Three Innovation Aspirations For 2021

In 2021 perhaps the bravest and most radical thing you could do is to change your mind.

A new year is usually the time where we leap off the sofa and out of the house, attempting to reset our lives and put straight all the things we failed to do the previous year.

2021 is different – as many of us will start the year spending even more time on the sofa and in the house.

Last year was a wake up call for me as I started the year with lots of resolutions and ideas for the next 12 months, and then found out that the world had an entirely different plan.

When bigger forces take over your life it can be easy for us to give up control and become a bystander. But in reality we still have agency over our lives , and have many opportunities. In fact, when life gets reset or derailed there are often more opportunities, even if we can’t clearly see them.

However, being able to see the opportunities emerging from a crisis is not the same as being able to seize them.

Research from McKinsey has indicated that many companies are deprioritising innovation to concentrate on shoring up core business, conserving cash, minimising risk and waiting until “there is more clarity.” 

In a year in which most of us will have to contend with having less resources, less cash liquidity, and living in a more uncertain environment, we have to ask the question:

What is innovation to us, and what am I hoping to get out of innovation?

I’ll begin this years series of posts with three ambitions for the year ahead.

Connecting innovation to the larger organisation

We can probably say with some certainty that whatever your approach to innovation was in 2019, it’s no longer fit for purpose. Many of our organisations have , in effect, become new companies. Many of us will have spent a year, or more, without physically seeing each other. People will have joined the workforce – never knowing another way of working.

While we will likely never go back to our pre-crisis status quo, I imagine the future will be a blended one that leverages the best of what both virtual and face-to-face working offer. Enlightened organisations will become hyper connected and networked, with ideas emerging from all corners, and levels, of the business.

This way of working is an existential threat to policy teams, Innovation Labs and R+D functions. These teams have often seen themselves as connectors of thinking within organisations , but in the new world everyone is a potential connector of thinking.

The pandemic has accelerated many things, including people’s expectations of problem resolution. The time course of medical research has been cut down to almost nothing. The Moderna COVID vaccine was created in a weekend , but built upon many years of prior work.

People simply aren’t going to have tolerance for labs, think tanks, and R+D units who talk the talk but take years rather than weeks to turn ideas into solutions.

The necessary task now is for organisations to democratise the innovation process. This means giving all employees access to creative learning and development that lets them solve simple problems themselves – whilst also identifying those bigger strategic opportunities or problems to be worked on in collaboration with others.

Staying Perpetually Curious

At present, we miss our freedom, we miss our social interactions, we miss our routine, we miss the usual solutions that we have to guide our lives.

Creativity is largely social and a long period of living without physical connection could have negative implications.

A major catalyst for innovation are those unplanned interactions with friends, acquaintances and complete strangers. The closure of coffee shops, bars, libraries, gyms and community centres means these opportunities have been cut off for us at the moment.

Travelling, also curtailed, presented new challenges and cultures to adapt to. The subsequent strain on the problem-solving areas of the brain strengthens our creativity skills.

For a good period of this year these opportunities are likely to be reduced or off limits entirely. We all need to help each other retain our capacity for seeking out new learning, and take advantage of the current situation to nourish our minds, educate ourselves and treat each day as a new start.

It’s worth organisations remembering that colleagues being more bored than usual is also an opportunity. Studies have shown that people who have gone through a boredom-inducing task later performed better on an idea-generating task than peers who first completed an interesting craft activity. 

Being bored can be a good thing for your mind, imagination and productivity.

Being Brave Enough To Change Our Minds

If there was one unwelcome trend of the past few years it has been the growth of partisan thinking, which has again tipped to violence in the past few days.

Partisanship has been boosted by Brexit, Trumpism, climate change, identity politics, wokeism, and now lockdown and vaccination policy. Social media – where we are all spending more and more time – is very efficient at facilitating this as the algorithms herd us into echo chambers that reflect our own views and biases back at us. When the information or opinions you hold – whether factually correct or not – are repeatedly being echoed back to you, it enforces your individual belief system.

This is inimical to the kind of diversity of thought that innovation requires.

As Jorge Barba says an open mind is our greatest strategic advantage because it costs us nothing and rewards us with plenty.

I don’t know about you but I’m committing this year to changing my mind on at least of couple of biases that I hold dear. Breaking free of limiting assumptions is a creative act that is also good for your mental health. Admitting you don’t have the answers rather than pretending you do is personally empowering.

In 2021 perhaps the bravest and most radical thing you could do is to change your mind.


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Stop Talking, Start Experimenting

Thinking different isn’t enough, you have to act different – Jorge Barba

I took a call this week from a person working for another organisation, we’ll call her Bill.

Despite having a hugely supportive executive team the problems Bill faces are numerous:

  • Managers are asking why are we working on a new initiative when the priority is just to keep income coming in.
  • People are questioning when we will ever see any results? They say projects take too long and cost too much money.
  • It takes a long time to get new projects approved – there are exhaustive reports to be submitted to make a business case.
  • There are four tiers of management between Bill and the CEO and a lot of internal stakeholders to get on board.

The big problem here is divergence of priorities.

Senior management anticipate the brand new shiny innovation ideas and front-line colleagues can’t wait to be rid of their daily frustrations. However there are a whole group of people in the middle who don’t have an interest in either of these things and have the potential to slow things down.

The role of the middle manager is to hit targets and keep the business running. They are not intentional blockers but anything new that gets thrown at them is just another thing that threatens efficiency.

They have a different set of values to the innovators and creatives.

Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 10.16.44

What often happens is organisations confuse these two things – innovation and business as usual. As Victor W. Hwang has written – the values are opposed. Successful companies must exist in both worlds—innovation and production—simultaneously.  That’s hard to do.

Good ideas fail because they can’t cross the cultural barrier between innovation and production. What we need to do as organisations is to create the conditions for these to co-exist and establish a handover point from innovation to business as usual.

My advice was built around four points:

Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 11.00.08Most organisations understand incremental change – change that doesn’t fundamentally challenge how the organisation works. Radical change is where we struggle.

Innovation is not a commodity or something you can contain in a project. It means creating space – physically and mentally – where we are free to challenge business as usual, actively take on the dominant culture and think beyond existing roles, budgets and structures.

Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 11.00.29

Managers are often right to question new initiatives as they are often solution focussed rather than problem focused. One of the most crucial causes of failure is the right questions were never asked at the outset.

  • What problem are we trying to solve?
  • How do we know this is a real problem?
  • Why is it important to solve?
  • How will we know if we’ve solved the problem?

Answering those first will save you a heap of time and get your innovation efforts taken a lot more seriously.

Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 11.00.56When you don’t really know the way forward the best strategy is to spread your bets with small experiments. It’s these practical tests that show whether the fundamental assumptions about radical innovation are correct and what they mean for your business.

The challenge we all face is shifting our learning from slow and expensive to fast and cheap.

Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 11.00.43

We need to move from reporting about things we are going to do and shift it to things we have done.

Spend less time talking about ‘What would happen?’ and start demonstrating ‘What happened’.  That means we need to get comfortable reporting on intelligent failure and what we learned as a result.

Having a strategy based on small losses takes most of the risk out of innovation.

To transform our organisations, we must live with two sets of values simultaneously. 

We need to be boringly effective and radically disruptive at the same time.  That sometimes happens by keeping the right people apart from one another.

The trick is knowing when and how to bring them together.


Thanks to Tom Hartland for the illustrations. 

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