Virtual Coffee Break – 14th October 2020

How to Innovate from a Distance

(and how to discover your passion for innovation during a pandemic)

Introduction

The famous British industrialist, Sir George Buckley, despite being a card-carrying member of the ‘innovation rules club’ stated in a recent article in the Sunday Times that he couldn’t see how you could innovate unless this was done in a single physical space.

To challenge this assertion and demonstrate it is possible to innovate even when we are no longer able to be in the same physical workspace, our guest speaker for this morning’s Virtual Coffee Break was Richard Poole, Managing Partner of Fluxx, the audacious and creative innovation consultancy.

Richard began by highlighting one of the unique aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic, as compared to other “black swan” events, which is its extended duration. We’re now something like 200 days into this crisis.

It takes humans, on average, around 66 days to change a habit. So, we’re well past the point where we know things are going to be different going forward than they were before. 

The economic impact of Covid-19 is also significant. A recent study by Microsoft found that most large UK companies are predicting reduced revenues. Nonetheless, the economy will eventually bounce back. The more significant, lasting impact will be redistribution of wealth and changes to the make-up of the FTSE 100.

This crisis stops most of us from working together physically. But it does not spell the death of innovation.

Remote innovation is different (rather than easier or more difficult)

Richard recounted the story of Apollo 13, where a set of extremely challenging technical problems were solved remotely, using communications nowhere near as sophisticated as we have today.

As this story so powerfully illustrates, remote innovation has never been impossible, but it has been different to the sort of collaborative innovation we’ve become accustomed to, working in the comfort of our offices.

There is no doubt, some aspects of remote collaboration are more difficult. It’s harder to read body language and harder to maintain energy levels. But, equally, some things are easier: meetings can be arranged more quickly, without geographical constraints, and hierarchies can be collapsed.

In some ways, remote working also makes us better at sharing information, because we have to think about it more carefully. On balance, remote innovation is different (rather than easier or more difficult).

The one thing that makes remote innovation effective, more than any other, is having a culture of trust and empowerment. If you don’t have this, you will fail. But if you have a strong purpose and an empowered culture, then your innovation will fly.

Richard gave some examples of the successful remote innovation Fluxx have delivered since the start of the pandemic:

  • Fluxx have been working with BUPA, the largest private health company in the UK, which had to provide services to people with Covid-19 and shut down many facilities to provide capacity for the NHS. With Fluxx’s assistance, BUPA have reengineered their product development process to launch their Covid-19 services 5 times more quickly than normal.
  • These innovations were all done remotely and, nonetheless, were recognised, with an award, as being better than many other innovations that had been developed prior to the introduction of remote working.
  • Fluxx have also been working with Landsec, who have very much been in the eye of the storm, as the core of their business is retail shopping centres and inner-city commercial letting. Their response has been to turn up the dial on insight research and product development (not to outrun the pandemic, more to outrun the competition). As a result, shareholder sentiment is broadly positive despite the fundamental impact on the business.

Focusing remote innovation on the longer-term challenges and opportunities

There is a danger we succumb to a kind of Covid-19 “snow-blindness”. The underlying reality is that Covid-19, while immediately challenging, is not actually the biggest issue for most companies. The challenges of the environment, changing consumer habits and the digital revolution are all bigger longer-term issues. For example, Fluxx have been working with Legal & General on ten new products focusing on net-zero by 2050.

For Richard, one of the most striking aspects of this new requirement for remote innovation, has been the reminder of how flexible adaptable people are. Humans are phenomenally good at evolving and using tools and technology to change entire ecosystems. By innovating and reinventing how they operate, Fluxx have shaved 15% off their operating costs while working 100% remotely, and they’re not going back to the old ways of working. 

Most large technology companies are extending working from home indefinitely, as announced by Microsoft last week. Fluxx are involved in a project with Mars who are equipping 150,000 staff to work remotely and increase employee engagement whilst decreasing operational costs.

The Covid-19 pandemic has created an economic imperative for most companies to innovate rapidly. There will be winners and losers and it’s clear the winners will the ones who seize the opportunity to develop new operating models.

What does it take to innovate successfully while working remotely?

Over the last few months, Fluxx have helped their clients adopt the tooling needed for remote innovation. In most cases, this has meant rapidly overcoming the limitations of pre-existing knowledge sharing systems and adopting a combination of the many excellent collaboration tools available: MS Teams, Zoom, Miro etc.

Fluxx have found it’s important to develop a strong set of rituals. Working asynchronously is harder than the, perhaps somewhat lazy, synchronous work habits we used to have. So, it’s vital to develop rituals – short punchy rhythms – to govern when you need to work together and when you do not.

It’s just as important as always to have a portfolio of innovation, both quick wins and bigger, longer-term projects with the potential for greater impact. And, as always, if you’re doing anything that relates to the existing business, then it’s critical to embed the innovation effort within that existing business, to avoid the risk of tissue-rejection further down the line.

The Covid-19 crisis has required us to do things more quickly than we previously thought possible. This has required large organisations to relax some of their processes and controls and it’s been illuminating to see what is possible when you take the brakes off. For example, 1.4 million NHS workers were equipped with MS Teams in just four weeks.

However, there are some signs the concrete is beginning to set again and it’s clear that some of the controls will have to be reinstated. For example, the FCA has granted a great many waivers to financial services companies to allow customer service personnel to work from home on non-secure lines.

The challenge is to maintain as much as possible of the new, streamlined processes and avoid going back to what we had before (which we know was too slow).

The need for immediate solutions to Covid-19 related challenges has also made us better at accepting 80% solutions and, again, the challenge is to carry this lesson forward and remember that the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Stakeholder management requires a great deal of attention in the virtual world. Fluxx have addressed this challenge by combining the old-school discipline of creating communication matrices (who needs to get what information and at what frequency) with the new technology available to reach people via multiple channels.

Conclusion

The Covid-19 crisis has forced us into remote innovation and presented challenges that have required us to do so at speed. We have adapted and learned what it takes to do this and re-learned some of the fundamentals in the process.

The challenge now is to maintain momentum and ensure we innovate, not just to deal the immediate problems associated with the pandemic, but also to respond to the longer-term challenges and opportunities we face.

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