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4 Surprise Innovation Lessons From COVID-19

May 22,2020 Leadership
blade kotelly
By Blade Kotelly

The software security company r2c, a venture-backed startup in San Francisco, has seen major successes during these trying past few weeks.

Employees are collaborating more effectively than they were even before the crisis hit, communications throughout the organization have become clearer and more purposeful, and more team members are contributing valuable ideas to in-progress projects. The company is even considering staying in a work-from-home model after most of the rest of the country is back at the office.  How is this possible?

This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom about innovation and productivity during the coronavirus crisis. These past few weeks, many discussions about remote work have centered on people struggling to stay productive at home. But if they look closely, I think many business leaders will discover that their employees are actually collaborating and innovating in entirely new ways right now.

It’s important for companies to not only recognize these successes, but to make these new methods a fundamental part of their operations going forward. And with parts of the country already returning to the office, the time to do so is rapidly running out.

Here are four innovation lessons that companies can take away from the current crisis.

1. How To Codify Institutional Knowledge

At r2c, remote work tools have forced employees to create a written record of their work and thinking — an invaluable tool for a company striving to create innovative technical products.

When businesses are innovating quickly, they build up large libraries of institutional knowledge that often exist only in the minds of employees. Seldom do people take the valuable step of codifying even the foundational elements of this knowledge. As a result, things can quickly get confusing when a company needs to onboard a group of new employees who lack access to this essential information.

Through tools like persistent chat, a remote work model tends to naturally lead to repositories of important information. This provides benefits not only to new hires, but also to existing teams. Recently, I’ve been working on a project with two colleagues — one based in Boston and the other based in New Zealand. Most of our shared thinking occurs in a Slack channel. Not only does this allow us to contribute our ideas across time zones, but it gives us a record to look back on when we need to clarify something. It’s an enormous help.

Related Article: A New Generation of Collaboration Tools: Is it Really Different This Time?

2. Capturing Insights from More Employees

Still waters may run deep, but companies often fail to benefit from the profound thoughts of their most introverted workers, simply because those ideas often aren’t shared aloud.

In-person brainstorming sessions are usually led by extroverts, who often aren’t attuned to the needs of quieter workers who may need a bit of prodding to share. But with online collaboration tools, everybody can contribute their ideas in written form, at their own pace — essentially amplifying everyone’s voice to the same volume. This dynamic also helps to coax contributions from junior employees, and anyone else who may otherwise feel intimidated. Going forward, companies must find ways to keep everyone actively involved in conversations about innovation.

Related Article: What You Can Do to Build an Innovative Ecosystem

3. Building in Critical Time for Reflection

You can’t innovate without solving problems, and you can’t solve problems without first thinking them through.

Often, the process of thinking out innovative new solutions to longstanding problems is slow and seemingly passive. To an outside observer, it can look like wasted time. Too many workplace cultures place such an emphasis on productivity (or even the mere appearance of productivity) that employees don’t feel as though they can carve out this incredibly valuable time to think and reflect.

But now, working at home, employees are freed from the pressure of having to constantly look busy. If they want to go for a run or even stare at a wall for an hour to get into a creative mindset, they’re able to do that — even if sometimes they have to use hacks to make sure they appear to be online and working. This sort of “thinking time” should be a part of the workday in the office, too — especially for employees expected to contribute to innovation.

Related Article: Building Innovation Practices With Staying Power

4. Getting Remote Workers on Equal Footing

Before the coronavirus crisis, r2c only had two remote workers, who sometimes felt out-of-the-loop. Now, with all employees working from home, the company is effectively creating a new culture, one where everyone feels like part of the same team.

Not every company is going to stick with a completely work-form-home model as the worst of the crisis abates. But every organization should carefully consider ways to capture the benefits they’ve found from new workflows during this time. A business might allow employees to work remotely on Mondays and Fridays, for instance. Or employees in the office might simply leave Zoom sessions open for hours at a time, allowing them to occasionally check in with remote workers for brief chats.

When you’re in survival mode, it’s sometimes hard to see what you’re doing well. But people are constantly innovating right now as they figure out new ways to be productive, keep their energy up, communicate with their colleagues, and maintain their sense of humor during a stressful time. By learning from current successes and applying them to their everyday workflows after the crisis, companies will more fully realize their employees’ capacity for innovation.

About the Author

Blade Kotelly is Senior Lecturer at MIT and instructor of the MIT Professional Education course, Mastering Innovation & Design-Thinking. A world-leading innovation and user-experience expert, Blade provides consulting service in design-thinking and innovation, helping top brands to innovate radically on their product and services.

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