Innovating in a global crisis: what do you do when you don’t know what to do next?

The tremendous impact of the coronavirus is altering the world for all of us in many ways.   No one, including organizational leaders, knows what to do next, where this is going or when it will end.  It could be six months or longer before we get back to anything normal and this new normal is expected to include pocket resurgences of coronavirus around the world. The situation we are in might be closer to World War II in magnitude than anything we have had to deal with since. I have worked in the trenches for more than 50 years and the current state of our world has me reflecting on other crises we have faced.  We will all get through the next months and years together and out of it will come a new normal. We will innovate. We always do.

The coronavirus situation has me thinking about uncertain times that followed other terrible global events. For what it’s worth, I want to share a story about how the leader of a client organization of ours responded innovatively after the horrific  events of September 11, 2001 by starting with the problem, “I don’t know what to do next.”

As CEO and Board Chairman of a global aerospace and airplane engineering company, he was seeing a huge threat to the viability of his company in the aftermath of 9/11. While the company had built itself a great reputation in the aerospace and aircraft field, with 28 business units making parts and systems for a variety of customers, the terrorist attack caused demand for flights to drop, resulted in a number of airlines declaring bankruptcy and no one knew what the impact would be on future aircraft sales. The company’s stock lost more than 80 per cent of its value overnight.  Normal strategies and practices could no longer be counted upon to ensure the survival and future viability of the company.  

Rather than “hunker down” into a defensive shell, the company made a deliberate decision to use innovation to rebuild. Here’s how. The leader quickly called the top seven senior executives to a meeting and told them, “I don’t know what to do next.” His admission of this problem triggered the team to turn to its innovation training. Relying on a proven innovation process, the team launched into fact finding, then challenge finding, then challenge mapping to develop a strategic plan for moving forward. They identified two higher level challenges as goals supported by four challenges that would drive their business for the next year or more and restore the price of their stock. The goals were: “How might we increase our top line and earnings growth?” and “How might we get the Wall Street analysts excited about our future?”  Below these goals were four supporting challenges which were more specific:  (1) How might we commercialize more new products every year?; (2) How might we take advantage of the current low stock market prices (of other companies to build up our own sales volume?); (3) How might we change our business mix to improve consistency?  (there were gaps in their menu of offerings); and (4) How might we increase cash flow to 100% of net income? (up from the current 80%).  They then engaged inter functional and inter divisional teams across the company to begin solving these four key challenges.

The innovation process helped them create and commit to a bold strategic plan. The company became even stronger as a result of the crisis. The stock price was restored in less than two years and the business continued to grow steadily for years to come.  So why do I tell this story?  Most of us remember the impact of 9/11 and how it reshaped the world we live in. We all felt shell-shocked and uncertain as to all the unknowns in front of us. Starting with a fuzzy challenge like “I don’t know what to do next” is okay.  You need a starting point, a problem even as loosely defined as this is something to start fact finding around.

Over my lifetime, I’ve seen a lot of upheaval and amazing innovation in our world. I have no doubt that some amazing innovations will be made in the days ahead, as we come together as one global community.  Stay safe but more importantly, stay positive — we are all innovators who can and will rise up during a crisis.

Let teams be the change makers

One indisputable fact for almost all of us is that change is hard.  It can be even harder for teams composed of people with many different problem-solving styles and diverse backgrounds. So how do you drive change with teams? 

One sure way is to find really important problems that are really vital to the organization.  Before you even contemplate making change a priority, here are three vital steps that need to be checked off before getting started:

  1. Get your best people on it, then engage your teams right from the start with a pre-consult: what are we really trying to do? How does it align with organizational goals? Who are the real owners of the problem – how do we make sure they are accountable? 
  2. Equip the team with a collaborative process for solving complex problems and teach them the skills, including the training that is needed.  Make sure the “super owners” are there and responsible for the outcome.  You can’t delegate important stuff, you can let the team get going but if you are the super owner then they have to report to you – how are we doing? 
  3. And finally, you can’t purchase innovative collaboration at the top by hiring a high priced external consulting firm.  A good leader is going to figure out how to engage people and teams working and aligned with the goals and mission at the top, not hoping magic will happen by some formula.

Large change projects are hard because what usually happens is there are people at high levels in the company who are willing to spend money to bring in outside “experts”.   Too often nothing happens because change has to come from within, down below – where the “real experts” do the heavy lifting. To be a real leader you can’t just hire a firm like McKinsey to come in and tell you what to do – that approach doesn’t work because people naturally resist top down changes.

