Innovation Leadership for the Future of Work

by Marc Bolick, Managing Partner DTG USA, December 30, 2021

The “Future of Work” is here. We’ve been talking about it for years, and now it’s time to make it a reality. How can you motivate your team to truly innovate, to shift from old ways of thinking and collaborating? Here are four key skills that innovation leaders must hone.   

There is no doubt that many things changed over the course of 2021. The year started with the re-emergence of COVID-19 spikes, the arrival of vaccines promising relief and the ability to start getting back to a sense of normal. But, as we all now know, there is no return to how things used to be. From Delta to the latest Omicron variant of the coronavirus, we are all slowly learning to simply live with the ebbs and flows of this pandemic.

For people who are leading any sort of innovation work, this environment presents a unique set of challenges. That is because the kinds of changes that are almost always required to push your organization or your team to truly innovate their products or services require people to shift their ways of thinking and collaborating. While this used to be difficult enough in the past, it is particularly challenging when our interactions are largely limited to either very impersonal collaboration applications or, at best, a meeting over Zoom.

Innovators should, by nature, embrace challenges and constraints. What we have seen in work with our clients and with participants in our training courses is a rapid adaptation to this new world of virtual work. This is the “COVID Dividend” for innovators. We have pushed ourselves to find new ways of leveraging technology, time, specialized content, and people to do things in the virtual space that we used to consider impossible.

Through many months of iteration and lots of sharing within the innovation community, we have been able to successfully structure almost any type of research project, design sprint, strategy workshop or co-creation session in a completely virtual environment that we would otherwise do in-person. I would like to share some of the key skills that innovation leaders must possess in this “Future of Work” age in which we live.

Experiment Constantly

By far the biggest contributor to innovating in a virtual environment has been constant experimentation and collaboration with a wide variety of innovation leaders in our network. In the absence of in-person conferences, workshops and meetings, thought leaders have leaned into providing content online and sharing tons of approaches and practices for low or no cost. 

The leaders who are thriving are those who are constantly adapting new ideas, approaches and tools to their project workflow and team collaboration. They do this by embracing the idea that everything is a prototype including the methods of collaborating that are core to teams developing innovative solutions to people’s needs. Ultimately, this is all about ‘innovating how you innovate’. It is essential for leaders who want to both improve products and services, and to ensure the engagement of their best talent, to purposefully design and iterate a work environment that employees are proud to talk to others about.

Communicate the Vision

It should come as no surprise that, as innovation leaders rooted in design thinking, we are big advocates of bringing a focus on people to everything we do. However, talking about empathy and actually delivering products and services that delight are two very different things. It is difficult for many organizations to make that first step of taking a team through a training course, or running a design workshop. It can be even harder to take the output of a design session and actually carry it through to implementation.

Empathy without implementation can be very counterproductive. The problem results from getting teams excited by building a deep understanding of their customer’s needs, all to have the solutions they dreamed up to meet those needs fizzle out once they start making their way into production.

To take new concepts forward, innovation leaders have to constantly bring the focus back to the people we are designing for. This is a marathon effort, not a sprint. It is insufficient to simply train the core team working on a product or service. They need both top leadership support and the support of those implementing solutions further down the ‘production line’ of new ideas. 

Executive-level sponsorship helps build support at a strategic level across the organization. Telling the story of how a delightful customer solution should work to front-line staff – whether they are coding pixels, configuring interfaces, or responding to complaints – is key to getting the whole value chain of activities and workstreams within an organization to work in harmony. The innovation leader must work all of these levels to gain support and communicate the vision of how to organize collective effort to deliver a product or service that wows the customer.

Update the Toolkit

In the age of COVID innovation leaders have had to develop a new set of tools and skills to be able to effectively lead new value creation. Even digital natives have been trained to work in a largely in-person environment, where people debate face-to-face and are able to hash out issues together with whiteboards or flip charts. The work of the change agent has always been highly reliant on in-person meetings and workshops to help gain alignment and instill motivation to act. 

Today, everything must be hybrid with a combination of in-person activities and virtual collaboration on a much more intense level than in the past. The core skills required for in-person facilitation must be translated to the online environment. This means reliance on virtual whiteboards, project collaboration applications, video conferencing, live chat, real-time document editing, and the list goes on. 

More importantly than technology, innovation leaders must master the art and science of orchestrating team collaboration in the virtual space. This means designing sessions for teams to come together for online collaboration, structuring conversations using tools and templates in virtual whiteboards. It requires careful thought about the desired outputs of a session, what inputs are required at the start and what techniques the group will use to explore the topic at hand.

Perhaps the most critical skill of the innovation leader in the future of work is the ability to determine when and how to convene teams versus having people work in smaller groups or solo. One of our experts refers to this as ‘bending time’ – it’s all about the careful orchestration of work over time and across different channels of communication. Experts at facilitating innovation efforts ‘bend time’ by balancing which activities need to be done in online meetings, determining what can be done ‘asynchronously’ by team members on their own and when to pull people together in person. Deciding when to organize a virtual workshop or structured working session to accomplish a certain goal or milestone is a critical skill, made even harder when teams are distributed across time zones.

Nurture Team Relationships

By far the most effective innovation leaders we have seen are those who are able to move within and across the different departments and layers of an organization with ease. They are people who value clear communication and understand the importance of building strong, trusting relationships with colleagues. Often, their ability to lead is based not on authority, but on their passion, their honesty, and the clarity of the path they lay out for others to follow.

With more and more people working remotely and especially in large, distributed workforces, building these kinds of relationships can be daunting. Whereas in the past those relationships were often reliant on in-person meetings, today’s innovation leaders carefully manage their time so that they can build relationships in the virtual environment. Disciplined relationship builders set time blocks in their week for one-on-one meetings and use calendar scheduling applications to efficiently book those time blocks with others.

Building team cohesion can be even more daunting than strong individual relationships. We have seen the best results from teams that purposefully take time to connect with one another as part of their daily work, even if it’s a short sharing moment at the start of a meeting or virtually eating lunch together. These precious moments ‘cost’ time but the payoff is immense in creating the human connections that build strong and resilient teams. Thoughtfully crafting these moments of human connection and carefully nurturing relationships is an essential skill of innovation leaders in today’s work environment.

The world of work has changed dramatically since the first pandemic lockdown. We have all been forced into a virtual, online world that puts enormous pressure on us mentally and physically. But, the incredible advantages of working and collaborating in the virtual space has many benefits and should be seen as complements, not substitutes, to what we used to think of as our ‘normal’ way of working.
Innovation leaders of the future are those who constantly experiment with new ways of working, communicate clearly a vision of the future, develop their tools and methods and carefully build relationships with colleagues and amongst teams. Leading innovation is hard work under any circumstances. If you want to make a disruptive and positive impact on the world you need to master these capabilities.

Author Marc Bolick leads the US office of DesignThinkers Group. With over 20 years’ experience in product and service design, he’s worked in sectors including medical devices, mobile & web applications, travel & leisure, financial services, and innovation consulting.

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