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CTDO Magazine

Keep Innovation Alive

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Despite uncertainties ahead, encourage employees to learn, collaborate, and experiment.

Throughout the pandemic, to survive, organizations have had to change their business models and how they perform daily activities. Across industries, companies have adopted new technologies, found different ways to deliver existing services and products, and explored with employees alternative working arrangements.


In a McKinsey & Company survey of 200-plus organizations in various industries, more than 90 percent of executives said they expect the fallout from COVID-19 to fundamentally change the way they do business during the next five years, with almost as many asserting that the crisis will have a lasting impact on their customers’ needs. That means prioritizing innovation will be the key to unlocking post-crisis growth.

Focused on the now

Instead of innovating for the future, however, many companies have been keenly focused on “maintaining business continuity, especially in their core,” say McKinsey analysts. “Executives must weigh cutting costs, driving productivity, and implementing safety measures against supporting innovation-led growth.”

The result: Investments and initiatives in innovation are suffering. Many executives in the study said they believe they will “return to innovation-related initiatives once the world has stabilized, the core business is secure, and the path forward is clearer.”

Unfortunately, few of those execs feel equipped to meet post-pandemic challenges; only one in five said they have the expertise, resources, and commitment to pursue new growth successfully.

For those seeking guidance, McKinsey recommends following the eight essentials of innovation: aspire, choose, discover, evolve, accelerate, scale, extend, and mobilize. The last one requires talent development professionals’ attention.

McKinsey analysts explain that to mobilize is to put in place the appropriate talent and incentives to activate innovation plans. In other words, companies need to promote collaboration, learning, and experimentation.

Analysts say organizations can “help people to share ideas and knowledge freely perhaps by locating teams working on different types of innovation in the same place.” But that advice comes from a pre-COVID workplace.

What makes sense now? What happens when teams are working remotely?

Refocusing innovation

Karen O’Leonard and Paige Seaborn, innovation experts for Willis Towers Watson, pose these key questions in their blog post: “How can [organizations] foster an innovative environment, enabling individuals to connect and share ideas and allowing for serendipitous encounters that spark creativity while employees are working from home? How can existing innovation programs adapt quickly to equip colleagues from afar with skills and tools that enable them to partake in innovation and help the organization get ahead?”

As with most developments that are shaping the remote workforce, companies will need to move the innovation process online and rely on technology.

During the Fast Company Innovation Festival, for example, Mastercard shared that its dispersed, remote teams found success by translating the brainstorming processes into the virtual workspace. Cheryl Guerin, executive vice president for marketing and communications at Mastercard North America, explains that the company’s labs team, which is focused on innovation, typically runs four- or five-day in-person “innovation sprints.”


In the post-COVID world, though, the team has compressed that timeline. “We’ve accelerated those into shorter sprints, and we do them virtually, through collaboration and video tools,” Guerin says.

To smooth the use of online tools, O’Leonard and Seaborn recommend designating a point person to liaise with IT. You also want someone to become an expert on any complex features that will be helpful for online brainstorming sessions, for instance. Likewise, only assign responsibility for capturing audio and recording virtual sticky notes or whiteboard notations to one or two members to avoid having too many cooks in the virtual kitchen.

Finally, Art Markman, professor at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of its Human Dimensions of Organizations program, notes in his recent Harvard Business Review article that being forced to move innovation practices online can be an advantage for companies. For starters, he shares research on construal-level theory, which shows that the more distant you are from something in time, in space, or socially, the more abstractly you think about it.

“In a remote working environment, this means that you are often physically distant from the site of the problems you’re trying to solve, and you therefore think about them more abstractly,” he writes.

More importantly, moving innovation activities such as brainstorming online can lessen groupthink. Essentially, when you bring a group of people together in a room to generate ideas, the individuals can tend to think alike, converging on a common solution. Working remotely enables people to work on idea generation individually without influence.

Bottom line: Innovation is critical during a crisis, and the lessons we learn in a virtual setting about how to spur the creativity process will likely serve organizations when they’re working face to face again.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected] 

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