This is the write-up from the fourth in our series of virtual coffee breaks – designed to provide a caffeine-enriched forum for discussion amongst senior executives who might otherwise be going stir-crazy during this period of lockdown.
The topic for this session was: ‘How do you harvest truly inspired ideas from your house-bound employees and explore new ways to engage with people’ and our guest speaker was Simon Hill, founder and CEO of Wazoku.
Wazoku are the leaders in idea management software. They connect people and ideas to challenges, both internal and external to the organisation. Together with InnoCentive, they are running a series of Covid-19 related challenges, crowd-sourcing solutions from a 500,000 strong innovation community.
Simon began the call by thanking everyone for taking the time to join and wishing everyone well. We are all adapting to the current situation, both personally and professionally. As innovators, we are asking ourselves how we can bring our skills of adaptability to the fore for the good of our organisations, customers and wider communities.
The transition to working fully from home has been relatively easy for Wazoku because, as a SaaS SME, they were already highly virtual in nature. In fact, we’re even seeing some areas of enhanced productivity. It’s interesting to think what this might mean for the future of work and what we can learn from steps organisations are being forced to take right now.
Of course, the human side of this transition is much more complex and varies greatly according to the nature of the work and to each individual’s situation. If your workforce is located in several different countries, with different cultures and different levels of infrastructure, then this is a particularly difficult challenge, calling for strong leadership.
As innovators, we have the skills necessary to really drive this change. We understand the importance of focusing on teamwork and on having open and clear communications, not just for directly work-related tasks, but also for everything else (e.g. the innovation around the water-cooler). The key in all this is empathy, leadership and communication.
We’re all seeing a huge increase in the use of tools to facilitate remote working, especially the likes of Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack. There’s also been a significant increase in the use of asynchronous tools, including Wazoku’s idea management software, to facilitate remote working.
Simon participated in a call last week with 77 clients who were sharing examples and reaching out for help, advice and guidance on what they should be doing, as innovation leaders, to help their organisations respond to the current challenge.
In order to stay relevant in this time of crisis, we have to move like water and become even more nimble, flexible and agile. We can’t just look to longer term horizons for innovation, we need to focus on the short-term problems that our organisations are facing right now.
For example, addressing the very immediate need to digitally enable staff, many of whom were not previously a priority for digital transformation programmes. Many organisations are finding unexpected parts of their workforce, like warehouse or call-centre staff, are suddenly very much on the front-line and need solutions urgently.
The need for immediate, innovative solutions to these pressing problems, means it’s easier to get things through the necessary approvals; perhaps now is a good time to go back through the archive of things you thought of in the past, things that didn’t quite make the cut, to see if maybe some of them will make it through now.
You do need to keep stoking the fires of the bigger, longer term projects, but the focus has to be on what can be done, here and now, to address the most urgent and pressing problems in the business.
Simon is finding that more than half his clients are running Covid-19 related challenges, both internally and externally. These cover a range of pressing issues, from how to handle the mental health implications of the current crisis, to how to support younger members of the workforce – who may be under particular stress because they are trying to work from shared accommodation while separated from their friends and family and concerned about elderly relatives.
One of Simon’s clients, the Ministry of Defence, always say innovation accelerates in times of conflict, and this crisis is no exception – we’ve seen the UK spin up one of the world’s largest hospitals in just a few days and Wazoku ran a challenge looking for innovation around ventilators, in which someone shared a fully open-source 3D printable design.
Another client, an academic health science network, has been looking to connect innovative level-3 (i.e. market ready) technology into the NHS ecosystem. To do this, they’ve gone back to their archive and looked at thousands of ideas that didn’t get through the bureaucracy before, to find those that can now be connected directly to the NHS front-line.
A water company has had to move its entire call centre capability to remote working in less than a week. They are using Wazoku’s platform to capture all the ideas, needs and requirements of their call centre staff during this sudden transition, and to continue capturing these ideas as they learn what is needed to work safely and effectively from home.
Simon was asked whether he is seeing any impact on productivity or ability to innovate, now that everyone is working from home.
We have to view this in terms of the normal change curve, where there’s a period of adjustment. The first week was a huge upheaval and the second week was a little easier, as we adjusted. So, we can’t take the last two weeks as indicative.
We’re starting to see what the new normal looks like, but it’s too early to say what this means in terms of innovation productivity. What is clear, is the focus is shifting from longer term, strategic innovation, to showing immediate value to things the business is most focused on right now.
Simon was asked whether, here in the UK, we’re seeing any problems with unions objecting to home working on privacy or health and safety grounds, as they are in Italy (where some businesses have been forced to shut down rather than have their staff work from home).
Perhaps rather uniquely, we’ve seen a real pulling together here in the UK, in contrast to some of the divisions we had been experiencing due to Brexit. Everyone’s trying to be as helpful and productive as possible and there’s an enormous amount of goodwill from all sides in making this work.
That said, we’re still figuring things out and there are many challenges. Simon is trying to address this by crowdsourcing a list of tools and solutions for remote working – many of which are being offered at no cost right now, in response to the Covid-19 crisis.
This is an issue for most companies – making sure people have the right space, tools and privacy to work from home. It helps to have a code of conduct or some rules of engagement to make sure everyone can balance the pressures of work and domestic life, especially while under some form of isolation or lock-down.
Simon was asked whether the current focus is exclusively on solving immediate operational problems or whether people are starting to look at some of the longer term, more strategic implications.
Wazoku generally works with larger organisations, those with more than 1,000 FTEs, across a wide range of sectors and geographies. All Simon’s clients are facing challenges, regardless of their size. For example, a large farm in the US mid-west is facing the threat of crops rotting in the fields because workers can’t get to them. There isn’t a sector that won’t be touched by this crisis.
There are various degrees of intervention needed. So far, we’ve been largely in fire-fighting mode and this will continue for a while. But sooner or later we will have to move from fixing these immediate operational issues to a more strategic approach. Especially as its possible this crisis may not be a one-off.
We need to capture the ideas we’re implementing now, learn and prioritise in order to be better able to respond if there’s a next time, which of course we all hope there won’t be. We also have an opportunity to carry forward the best of the innovations we’re seeing during this crisis, so we can sustain these improvements when things return to normal.
Our hope and expectation is the spirit of collaboration will continue.
If you have Covid-19 related challenges and are interested to see Wazoku’s idea management software in action, they will run these on a no-fee basis, crowd-sourced through a community of more than 500,000 people (or if you want to join this community yourself) here: https://www.innocentive.com/covid-19/
If you have found this write-up interesting and would like to register for future Virtual Coffee Breaks or learn more about our other events, lease visit www.clustre.net/category/events/