„Giving people options is also good for innovation“
Tendayi, studies show that productivity remains the same or can even increase under certain circumstances when people work from home. But the ability to innovate seems to suffer from remote work. What hinders innovation in the current pandemic situation?
Remote work complicates many things. But there is one thing in particular that is very crucial for innovation: serendipity. When we create new products, we need things to happen unexpectedly. With remote work, we can't just listen in on colleagues' conversations on the side or talk to others spontaneously. Productivity increases, mainly in jobs that are repetitive or need silence. The more complex the tasks, however, the more coordination is required.
So, decreasing innovative power has also to do with the increasing need for coordination in the team?
Regardless of whether someone is working on innovations or not, two things are decisive: the degree of complexity of the activity and the importance that teamwork has for the task. The more coordination and collaboration are needed, the more tools and time you need to spend on coordination to maintain productivity. So, if you are physically separated, the demands increase especially for such tasks. For innovation this means: teamwork is crucial. You can innovate together, but that doesn't guarantee that it's a done deal if you can just get back together in the office. Do you remember Marissa Mayer, who called everyone back to the office at Yahoo? Yahoo disappeared into insignificance after that, so it didn't help.
It is often said that the social kit suffers under remote work. How important is this for innovation?
Researchers Andrew Hargadon and Beth Bechky investigated this in a field study on problem-solving. In their article "When Collections of Creatives Become Creative Collectives," they list four steps that are necessary for this to happen. First, "help-seeking behaviour": Someone faces a challenge and asks the other team members for their feedback. This is followed by step two: team members "give help." Therefore, they have to stop what they are doing and help the others with their problem. This starts the collaborative process, the basis for step three: "reflective reframing," which means thinking about what others are saying and matching it with what you have thought and read yourself. And step four is for leaders to support this whole process. Organising and practising all this remotely is, of course, more time-consuming and therefore more expensive at first.
A creative collective is an important prerequisite. Because innovation is a team sport.
Then you have a creative collective, but not yet innovation, right?
Yes, but a creative collective is an important prerequisite. Because innovation is a team sport. You can paint alone, maybe write a song alone. But if you want to innovate, it means taking great ideas or technologies and creating something of value for customers, then turning it into a successful business model. For example, if you invent a new microphone, that's great. But now the question is: who is going to make it? Who is going to deliver it to the shops and at what price? And how do we scale it? That requires the involvement of many players. You need development, marketing, sales. All these people have to work well together. Innovation takes the things that generated creativity and makes sure they have an impact on the world.
So, in order to “virtualise” this systematic process, we first need the right tools. But what are the right tools?
Great innovation needs great ideas. To get great ideas, you need lots of ideas that you test and validate systematically until you find one or two gems. You also need to bring people together cross-functionally. For that, you don't need that much to begin with: a video conferencing tool and then collaboration tools like Miro, where people collect and rank their ideas. Then another one to sort the tasks. But it's the same as with on-site collaboration: tools aren't everything and you can do a lot of things wrong. So, it all depends on the methods.
You know those brainstorming sessions where one person stands at the whiteboard with a pen. And it goes, "OK, John, Mary, who has an idea?" No one says anything, or only those who always push themselves to the fore. That's terrible. First of all, everyone should think for themselves and generate ideas. Then you can start, for example, by saying, "Share your worst idea." That can be an icebreaker before you get to the really good ideas. When we work with clients on the Business Model Canvas, we often use what-if scenarios. What if you could double turnover? What would your business model look like? What if you could target a different customer segment?
To get great ideas, you need lots of ideas that you test and validate systematically until you find one or two gems. You also need to bring people together cross-functionally. For that, you don't need that much to begin with: a video conferencing tool and then collaboration tools.
To what extent does the role of managers change in the innovation process when everything runs remotely?
Hardly at all. One main task is to enable psychological safety. For innovation, you need safe spaces where it is allowed to fail once in a while or to correct mistakes without feeling that you have damaged your career or your relationships. This is about the way leaders interact with their team. They also need to recognise and learn how innovation works. The biggest mistake they can make is to transfer their core business management practices to the innovation process.
Can you explain this in more detail?
