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.

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