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.

Three tips to manage uncertainty

Uncertainty is a natural and unavoidable part of life. None of us have a job for life, a guarantee of good health, or absolute certainty over what tomorrow will bring. As the coronavirus outbreak has shown, life can change quickly and unpredictably.

The challenge for all of us is that human beings are wired to seek certainty. When we’re faced with uncertainty our brain believes our safety is threatened.  This triggers us in to a fight, flight or freeze response. When we’re in a fight, flight or freeze state our ability to make decisions, collaborate and solve problems is impaired. We want to feel safe and have a sense of control over our lives and well being. In an uncertain world, our need for certainty fuels worry and anxiety and makes the management of uncertainty a constant in our lives.

From an evolutionary perspective, humans’ first priority is survival. We’re built to be able to anticipate danger, prepare for it, and fight against it. Think about our ancestors who had to be alert for anything, from predators to natural disasters, that might pose a threat to their survival.

Today, the dangers we face are different, but our brains are still wired the same.  As a consequence, we react to uncertainty with the same responses as our ancestors. When faced with uncertainty our reptilian brain takes over with a fear response and triggers us to fight, flight or freeze. This response is great for fighting a bear, or out-running a sabre tooth tiger. However, it’s less good for figuring out how to juggle working from home with schooling the kids or preparing for a job interview.

Fear and uncertainty can leave us feeling stressed, anxious, and powerless. It can drain us emotionally as we worry about everything including the economy, employment, finances, relationships and our physical and mental health.

We’re all different in how much uncertainty we can tolerate in life. Some people seem to enjoy taking risks and living unpredictable lives.  Others find the randomness of life deeply distressing. All of us are different. All of us have a limit as to how much uncertainty we can handle.

Three tips for managing uncertainty

Structure and routine. Having a structure to your working day, for example starting and finishing work at the same time, having set tasks that you do at set times, or having team meetings and 1-2-1’s at regular times, can create a sense of predictability that can help to counteract the stress of uncertainty. I wrote about this in my blog on tips for working from home. 

Be aware of the meaning you’re making. When faced with uncertainty, research in cognitive behavioural therapy shows that people tend to overestimate the risks and negative consequences that may result from a situation, and underestimate the probability of a positive outcome. What assumptions are you making about the situation? What gaps in knowledge are you filling with negative assumptions?  Shift the meaning you’re making about the situation by challenging yourself to image the best possible scenario.

Create space to reflect. To understand your reactions to uncertainty, create space for reflection.  It can be helpful to remember that you’ve faced uncertainty before. How did you manage it in the past? (You’re here now so you did OK!) For example, allocate time with yourself every week to reflect on the week. You could keep a reflection journal or work with a coach or buddy up with a colleague.

If you’d like more help and practical tools to manage uncertainty,  join me and over 170 other members over at the Lucidity Network. More information and sign up here. 

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.

 

 

Is it time to pay attention to your leaky bucket?

leaky bucket

When did the standard response of ‘fine thanks’ get replaced by ‘busy’ or ‘really busy’ or soooo busy’? If you don’t say that you’re busy do people think you’re lazy? Or boring? Or both?!

Everyone is busy. It’s like a rite of passage. But why? Hasn’t life got easier, more automated? What are we all so busy doing?

Are we busy photographing our lunch for social media? Or multi-tasking across multiple apps and web platforms to stay up to date with the latest news and trends? Or are we just expected to live at a faster pace – to achieve more?

Where are you on your ‘to-do’ list? Is it growing rather than shrinking? You are not alone. In the Lucidity Innovation Leadership Launchpad report, the top reasons that people didn’t do ‘innovation’, or any kind of strategic thinking was because they were too busy, too stressed and they just don’t have enough time.

Is stress catching?

If everyone you surround yourself with is in a state of stress it becomes a problem. It begins to self-perpetuate, we start to feel that we have to be busier or achieving more than our stressed-out friend’s family and colleagues.

Tim Ferris author of The 4-hour work week claims that, ‘you are the average of the 5 people you most associate with’. Think about who those 5 people are. If what Tim says is true, what does this mean for you stress levels?

The problem is, if we spend our time being too busy to look after ourselves our stress levels increase to such a level that we reach burn out. A physician called Hans Selye defined a three-stage reaction to stress called General Adaption Syndrome or GAS. In stage three he said:

The body’s resistance to the stress may gradually be reduced, or may collapse quickly. Generally, this means the immune system, and the body’s ability to resist disease, may be almost totally eliminated. Patients who experience long-term stress may succumb to heart attacks or severe infection due to their reduced immunity.’

This is serious stuff. To live healthy lives, we must learn to reduce our levels of stress and build our resilience. When we are striving to do our best, to deliver work for other people, to look after our family and to climb a career ladder we often forget that to do all these things we must be OK.