If you really want to succeed, develop your people down below to drive change. Equip them with a strong business case for why it’s so important; provide a robust infrastructure to support those “super owners” responsible for change; and train people in the skills, tools and a creative process (we call this the “secret sauce”) to ensure everyone has ownership and knows they are an integral part of the team’s success. 

Last but not least, make sure you can measure the changes, before and after.  Use realistic, agreed upon metrics to give people achievable goals. 

Use Telescoping to make sure good ideas don’t get shot down

How many times have we heard this: “It’s a good idea but…” – the dreaded killer phrase? We know them in every language. Someone is trying to diverge and another person cuts in right on top of him/her. The ideation session is now severely impeded, maybe even stopped in its tracks. People raise up their guards and pull back from offering any novel ideas knowing they will get shot down. Sound familiar?

Divergence is critical to successful ideation but being skilled at convergence is also important and critical – we must not mix them together. The ability to defer judgment is a fundamental skill.

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How does the Basadur Profile correlate or not correlate to Myers-Briggs?

It all comes down to “states” vs. “traits”.

We often get this question about how the Basadur Profile correlates to Myers-Briggs (MBTI). Both the MBTI and the Profile enable people to understand themselves better, but only the Profile is directly linked to a innovation process that ensures the focus is on getting problems and opportunities defined, solved, and solutions implemented.  In addition, the Profile synchronizes everyone’s thinking to specific problem solving stages. By no means do we sell short the benefits of personality measurements to companies who use assessments like the MBTI and DISC – these are widely used, well-respected instruments that serve their designated purpose.

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A big thank you to everyone who came out to our first ever HOW MIGHT WE…? Conference!

Innovators from all over the globe kicked off the first HMW…? conference this weekend! It was held at the P&G Gym in Cincinnati. Our plenary speakers did an inspiring job bringing the Simplexity Thinking Process to life through their various industries. We learned about how the process was instrumental in increasing efficiencies in healthcare, pioneering innovation in politics and ensuring creativity is the norm in the corporate world.

Additionally, we had some of our best facilitators lead workshops to tackle some really interesting problems. Through these, we delved into many elements of the Simplexity Thinking process. From challenge mapping, design thinking and leadership to understanding how to run a consultancy and integrate Simplexity into a business, we learned a lot.

We will be posting the talks and workshops on our conference website in the coming months. Keep an eye out on our YouTube page as well for workshop related content.

The biggest problem we have is “communication”

How many of you have been in a situation where people say, our biggest problem here is communication.  What does that mean?  Does it mean the phones don’t work?  Does it mean we don’t speak each other’s language? People in other departments don’t care what people are doing?  Senior management does not pass down clear information?  People send unclear email messages – we don’t know the goals?  We don’t trust each other?  That’s because words like ‘communication’ are fuzzy and vague – they mean too many things to too many people.

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How might we deliberately adapt to stay ahead in an ever-changing world?

Research shows that effective organizations display two characteristics simultaneously: efficiency and adaptability. The efficient organization follows well-structured, stable routines to deliver its products or services in large quantities with high quality at low cost. In a stable world, efficient organizations may be successful. But in a changing world, organizations also need adaptability. While efficiency implies mastering routines, adaptability means mastering the process of deliberately changing routines.

Adaptability is a proactive process: it allows the organization to deliberately and continually change and create. It entails deliberate discontent — discovering new needs to be met and problems to be solved, finding new things to be done, and adopting new technologies and methods before the competition. Adaptability is disruptive. It requires looking outside the organization for new opportunities, problems, trends, technologies and methods that may dramatically improve or change routines or introduce completely new products and services. Adaptable organizations anticipate customer problems and develop timely solutions. They deliberately and continually change how they do things to improve quality, raise quantities, reduce costs and stay ahead of competitors.

Organizations that build concrete strategies allowing them to confidently and capably shift the balance between adaptability and efficiency will be well positioned to adapt and prosper in volatile economic times, such as today’s environment. And while the results of emphasizing adaptability may take longer to appear than the results of an emphasis on efficiency, the long-term success of the strategy can be found by looking at Japan; While decision-making in many organizations in North America is driven by the next quarter’s results, Japanese organizations tend to favor long-term planning and reporting.