Innovation: A Source Of Hope In Times Of Crisis
Post written by Dr Nadia Millington, Senior Lecturer in Practice at LSE’s Department of Management.
Many business leaders are still grappling with the financial and human fallout of Covid, and understandably feel they don’t have the bandwidth to seek out innovative solutions in their businesses.
While conserving cash, cutting costs, driving efficiency and ensuring employee wellbeing should all be top priorities, innovation must not be neglected. In fact, focusing on innovation can be a source of great hope as we try to navigate safely out of the pandemic.
Discussions of hope in times of crisis are common across all Western philosophical traditions, but the term ‘hope’ is not usually discussed in regard to business innovation. The Standford encyclopedia of philosophy did a systematic review of the hope across past and contemporary philosophers and found some common threads. Hope is directed to future events; it leads to justified expectations and a desire for an outcome that makes life better in some way. Hope also promotes rational agency, that is, it’s not irrational optimism, but is based on the knowledge that achievement is possible.
Simply, hope can improve employee experiences at work by allowing them to envisage a better future and have the confidence that a ‘new normal’ is possible amidst the toughest of challenges.
So how then can innovation be a source of hope in crises?
From our experience observing a range of short-term innovation interventions within both large multinationals and social enterprises over the last 15 months, the greatest ‘hope uplift’ starts with the intentionality of the project. The best projects were developed around the most urgent or attractive opportunities and challenges based on the company’s expectations of the new normal beyond Covid. Companies that used this approach sought wide employee engagement to develop projects of true worth to the firm’s post-Covid future. One consulting firm that was particularly intentional about its project choice focused on 3 core themes: changing customer needs, digital adoption, and employee wellness. Employees were engaged and particularly committed as it provided an opportunity to refocus their energy on a brighter tomorrow.
In contrast, firms that simply chose to reimagine old projects, or focus on long-standing, complex and endemic issues, did not seem to have the same hope uplift. A case in point was a social enterprise that focused on innovating a new partnership model – a long-standing problem that had not been resolved by several prior attempts. Such a scattershot approach caused an already Covid-weary workforce to be less engaged in a project amid competing challenges.
A hope uplift is only possible when there is the chance of a beneficial outcome. Whilst there is no proven formula for innovation success, we found that employees had the greatest hope uplift when they expect that their efforts will potentially be rewarded by something new or a significant improvement in the workplace. Simply undertaking countless surveys about ‘the future of work’, or asking them to brainstorm solutions, was not sufficient, as consistently looking inwards for solutions put additional pressures on staff and stifled innovation. Without infusing external ideas, firms appeared to recycle less ambitious solutions and employee hopes atrophied over time.
In contrast, companies that gained the most hope uplift through their innovation projects tended to engage in ‘open innovation’ (OI), a term popularized by Henry Chesbrough. OI helps companies to leverage external sources of knowledge to solve problems in unique ways. Examples of OI include crowdsourcing, hackathons, lead users or open sourcing. We found that OI is particularly effective in achieving a hope uplift because it allows companies to conserve some of their internal resources to focus on business continuity and other critical tasks, while benefiting from the innovative solutions they’ve found by engaging with their external environment. Firms without prior OI experience were also able to benefit by using low cost OI partners, which complimented and energized internal teams without the need to overhaul the firm’s internal innovation process.
The final ingredient for hope uplift is belief. Employees need to believe that if they invest their time scoping the right project and seeking more novel solutions via OI, the result will be adopted or at least be considered. This is dependent on employees trusting that leaders will prioritize resources towards new solutions. To build this trust, leaders should be explicit about processes used to assess the value of solutions and allow more time to test ideas if staff are especially energized by them. We found that one of the biggest mistakes an organization can make is to sideline a project that employees initiated without clear communication or justification.
Whether we consciously address it in business or not, hope is an essential part of everyday life. There is no denying that Covid has led to significant social and economic fallout and, in doing so, made many employees disheartened about the future. But innovation – when done correctly – can counter this and create an uplift that leads to the renewed sense of optimism we so desperately need.
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