chills eating Christmas dinner with the windows open.

The emotional pantomime continued all Christmas break. The positive stories of another approved vaccine were countered by doom and gloom of the new variant of corona virus being more transmissible, overwhelmed hospitals and ‘oh yes you are, oh no you’re not’ as some schools go back and others do not and others don’t know.

We’ve been through a lot. And yes we’re learned a lot too and there are many positives that we’ll be able to take away from our experience of living through a pandemic. But even thinking about the events of the past few weeks its no wonder if you’re feeling exhausted, emotional and like you’ve run out of steam.

Then there’s the pressure of a New Year.

There’s been an understandable narrative of good riddance to 2020. There’s the promise that 2021 brings new hope. I’m not denying that, but our lives are not going to change significantly any day soon. The changes will be gradual as the vaccine is rolled out in the coming months. I don’t want to put a downer on 2021, but to manage your expectations I want to flag that it might be 2022 that is the year that heralds this ‘new normal’ that’s been constantly talked about.

So if, on day one back at work, any of the above chimes with you, then here’s my advice.

  • Give yourself a break. You’ve been through a lot and so has everyone you’re working with so just take it a bit easy. Be kind to yourself.
  • Prioritise the work that is essential. What absolutely has to be done today? Just do that.
  • Plan out your activity for the next few days and weeks (taking into account the above principles).
  • Finish work on time – every day.
  • Connect with others for help and support. Consider joining the Lucidity Network. 
  • And for goodness sake don’t start making any new year resolutions that deny yourself the things you love and that you might need to get through the next few months.

All other advice is welcome in the comments below.

*Note This blog was written prior to the 2021 lockdown announcement.

Are you good at asking for help?

Last month I ran a webinar with Caroline Doran, founder of Deliver Grow on managing uncertainty. We had some great questions and an interesting theme came up. It’s not the first time.

Several times I asked viewers to put their questions into the chat box. I encouraged people to ask for help, even if it was specific to their situation because I could pretty much guarantee that someone else would be grappling with the something similar, so it would help others too. Also I felt pretty sure that someone else would have been through a similar situation and come out the other side, and therefore could help.

The questions started to flow, and it highlighted and sparked a conversation about how we can find it difficult to ask for help.

It can happen for many reasons:

  • We’re worried about what other people will think.
  • We’re worried of asking something that may seem silly or trivial to others.
  • We don’t like to feel vulnerable.
  • We feel we should be able to figure it out for ourselves.
  • We know others have got lots of things that they’re worried about so we don’t want to add to their stress.
  • We hope the problem will just go away and we won’t have to bother anyone.

The thing is, the vast majority of people like helping others. We’re social animals, we live in communities. Helping each other is just part of being human.

Yet, even though we may like to be asked for help, even though we like helping other people, even though helping other people makes us feel good, when we have a problem we often hold back from asking others.

It doesn’t make sense!

Who are we not to give others the opportunity to help us? Who are we to deny others the opportunity to feel good? It’s a gift to be able to help other people – yet we often feel that asking for help is a burden.

Also in my experience most of the time we think we’re alone but we’re not. When we voice our feelings, we learn that other people have experienced what we’re feeling too. Just knowing we’re not alone can be helpful in itself.

So next time you think that the problem will go away, that its silly or that other people have enough on their plates without you asking them for help. Just ask for help.

One of the reasons I set up the Lucidity Network was to provide a community where it feels OK to ask for help. A place where people have a sense of belonging, understanding and enjoy helping each other. If you promise to ask for and give help you can join us here.

You can also watch the replay of the webinar on managing uncertainty with Caroline Doran in the Lucidity Network archives.

Why I don’t advise you to try…

A while ago I found an old diary that I used to keep as an early teenager, the one where I used to write down what was No1 on Top of the Pops together with things I wanted to buy when I had a job, as well as general thoughts. I think Adrian Mole might have inspired me. Although my diary was distinctly less interesting than Adrian Mole aged 13 and three quarters. I seemed to spend a lot of time with my friend Clare Chapman looking wistfully in Rumbelows window at clock radios.

My diary contained a list of New Year Resolutions. One of them was to ‘try and be nicer to my brother.’ Jon Gower I’m sorry. That was such a poor attempt and intention.

The bit I’m talking about here is this word ‘try’. 

Think about it. Your friend who is usually late says ‘I’ll try and be on time.’ You know they’ll probably be late. You agree to try to walk 10,000 steps a day. You’re probably going to fall short. You try to finish work on time and inevitably you end up working late again.

When I’m working with clients and I hear them say they’re going to ‘try’ my heart sinks. Because I know the likelihood of them achieving the thing is immediately lowered because of how they are talking about it and therefore approaching it.

The likelihood of them achieving the thing is lowered because of what happens when we say ‘try’. By saying you’re going to try you’re already sending your brain a signal that it’s OK not to achieve the thing. Your intention is to try – not to succeed.

