Innovating In An Age Of Uncertainty

We are living through an era of intense turbulence, disillusionment and accelerating change.

In any period of uncertainty, never mind a public health crisis and economic downturn of this scale, a company’s inclination can be to buckle down and focus solely on maintaining business as usual.

Innovation programmes deemed high risk and low return are often the first to be shelved as all efforts go into securing the bottom line. But they shouldn’t be, as innovation becomes more crucial when your business plan has just been thrown out the window.

In fact, creativity is in abundance during crises and when people are forced to accept new constraints. People who are behaving differently are also thinking differently – why wouldn’t an organisation want to capture that?

It often takes the reality of a genuine crisis to shake an organisation out of complacency. It can boost organisational courage and give it the impetus to take actions that would be unthinkable in times of calm.

However a crisis also brings with it an information overload, supplying us with overwhelming amounts of new data and choices. Faced with half facts, facts, figures and conflicting views of the future can lead many of us into a state of analysis paralysis.

In their article ‘When More Information Leads to More Uncertainty’, Geeta Menon and Ellie J. Kyung write that as humans, we innately find uncertainty to be an aversive state and are motivated to reduce it, even at a cost. Research has shown that people are calmer and less agitated when they know they are going to receive an electric shock than when they know there is a 50% chance they might receive an electric shock. Similarly, the threat of perceived job insecurity has more detrimental health effects than actually losing a job.

In many ways the crisis is just compressing and accelerating trends (remote work, job automation, the climate agenda, the possibility of a universal basic income) that would have taken decades to play out.

This uncertainty is affecting all colleagues in all our companies right now – and we underestimate it at our peril.

Some people cope with uncertain situations better than others, but I take issue with the idea that some are innately more resilient. Those that appear to thrive whilst others around them crumble under the pressure often face hidden wellbeing costs that emerge over the longer term. Resilience isn’t something that a person is blessed with, or not. It can be nurtured.

In the latest Bromford Lab Podcast , Ian Wright of the Disruptive Innovators Network talks about the challenges of innovating during a crisis and the number of employers who are now recognising the role that wellbeing plays not only in increased productivity, but also creativity. Refreshingly he says the organisations he is working with see the challenges presented by COVID-19 as an opportunity rather than a reason to scale back.

How do we prepare ourselves to make the best from a ‘crisis’? I’ll try and boil it down into three points that I think may help us on our way:

Eliminate triviality

COVID-19 should be a good time to get rid of organisational vanity projects or the trivial. I was reminded of this last week by Chris Bolton. In a post still fresh after nearly 10 years he outlines the Law of Triviality

Way back in 1957, Cyril Parkinson came up with the theory that organisations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.

Image courtesy of Chris Bolton (@whatsthepont)

He used the example of a committee spending very little time to approve the construction of a nuclear power station. The committee then went on to spend much longer debating the construction and colour of a bike shed for the staff on the site. This came to be known as ‘bikeshedding’.

You and I know that all our organisations engage in bikeshedding – on a daily basis. Just check out the minutes of any meeting – that’s assuming any are even kept.

To create headspace for colleagues in the next normal we need to be more ruthless with the trivial then we ever have before – and apply our thinking time to the essential innovation challenges of our time.

Review Your Approach To Risk

In a crisis there’s no risk of rocking the boat, the storm has already hit.

In the podcast Ian talks about moving away from risk management and towards resilience management

When we initially pitched Bromford Lab the number one objective was to create an environment where failure was not just accepted , but encouraged. 75% of the things we worked on would fail.

This was not to create a culture that celebrated failure. It was to create a place where people felt it was safe to fail. They wouldn’t get punished for messing up.

It was to detoxify risk.

To promote learning from failure.

If we are to tackle the big problems rather than the trivial ones we WILL mess up, we WILL fail and we WILL learn. Embedding this approach in your risk management framework is necessary if we are to build resilience in colleagues. (You can learn more about the Bromford approach to risk management here)

Harness The Power Of Distributed Teams

There’s been two immediate trends we need to take advantage of:

  • The sudden shift to remote work as the default
  • Colleagues switching teams/being redeployed to support crisis management

So we’ve got a couple of things going on here than can lead to a spike in creativity.

Online tools and apps make it easier to assign, monitor, and communicate about the many tasks involved in building a collaborative team – outside of functional silos. This brings the opportunity to bring new people into mix – especially introverts who often don’t thrive in physical brainstorms. Introverts are ideally placed to absorb complex information about a problem and combine it into an elegant solution.

Secondly you’ve got the redeployment of colleagues into new teams who will bring a fresh pair of eyes to previously acknowledged and previously unseen problems.

This, managed well, will put some organisations in the driving seat of opportunity creation rather than mere crisis management.


It’s inevitable that faced with uncertainty, the knee jerk reaction of some of those holding the purse strings will be to stop the clock, peddle simplistic solutions and retreat to the past.

However it’s precisely because of these uncertain times that they must continue to invest in innovation. With the fast pace of change, and the pressures on our organisations and wider society, we need to find new ways to work and live.

Quickly.


Image courtesy of Free-Photos from Pixabay

The latest Bromford Lab Podcast is available now. Listen and subscribe on Spotify or Apple Podcasts or your favourite podcast app.

Published by

Paul Taylor

I’m a facilitator, innovator and designer. I work with organisations to identify problems and solve them in ways that combine creativity with practical implementation. I established Bromford Lab as a new way for the organisation to embrace challenge and adopt a ‘fast fail’ approach to open innovation. Nearly everything the Lab works on is openly accessible at www.bromfordlab.com. I'm a regular contributor to forums , think-tanks , and research reports and a speaker or advisor at conferences and events.

2 thoughts on “Innovating In An Age Of Uncertainty

  1. excellent piece Paul. I’m remined of the fact that any leader can pack a defence so no one can score against them so they don’t lose. But with this approach they aren’t going to win anything either. Even in the times we live in you have to take risk, send out some goal scorers and take some shots at winning. It’s the same with investment in innovating. Now is the time for organisations to be creating those safe spaces to test, fail and learn.

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