I heard a quote recently ‘You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep other people warm’

To get the results we want, it’s important to take a step back and recharge, otherwise we’re just like a leaky bucket, constantly on the go, our energy draining out through the holes. We need to do two things:

  1. Plug the holes – get the root cause of the stress
  2. Refill the bucket – replenish our energy.

Tips to help you keep your bucket full

  • Reframe your thinking – stop telling people you’re busy as your default. When you tell people you’re busy, it often makes you feel more stressed.
  • Take time every day to prioritise. It might just be 10 minutes, for example, at the end of the day to plan your priorities for the following day.
  • Take time every day to list and then reflect on what you’ve achieved that day. Write them down.
  • Get a mentor or a coach; a trusted person to help you focus on what’s important and make progress and help you to manage the feelings of being really busy.
  • Start to notice what triggers your stress, is it a person, a situation? What physically happens to you when you are experiencing stress? Feeling hot or cold, like you can’t think straight, agitated? Start to notice your stress triggers and your response.
  • Next time you feel your stress triggered, try and manage it, for example, go for a walk or phone a friend.
  • Say ‘no’ more often. If you are really busy and taking on something else is too much, then say so. You could offer a different solution, e.g. is there someone else that could help, or negotiate deadlines, could it be done next month when you have more time rather than immediately?
  • Make time to do the things that you love, whether that’s spending time with friends and family, the movies, theatre, reading a book or going for a run. All these things are your fuel – they refill your bucket. Don’t wait until your bucket is empty before you do them. Do them regularly and keep your bucket full.

Let me know how you get on.

If you’d like some help with making time to think, upping your productivity, and reclaiming your ‘me-time’ you might benefit from joining Charly White and me for a one-day online resilience training on Tuesday 9 February 2021 (9.30 am – 4 pm UK time). Learn practical tips to lower your stress and build your resilience in order to think clearly, combined with practical tools to help you think creatively to solve problems.

Resilience and creativity workshop

At the end of this one-day training you’ll have:

  • A toolkit of techniques to help you notice your stress and anxiety triggers
  • Practical tips and tools to lower your feelings of stress and anxiety, and help the people around you with this too and avoid the fight, flight, freeze state.
  • A set of tools to help you think clearly and creatively to solve problems
  • Confidence to put your learning into action and keep momentum even on the tough days.

This Resilience and Creativity training webinar is for anyone who is responsible for leading and motivating a team, and who would like to build their resilience and creative problem-solving skills. Book your place today!

 

Get out in nature for good health and resilience

A guest blog by Ellen Fineran.

I regard spending time in nature as one of my top priorities for feeling good about myself and staying resilient. That’s been even more relevant since the COVID-19 restrictions.

I grew up as a pretty feral child of the 1970s but then a career in the motor trade with long hours and a daily commute, combined with being a single parent, left little time for nurturing my soul through nature.

It wasn’t that nature wasn’t still all around me; more that I tended to ignore it and didn’t see its importance in my daily life. Then, in my early forties, I began working for Derbyshire Wildlife Trust as Head of Commercial Development. Being around so many people who were passionate about our beautiful wild spaces reawakened my need to connect with nature and I now feel the healthiest and happiest I’ve been throughout my adult life.

And don’t just take my word for it – there is plenty of evidence that the natural world is the foundation of our health, wellbeing and prosperity. So if you’d like to feel the benefits of exploring the nature that’s on your doorstep, here are my top tips:

Don’t be scared – you don’t need any PPE or specialist skills to get out into nature. Find a local park or green space near your home where you can social distance from others, take a stroll and enjoy exploring. Personally I love spotting a Public Footpath and seeing where it leads to!

Really notice – nature is everywhere, no matter where you live, and very often we just don’t see it. Listen to the blackbird singing on the neighbour’s roof or notice the wild flowers growing on the roadside verges. I love to watch the seasons change and I enjoy the different colours, textures and sounds that each season brings.

Nature can alter your mood – find a space somewhere green to stop, sit and think. Take deep, conscious breaths and use all of your senses to experience it. If you can let yourself relax into this, it really will empty your mind and give you a new perspective on things.

You don’t need to be a wildlife expert – I don’t care that I don’t know the calls of all the birds or the names of the plants, but I know that I love the sound of birdsong and I take joy in looking at lush green leaves. As humans, we have a natural curiosity to understand everything around us (which is great if that’s your thing) but needing to know can take the joy out of simply enjoying nature and wildlife and feeling connected with it. So be blissful in your ignorance and enjoy the moment.

Build being in nature into your daily routine – make daily choices which bring you closer to nature. For me, that was getting a dog and taking a morning walk before work. If that’s not for you, find your thing. For example, you might take a stroll with a friend at lunchtime or have your post-work glass of wine in the garden.

Have fun – I love taking part in The Wildlife Trust’s 30 Days Wild each year in June and it starts next week! The idea is to carry out a simple and fun Random Act of Wildness every day throughout June and share it with your friends on social media. It can be anything from spotting a bee in a flower to having a cuppa in the sunshine.

And finally, my best advice really is to just get out there and enjoy the natural world around you. Wherever you live, whether that’s in a city, the countryside or somewhere in-between, exploring the nature on your doorstep will help you stay healthy and resilient in these difficult times. I know that the days when I’ve started off with a mindful morning walk across the fields are the days where I feel energised and productive and ready to take on this crazy world.

Ellen Fineran is Head of Commercial Development at Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, a member of the Lucidity Network and in her spare time she can be found baking amazing cakes and exploring the countryside with her dog Beano.