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5 ways leaders can keep innovation in their teams after Covid

19 May 2021

The momentum we’ve seen in innovation in response to the pandemic doesn’t have to cease once it’s over, writes Hays’ Alex Fraser.

The challenges of the pandemic have forced many businesses to adopt an innovative mindset in order to adapt to new demands in record time. And while many of us look forward to the world returning to what will be the new normal, this way of thinking is something that many organisations will want to hold on to after Covid.

So how can businesses ensure that the innovative mindset they gained by necessity during the Covid-19 pandemic becomes a permanent part of their culture?

1. Keep your employees involved

One way to maintain the momentum of employees’ innovation-ready mindset is to celebrate their achievements so far. Kate Cooper, head of research, policy and standards at the Institute of Leadership and Management, points out that while the long-term impact on productivity after switching to home working is still something of an unknown, employees’ willingness to make this change is something businesses should champion.

“So many people have demonstrated capabilities to learn new technologies very quickly, to find ways of collaborating with colleagues and manage performance – all virtually,” Cooper says.

This is indicative of an adaptability we will continue to need in the future, she says, not just in response to a crisis. “It could be we need to get something to market, find new suppliers or train people on a new system. Whatever it is, an ability to respond quickly and effectively will deliver real competitive advantage.”

2. Keep questioning your business model

In November 2020, insurance firm Resolution Life switched to a new working model called ‘enterprise agile’ to support an innovative mindset beyond the pandemic. Its CTO, Peter Histon, says: “This has enabled us to fundamentally shift the way we collaborate across the organisation, to transparently generate ideas, test solutions and ultimately deliver great outcomes for our customers.”

As part of this shift, the business now holds regular events called ‘ceremonies’ to provide feedback from different levels of the business.

“One of the ceremonies we’ve implemented as a part of our agile flip is the concept of a fortnightly showcase. These are open to the entire organisation and the senior leadership team (including our CEO) have a presence at each of the showcases.

“This gives our people the opportunity to hear regularly from the senior leadership team about how important innovation is and how they are embracing ‘different’.”

3. Continue with consistent communication

Sheryl Fenney, VP of global HR at Fanatics, an international sports merchandise business that works with the likes of the NFL, Manchester United and Bayern Munich, says she and her colleagues learned that building a culture of communication and strong leadership was essential when implementing quick changes to their business.

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“With so much uncertainty in our lives and with our offices being across 11 countries, it was important that our global leadership team gave a strong, clear and consistent message,” she notes. “Increasing our communication, both at a global and local level, was also vital.”

Fanatics also learned that it needed to put employee welfare at the heart of business, says Fenney. “We did a lot of work making sure that we regularly communicated to our whole organisation and that our leaders showed humility, empathy and honesty when they spoke, many sharing personal stories of challenges they’ve faced.”

4. Don’t lose sight of your processes

Of course, for many businesses, following processes to ensure services or products are delivered to a set standard is as important as innovating regularly. Michel van Hove, partner at US strategy and innovation consultancy Strategos, warns that these should be developed with equal urgency.

“At Strategos, we believe innovation can flourish by enabling creativity with robust processes,” he explains. “These are not mutually exclusive as many like to believe. Core processes and shared purpose provide overall coherence for everyone.

“If we look at our clients, 2020 was a time when prescribed ways of working (policies and procedures) were often ignored in favour of helping colleagues and customers. Organisations need to innovate their products and services, but those same processes must apply to their working practices.”

Fenney adds that organisations can create a balance by putting equal weight on the importance of both innovation and process, even when recruiting: “Being innovative and agile is key for all roles, but it is important that we balance creativity with subject matter experts to ensure due diligence and compliance.”

5. Remember that it’s OK to fail

Another key way of nurturing an innovative mindset is to ensure that reversing changes where necessary is not seen as a step back. Not every new idea will be a success, and encouraging your people to be mindful of this is important, says van Hove.

“When innovating, learning about the idea needs to come before the commercial argument. Assumptions-based testing is a great way to put ‘learning before earning’ and allows colleagues to roll back changes, reflect and reconsider ideas or correct the course if necessary.”

Resolution Life has a reflection process known as ‘retros’, where teams recap on recent changes in the business. “Every fortnight in our retros, our squads and self-managing teams reflect on what went well and what could be improved,” says Histon. “This session really highlights how we’re a learning organisation and recognise there’s always room for improvement.

“Part of the focus in the agile model is testing and learning, and the phrase we use is ‘it’s OK to fail, but let’s do it quickly’. We want to test new ideas, but we want to know if they are going to work. If not, we can try a different approach before launching to customers. This means we have to be very focused on what we are learning and be open to changing things accordingly.”

By Alex Fraser

Alex Fraser is group head of change at Hays. A version of this article previously appeared on the Hays Viewpoint blog.

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