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.

Why the ability to solve problems is more important than having a right answer

When I was 8 years old I knew all the flags of the world. When I was 16 I knew about Pythagoras theorem and when I was 21 I knew how Nylon was made.

Whilst flags, Pythagoras and Nylon are all interesting to a degree, I’m not sure how genuinely useful any of those topics have really been in my career. I learned about them to pass exams. I crammed the information in order to regurgitate it and get as many questions right as I could. Then I forgot it all. My schools and Universities could tick a box though. If enough of us remembered enough facts it meant they got better ratings, which meant more students and more money in subsequent years.

Throughout education I remember being rewarded for getting things right. And I learned this young. At an early age I figured out that asking challenging questions, thinking differently or being a maverick didn’t make me popular with teachers, so over time I stopped.

Then when we start work we are given key performance indicators and objectives. As adults working for an organisation we are measured and judged on how we conform to a set of pre-defined objectives. These are just the grown up versions of getting rewarded for getting things right passing tests, and ticking boxes.

So it’s no wonder that so many organisations struggle to be successful at innovation. Learning to pass exams rather than learning to think for ourselves discourages innovation from an early age, and lets not underestimate the impact that our early years experiences have on our adult behaviour.

Innovation isn’t about confirming to a set of rules or learning about how things have always been done. It’s about thinking differently, responding to change and solving problems. I’m not saying that it’s not important to learn from history and the great discoveries that have gone before us, but if we are not mindful, we may end up focusing on the events of the past and miss the real lessons of the innovators experiences; of questioning the status quo, learning from the present and not giving up when others said it was impossible.

And the real life lessons that we experience are really important in a world that is changing faster than ever before and will never move so slowly again. It’s unlikely that anyone entering the workforce today will have the same job in ten years time. *One estimate suggests that 65% of children starting primary school today will end up working in jobs that currently don’t even exist.

Right now we need our innovation and creativity skills more than ever before.

We’ve been forced to change radically in 2020. Many of us have already adapted to working from home or adjusted into new roles. We’ve stayed connected, and many people have been even more connected while remaining socially distanced. Parents have adapted to teach their kids (and many kids have adapted to teach their parents)!

Human beings are good at creativity, innovation and adapting, but we’re not used to having to adapt so quickly in a highly stressful situation and for a sustained period of time. The adrenalin needed to respond to a crisis exhausts us and we run out of steam. Gary Gower talks about it in his recent blog about getting past the 6-month wall.

When we’re stressed, anxious or out of steam our ability to think creatively is diminished.

When we feel stressed, it’s common to experience ‘brain fog’ – that feeling of not being able to think straight. When we’re out of steam we can lack the ability to focus or concentrate on anything properly. When we’re anxious we can make quick and ill thought through decisions or procrastinate so much that we do nothing at all.

This is because when we’re feeling stressed or anxious our basic survival instincts kick in and our bodies go into fight, flight or freeze mode. This makes it very difficult to access the creative thinking parts of our brains needed to solve problems effectively.

We are all creative and according to research, to think creatively we simply need to be in a relaxed or playful mindset. That’s why many people have their best ideas in the shower, walking the dog or in the pub. Ideas flow when we’re relaxed.

There’s no relaxation or playfulness when we’re operating in fight, flight or freeze mode. So in a crisis it can be hard to think creatively and solve problems, despite knowing that in a crisis is the time when we need these skills the most.

Being able to solve problems is a very important skill right now. That’s one of the reasons that I set up the Lucidity Network. It’s gives members training materials, connection with others to help solve problems and group coaching. Join the Lucidity Network here.

 

 

What assumptions are influencing your decisions?

Every day our brain processes hundreds of thousands of bits of information. It unconsciously categorizes and formats the information into familiar patterns. Someone’s gender, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, body size, profession etc., all influence the snap decisions that we make about them and the basis of the relationships we form with them. Unconscious bias is often subtle and unnoticed, and we all do it. 