They follow false assumptions, such as that innovation can be planned in business terms. Such beliefs are often not even conscious to the managers themselves. They are only expressed in the way companies work. For example, when a team has to present a comprehensive business plan with five-year projections before executives make an investment decision. No one can know what will happen in five years. Leaders cannot select the best ideas from day one. They can only create the context in which winning ideas emerge.
First of all, everyone should think for themselves and generate ideas. Then you can start, for example, by saying, "Share your worst idea."
Middle managers in particular are considered to be reluctant to allocate budgets for innovation. Why do they so often hinder innovation?
What happens very often is that CEOs publicly announce that the company is on an innovation track, but at the same they ask the time middle management for the quarterly figures. Here lies a truth that many innovators hate to hear: The company does not exist to innovate. A company exists to run the core business and generate as much value as possible from it. That is what pays our salaries, keeps the lights on and the business running. Only secondarily can the company use profits to invest in exploring the future. You need people to run the core business. Middle management is paid to do that.
So, the company is sending contradictory signals...
Yes, but I'm just trying to explain why middle management behaves the way they do. If my name is Sheryl and I'm vice-president of a department, I've agreed with the CEO what my revenue targets and cost-saving targets are for the next financial year. I spent two weeks with my own team to agree the annual plan accordingly. Three months later, a person I don't know shows up at my door and says, "Hey, I'm Tendayi from the innovation lab. We have this idea that your department should work on." From Sheryl's perspective, the Innovation Lab's proposal is just a dangerous distraction from the roadmap, a cost that will ruin revenue targets.
Here lies a truth that many innovators hate to hear: The company does not exist to innovate. A company exists to run the core business and generate as much value as possible from it.
The problem is this schizophrenic attitude. The innovators rail against the MBAs who don't know anything about innovation. But the fact is that there is no chance of innovation succeeding in any scenario if innovation teams don't build relationships with all the different key managers in their company. The best way to do this would be to develop a common understanding of the realities.
But only the C-level can change these realities. Understanding alone does not help the people involved, does it?
In fact, that is the point where the C-level executives have to give the middle managers incentives, goals, targets and rewards that say, besides sales targets, for example, that they should launch three new products in different regions. Now when the innovator knocks on the door, he or she has a very different conversation with the middle manager.
When you talk to the C-level, they will surely ask you for examples from other companies of how it worked there. What do you say then?
Of course, we tell them about a few obvious examples like Amazon. The Chinese insurance company Ping An is exciting, but so is Unilever with its focus on sustainability. We often mention the pharmaceutical company Bayer as an example of how you can generate many ideas and whittle them down to the most promising ones.
Is that really helpful to orient oneself on such innovation benchmarks?
We often hear the argument from the companies: We are different. If you teach the managers what is necessary for innovation, they say, "Great, but my team can't do that." That's why it's important to allow innovation also from the bottom-up. So, when we work with teams, we tell them: You also need to invest time in developing internal stories. It's about looking for areas where innovation works and telling how it works. Then you can show senior managers examples where innovation is already happening and people are doing great work even in your own company. This can open doors, not only in top management. Innovators don't want to hear stories from managers, but from friends, colleagues and peers. That inspires them. They need a story that resonates with them, because they recognize themselves in the hero.
People like simple equations, like more remote work means less innovation. But there is no linear pattern, there are many dependencies.
How easy is storytelling in the current situation when we work mainly from home?
That's no reason to stop storytelling. We have all the tools we need for it. This is also true for many other tasks in innovation management. For a kick-off workshop at the beginning of a project, it might be better to get together in real life to build a good team dynamic. You can spend a week at a time together. But then you can work together remotely for a while in the test phase and for experiments, until you come together again, perhaps meet a coach or discuss how to proceed.
So, in the end, what is your advice: stay at home or go back to the office if you want to drive innovation?
People like simple equations, like more remote work means less innovation. But there is no linear pattern, there are many dependencies. Home office is not the only reason why innovation doesn't work. If a company has a poor culture around innovation, remote work will make the problem worse. Then it's better to go into the office to fight those battles. But if a company has a really great culture of innovation, then both can be good: going to the office or working at home. Remote work won't hurt then either. Right now, these surveys are popping up everywhere asking people if they would rather go to the office or stay at home. And the best answer is: people want options. They want to choose for themselves when which form of work suits them best. Giving people options is also good for innovation.