Setting intention is important. There is a big difference between telling your brain you’re going to try and telling your brain you’re going to do it. Start with a positive intention. Tell yourself (and others – we’re more likely to succeed if we’re accountable to others) that you’re going to arrive on time, you’re going to walk 10,000 steps and that you’re going to leave work on time.

I don’t want to go all Yoda but he did have a point when he said ‘Do or do not, there is no try’.

When I challenge people on the use of ‘try’ one of the things that comes up is this notion of failure. That it’s OK to try and fail. I agree. It is. However you’re already signalling that a fail is likely by simply setting out to try. Commit to achieving. Then if you don’t manage it, then that’s OK. Changing anything is hard enough, so set yourself up with the best chance of succeeding by aiming to achieve not just to try.

If all you’re wanting to do is ‘try’, it’s probably worth a conversation with yourself about whether you really want to do the thing in the first place.

So the next time you set out to ‘try’. Have a word with yourself. Are you serious about achieving this thing? If no, then unpick that – why not? If yes, then set out to achieve it. If you set out with the intention to achieve it and then you don’t – then that’s OK.

At the Lucidity Network we ask people to set their intentions every single week. Because when we set an intention we’re more likely to have success. How we set our intention is important. Set out to achieve not just to try. If you’d like to join us and increase your chances of success – get in touch at 

Note* I am nice to my brother all the time.

Be More Pirate – Change starts with you.

A guest blog by Gwenaelle Joubert .

‘There’s only one thing more stupid than stupid rules, and that’s the people who follow them.’ Sam Conniff Allende

Be More Pirate – or how to take on the world and win by Sam Conniff Allende has been on the Lucidity Network business book club list for a while. I’ve been looking forward to the day arriving when we got to review it. The title was a little too enticing for me, so I read as soon as I saw it in the list. I love pirates, pirate stories, movies, sailing, rum, you name it, I am there. I even wore a 50’s style dress with skulls and crossbones as a bridesmaid!

The book takes you on a journey through the history of the Golden Age Pirates looking at their more equitable and fair practices and also some of today’s pirates. One of today’s modern pirates Taylor Swift’s really struck a chord with me.

‘Rejecting the obvious record-industry route, Taylor is signed to a small-town label where she retains complete control of her career. With no industry machine to back her, she’s nevertheless amassed the clout to stand up to Apple and Spotify, and bring them both to heel. Her storytelling through song, content, social media and well-orchestrated gossip, vendettas and ‘feuds’ with everyone from Kanye West to Katy Perry means she’s routinely named on social media amongst the world’s most powerful figures.’

There are so many hurdles to the Arts and music. I have real respect for her taking on the big recording companies and being in charge of her own career. It made me see her differently and also showed me how sometimes you need to look at things differently.

Christine de Leon, Editor-in-Chief for The Beautiful Truth, beautifully summarises what author Sam Conniff Allende says in the book that being more pirate comes down to five key elements of the Pirate Code:

  1. Breaking the rules and rewriting better ones;
  2. Having the right crew;
  3. Sticking to your principles;
  4. Redistributing power to protect those principles;
  5. Using spectacular storytelling techniques so the world pays attention.

I work for a small mental health charity that punches above its weight, and in many ways, it felt like we were already in part pirates! However, I felt there was more we could do to adopt the principles of the book. Convincing the team to adopt a pirate ethos was a small challenge; everyone laughed but it made sense. We’d recently had a consultation across social media which had showed us that people didn’t want public sector organisations or even charities to give them mental health support, because they didn’t trust us. They wanted to hear from their peers.

As a peer-led organisation, it made sense to open up our social media channels to the people following up and accessing our charity for support. We let them take charge. We only had two rules:

  1. That you couldn’t say anything you would not say to your gran or your boss
  2. You couldn’t mention medication.

We launched a peer-led podcast, a newsletter and our own hashtag. We even rebranded. All this of this peer-led. And all motivated by the Pirate Code. The result – we doubled our following and engagement. Our income also grew.

‘Be more pirate or be more Kodak’  Alex Barker

Being more Pirate offers an eye-opening into how to challenge your thinking, how things can be done differently and being more authentic. However, the question I am left with is do you eventually have to go back and keep breaking your rules? Do you then become part of the problem? I’m off to contemplate this but leave you with if you could break one rule, what would it be?

Gwenaelle Joubert is the Fundraising & Communications Officer at Bipolar Scotland and a Freelance Consultant & Creative.

The Book

Be More Pirate – or how to take on the world and win by Sam Conniff Allende

Whatever your ambitions, ideas and challenges, this book will revolutionise the way you live, think and work today, and tomorrow.

How to be: More Pirate

If you want to go deeper – How to be: More Pirate is the 2020 follow up – the story of how the book became the movement. It does what it says on the tin, and is more of a practical guide, offering tips, and ideas based on how organisations, from Mercedes to the NHS, have put the pirate principles into practice.

The lovely people at Be More Pirate are offering Lucidity readers a 20% off purchase price. Just go to the website and enter the discount code LUCIDITY20 at the checkout.