Unconscious bias happens at a subconscious level. Our subconscious brain can process information much faster than our conscious brain. Our quick decisions are made in our subconscious based on societal and parental conditioning.

Bias exists. It’s part of the human condition. All of us have it and it colours our decisions and can impact on our performance without us realising.

We all have bias

Our bias is made up of all our experiences including our upbringing, those we socialise with and the media we consume. We can’t help but have bias. The important thing is to acknowledge that you, me and everyone has bias and then understanding what that means and how to work with that knowledge. 

Know your biases

The first step is to start to become aware of what your biases are, and where they are most likely to appear. Start to notice your decisions. Challenge yourself by asking yourself ‘What assumptions did I make about this situation that might have influenced my decision?’ Another way is to take a test, for example, Harvard University has carried out research into unconscious bias and has released the Implicit Association Test to help people identify their biases.

We can hold biases about many different things

Biases manifest themselves in a number of different ways. Some of them are more positive than others.

Affinity bias is where we’re more likely to treat someone favourably because they remind us of ourselves.

Safety bias is where we’re pre-programmed to make the choices which feel safest to us. That might be the route we take from the station late at night, or choosing the same recruiter we’ve always used to hire into a role in our team or sticking to innovating. In times of uncertainty our safety bias can be heightened.

‘Halo or horns effect’ is where you let something particularly positive or negative that someone has said to you shape your entire perception of them.

Confirmation bias is that lovely human tendency of filtering out everything apart from the evidence which backs up your existing opinions.

Perception bias is the tendency to believe one thing about a group of people based on stereotypes and assumptions, making it impossible to be objective about individuals.

Group think is the tendency to try too hard to fit into an existing culture and holding back thoughts or opinions, resulting in the loss of identity, creativity and innovation.


What might you do about bias?

Start to notice and check yourself. This isn’t about being judgemental about your bias, just start to recognise them and get into the habit of asking yourself, ‘what bias is at play in the decisions I’m making?

For example, if you’re looking for someone to work on a key project, think really carefully about what that person needs to be able to do. Challenge yourself to think objectively. Write a list of what you’re looking for in a candidate, and then USE that list to make an objective decision about who the right person for the job is, using evidence rather than an unconscious bias snap decision.

A great way of dismantling your biases is to spend as much time as you can with people who are completely different to you, with different skills, experience, background and biases. When you understand more about each other’s approaches it helps you to work together more effectively to make your good ideas happen.

Over the years, I’ve worked with many organisations, teams and individuals to help them develop better strategies for creativity and innovation. What I’ve discovered is that new technology can help facilitate innovation, that a well-considered process can enable good ideas to become reality but the key ingredient to any successful innovation or change programme is people. And having a diverse mix of people matters.

If you’d like a tool to help you bypass your biases and improve your innovation success rate, take this 3 minute quiz with your team to identify your own innovation style and the style mix of your team members.


Did you you know that innovation penguins are special. They are charming team players. They are valuable in helping others to build on ideas.

Are you a penguin? Do you have any penguins in your team?
Do the 3 minute quiz and find out what innovation animal you are.

 

Innovation for introverts

Innovation for introverts

I know it might be surprising that I’m an introvert and that I feel like this, given I run training on networking and I lead the Lucidity Network (which involves networking). Perhaps the reason I do both of these things is because I know how important networking is to pretty much everything and also how difficult it can be, so I just want to make it as easy and pain-free as possible for people.

I define introversion and extroversion as where you get your energy from. As an introvert, I get my energy from being by myself. Extroverts get their energy from other people. You’re not stuck in an introvert or extrovert box though. It’s like a spectrum. I sit towards the middle of the introvert side of the spectrum, and I can switch on my inner extrovert when needed, for example, if I’m at a conference, running training or presenting. I just have to go home afterwards and be on my own to refuel.

One isn’t better than the other, it’s just useful to understand your own preferences and those of the people you work with so you can adapt your communication to get the best out of both introverts and extroverts.

Here’s what I learnt over the years of working on innovation:

When it comes to innovation introverts come into their own.

