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Research into the past two years of our radically-changed working environment is throwing up some interesting and often somewhat conflicting results. Productivity has improved in some areas but regressed in others, often counter-intuitively. Employee morale has likewise had mixed response. These appear to largely come down to the organisational culture and leadership.

One area that is of concern across the board, though, is innovation. It’s suffering.

There is absolutely no question that businesses need to keep innovating if they’re to continue sustained, profitable growth – whether this is radical, disruptive or incremental innovation.

But, as is becoming even more clear with the enforced working from home restrictions during the pandemic, humans are essentially herd animals. Yes, some individuals more so than others but, as a whole we need the company of others.

Those people that have generally done best under lockdowns have been the middle-aged, and older, generation who have established networks of professional colleagues and friends with whom they could continue to communicate, albeit remotely.

Those who suffered most have been the younger generations who generally have less-developed networks of both friends and professional colleagues and, although viewed by many as asocial due to the time they spend on various devices, have showed themselves to be highly dependent on interpersonal interaction. They have also seen promotion prospects hindered in a remote working environment as they have neither the corporate networks nor, generally, the ability to be effectively tested in new management roles.

Innovation in business relies strongly on the ability of people to firstly discuss issues and potential opportunities with colleagues, customers, and others, and secondly to work in teams to develop ideas to a stage where they are potentially implementable.

Doing this remotely over, say, video links is a poor substitute for in-person meetings. And this is where the root of the innovation problem lies – companies trying to replicate their previous processes electronically. In a team meeting, good leaders make a point of getting everyone to give input so they can be heard (it’s not always the extroverts that have the best ideas), drawing out the introverts and the more junior people. In the typical video meeting, though, these people effectively fade into the background – largely because they can’t be seen properly, especially in group sizes of more than a dozen or so.

And so much potentially great input is lost.

So, how can businesses encourage effective innovation in the new working “normal” and can it even improve on previous approaches?

Just as asynchronous communications can often be more productive than synchronous ones – enabling people to respond to messages when they have had the time to consider their input, and are not being interrupted while engaged in another task (studies on the disadvantages of multitasking are clear!) – so can an asynchronous approach to innovation deliver great benefit.

The first step is for the team to generate ideas and add them to a suitable online collaboration tool, anonymised to encourage everyone to be able to submit safely (although the team leader should be able to later see who has submitted and what for accountability purposes).

After a suitable period has been allowed for submissions, the team leader would categorise and combine similar ones, and then make this consolidated list available to all for comment (again, anonymously).

If necessary, there would follow a further round of submissions, clean up and comment.

The team leader would then do a final edit and clean-up, ranking the ideas for implementation.

Lastly, the team would meet – ideally in person, or virtually if everyone is a full-time remote worker – to discuss the final list and ranking, together with any issues on these that have not previously been raised. At this point, accountability for implementation can be assigned and the process of implementing begun.

This final group meeting is essential to get buy-in from all and agree the accountability, schedule and way forward. Of course, the person leading the team and this meeting must be able to ensure that everyone feels able to participate through a culture of real openness and accountability.

Early research into this approach has shown that it can work extremely well. Anonymous submission and comment enables people at all levels to safely put forward their ideas and views and, in fact, results in more input than the traditional in-person brainstorming approach, even when this is run by a leader who actively encourages input from everyone.

There seems little doubt that the working world will continue to be at least hybrid, with less time in physical groups and the office. However, it is also vital that the business culture understands and adapts to this, and that people be brought together at times to encourage discussion and the resultant creativity. It is also critical for people development, particularly among the more junior levels who need to build their corporate networks and be able to demonstrate their potential.

Simply moving old in-person meetings to virtual ones doesn’t work. Processes and systems must be redeveloped to combine the best of the old approach with the best of the new tools available to ensure that morale, job satisfaction, productivity and innovation are not hindered in any way and businesses can continue to see sustained, profitable growth.

 

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I work with successful owner-led businesses to enhance their growth, profitability and business value.

If you’d like to have a conversation about your business objectives and concerns, book a free 30-minute call with me here. I’d be delighted to talk with you.

 

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If you’d like to learn more, these related posts might help:

 

Some published articles on the effects of remote working: