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5 Innovation tactics to deal with coronavirus uncertainties

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Innovation tactics help organizations and project teams to deal with uncertainty. And because nothing is normal in this coronavirus crisis, many skills that you need to manage an innovation project or portfolio will come in handy. The 5 innovation tactics that will be most useful: Focus on the problem, have your strategy guide your actions, test your assumptions, create a learning mindset, and plan at two levels.

Nothing is normal at the moment. Even at home, we still have to find our new routine now that everyone is at back at home. How to deal with all this uncertainty?

That is where innovation skills come in handy. It is a common misconception that innovation is all about creativity. The more important skillset needed to innovate successfully is the ability to deal with uncertainty.

I suspect that creative people are more tolerant of uncertainty, as they can rely on their creativity to come up with new solutions. But that is a topic for another day. What you need in the coming weeks is the ability to plan and deal with uncertainty. And yes, creative problem solving will come in handy too.

1. Focus on the problem

The first innovation tactic is to focus on the problem. The reason to focus on the problem instead of the solution is really simple. Problems are not malleable, while solution are.

That is, you can adapt your solution at the start of your project. Once you have built the solution, it is no longer malleable either. If you missed the target, because you did not fully understand the problem, you will end up with a solution looking for a problem. And that is a very difficult situation to be in, as many unsuccessful entrepreneurs and innovators can attest.

In the iconic 60-Minutes IDEO Shopping cart session an IDEO design team is giving a 5-day challenge to come up with a new shopping cart. Of those 5 days, the team spends 3 days on getting a detailed grasp of the problem, by observing and interviewing shop owners, shoppers, etc. Only on the fourth day, they start building solutions. It shows that even for a problem that everyone has experienced, it still pays off to do your homework. You are unlikely to be familiar with all aspects of a problem.

Also Einstein said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

In my own experience, I also learned that the time spent on understanding the problem is worth it. So when colleagues and I organized a Hackathon at Children’s National years ago, we spent the first day informing the teams about all that was known about childhood obesity from a research and practical perspective and gave the teams ample opportunity to speak with these experts.

Thus, before you start creating, building or implementing new solutions, guidelines or processes, make sure you have a solid understanding of the problem that needs to be addressed.

And use this information to test afterward if the proposed changes did what was supposed to be accomplished.

2. Have strategy guide your actions

The second innovation tactic is to have strategy guide your actions. When things are turbulent, you need a north star.

Why are you doing what you are doing? What is it that can guide you through, no matter how muddy the waters, how many turns you need to take, the number of hoops you have to jump through, or twists that you will have to deal with.

A north star that will tell you that it is wise to take three steps backward, knowing that it is not the direction, but that you must do so because it will get you the results you are looking for.

Your strategy is your north star. It can be simple, yet it needs to be concrete.

For example, 'survive' as a strategy won’t help. It is too vague and does not give your employees any direction on how to do so. Should they stay home, should they make additional hours, should they engage in an innovation project, should they cut costs?

Your strategy needs to inform everyone in the organization where you are heading so that it can guide your employee's day-to-day decision making. It could, for example, be, "we plan to survive the coronavirus crisis by cutting operational costs in half".

I am not saying this is a smart strategy. However, it is clear. And for instance, it will inform a franchise owner that she should not fire all employees to cut costs, because without employees the restaurant cannot start back up and survive.

It can also mean that this franchise owner invests in an online solution that temporarily increases operational costs. Given the strategy, it is the right thing to do, because it will significantly cut operational costs in the end.

Forbes offers a simple 5 step plan for defining your strategy.

3. Test your assumptions

The third innovation tactic is to test your assumptions. You base your strategy on a set of assumptions about the future. That is perfectly fine, as long as you write these assumptions out and put them on the wall in front of you. Because in uncertain situations, realities change and your assumptions may no longer be valid.

For example, currently, you may handle under the assumption that the social isolation protocols will be lifted 8 weeks from now. Today, that seems a reasonable assumption and you can base your planning on that.

Knowing that all your plans are based on this assumption means that you must monitor this “fact” closely. If it turns out social isolation will be advised for a longer period, you will know that you have to adjust your plans.

By monitoring the critical assumptions you are making, you know when you to adjust your plans in case reality has changed.

4. create a learning mindset

The fourth innovation tactic is to create a learning mindset.

Gut feelings and instincts work well in known environments. Like firefighters running in burning buildings and surgeons dealing with a patient in a life-threatening condition.

None of these scenarios are the same, but firefighters, surgeons, soldiers etc. are trained to rely on their instincts in these circumstances. They have too.

However, uncertainty, like we face now, is different. Nobody has been trained for this – with perhaps the exception of pandemic flu experts. When the situation is unfamiliar, you cannot rely on your instincts or gut feelings. They will be off.

Instead, keep an open mind. Learn as much as you can. Be open to new information, especially information that challenges your believes. Consult with as many sources as possible. However, there is a delicate balance between being receptive to new information and dealing with information overload.

We know from innovation teams that you need more than one person to be engaged in soliciting such information from the outside world. Everyone on the team needs to keep their eyes and ears open. However, that does not mean that you change your direction with every new piece of information that comes in, that would be unproductive.

Maintaining the balance between being sensitive to new information and information overload is a known challenge for innovation teams.

Which brings me to my last point.

5. Plan at two levels

plan at multiple levelsThe fifth innovation tactic is to plan at two levels.

The moment you form a project team, people have expectations about the outcomes. That is normal and perfectly fine. However, in the current situation, things will change. Every day, if not more often, new information comes in. So how do you keep everyone in the team on tasks and expectations aligned with the stakeholders outside your team?

You do so by planning at two levels. It can be that you need even more levels, but that is beyond the scope of this blog.

Team-level planning

The first plan is at the team level. This can be done daily as is common for instance in lean manufacturing or agile project planning. Daily short debriefs to discuss what was accomplished yesterday, the new information that has come in, the course of action, and what will be done today.

These planning targets and discussions should stay within the team, because it can be chaotic can change per day. Most importantly, your team needs to feel safe in bringing up the bad and ugly. Honest reporting is crucial, as you need to know what goes well and what went wrong.

This team planning is not something you want to bother the outside world with. For them, you have the next planning level, your project-level planning.

Project-level planning

Your project-level planning consists of high-level milestones that you communicate with the outside world.

In our team, we have a team-level plan that we discuss each week and have project-level milestones that span periods of 3 months. But that was before the coronavirus crisis hit.

Now we still plan weekly with the team, but our project-planning has changed to a monthly timeframe. In highly uncertain situations, you may need to go to weekly or even daily planning at the project-level.

Keep in mind that the project-level planning needs to be high enough to act as a buffer for your team, to protect them from the outside pressures. Not everything will go right and there needs to be a buffer to correct small mistakes before everyone who relies on the outcomes of your team will get upset.

Innovation tactics for the coronavirus crisis

The 5 innovation tactics described above will be useful to manage the coronavirus crisis and all its uncertainty. If you have useful innovation tactics to add, please do so below in the comments!

And above all, keep calm and carry on – as the Brits say.

Stay safe, healthy, and sane!

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