  • They have no need for external affirmation
  • They make order out of chaos
  • They are the best listeners
  • They connect disparate dots that may save the business.

It’s estimated that between a third and a half of the population is introverted. However, there’s a cultural bias towards extroversion. This means that workplace cultures and practices are often set up in favour of extroverts, the people that speak up first or loudest, the people that are seen to be participating and who are well known in an organisation.

To get better results make sure you are engaging both introverts and extroverts.

Here’s how;

Often it’s just the loudest people that get listened to. If you manage a team make sure you make space for introverts to be heard. This takes the form of great facilitation and good planning, for example, ensuring everyone has the opportunity to speak in meetings and structuring ideas sessions with some tasks that people can do on their own.

  • A web-based platform or community is a good way to solicit ideas from everyone. 
  • Offer quiet zones at work especially if you work in an open plan office.
  • Encourage introverts to lead, chair meetings, present on topics, lead projects.
  • Become aware of the loudest voices, encourage them but do not allow them to be the only voice that is heard.

Let me know how you get on!  

You are creative (whether you believe it or not)

Creativity

Over the years I’ve asked 1000’s of people whether they think they’re creative. It doesn’t matter where I am in the world, the response is always the same.

If I ask the creative people to put their hands up most of the room look away, or at their phones. A handful of people sheepishly half put their hands up. About 1% of the room proudly shove their arm up in the air and ‘admit’ to being ‘creative’.

Somehow, creativity has become the territory of the ‘creative people’. Why are so many of us embarrassed to admit that we might be creative?

Whether you believe it or not you are creative. Creativity is not about whether you can draw or paint. Creativity is about making connections and putting old ideas together to create something new. And creativity is fundamentally about solving problems.

Maybe if I asked ‘how many of you are good at solving problems?’ I’d get a different response.

Creativity can often be perceived as ‘fluffy’ or a ‘nice to have’. This is a flawed perspective because creativity is an important survival strategy. Changing demographics, increased competition, economic and political uncertainty and advances in technology are just some of the factors that affect every individual and organisation on the planet.

Today, organisations must be creative in the way they respond to the changing needs of their customers, clients, colleagues and the market environment or they will not survive.

How we access our creativity is different for all of us. The majority of us don’t have our best ideas when we are at work, stressed at our desks or put under pressure by our manager to ‘think outside the box’.

That’s because, for the vast majority of people, creativity isn’t something that we can simply switch on. Most of us have our best ideas when we are relaxed or in a playful state or with time to properly think. Often the best ideas happen when people talk, build on each others ideas, have time to ponder and collaborate to solve a shared problem.

Whilst all human beings are inherently creative, the way our brains process information can sometimes inhibit our creativity.

Our ways of thinking become more ingrained as we get older. Every experience we have reinforces our established neural pathways. This makes it harder to deviate from what we know, and think creatively – or from a different perspective.

I recently heard an analogy that our neural pathways are like roads. When we’re young they start as meandering pathways that can merge and criss cross. Then, as we get older we favour certain paths and those pathways get more ingrained. We form habits. Our thinking travels those established pathways more and they become more engrained. Those meandering pathways become super highways which are very hard to deviate from. If you’ve ever done anything on ‘auto-pilot’ you’ve experienced this.

And when we’re on auto pilot we’re not questioning anything, not challenging the ‘way things are done here’, not looking for better solutions and not thinking creatively. That’s why, despite being naturally creative animals, we need to practice our creativity and keep our neural pathways open to new ideas. We need to slow down, make time to ponder keep the meandering pathways accessible, enable connections between old and new, allow for exploration and different thinking. We must learn to challenge ourselves to keep off the superhighways of ‘how we do things here’ and keep making new connections and having new ideas and solving problems.

So practically, how do we improve our creative thinking and problem solving skills? What do you actually need to do?

I’m glad you asked. If you’d like to improve your creative thinking and problem solving skills then join the Lucidity Network as we often talk about and create online events focusing on how you can build your creativity skills to get better results in your work. Here’s more information about the Lucidity Network and how to join.