To get our innovation ‘mojo’ back - don't reinvent the wheel.

Working from home, like innovation, can be forced (on many during 2020), accidental (in my case) or deliberate. During today’s lively discussion at the Shannon Chamber, we agreed remote working is a challenge. Like life itself – sometimes we get the test first and the lesson later. Yet Irish people have operated from cottage industries longer than factories and offices. Working resourcefully at home, supported by small informal groups of like-minded people, is our rural heritage. It comes naturally so perhaps the time has come to figure out the rhythm that fits best to get technology to dance to our tune.

Think4Purpose synopsises below the takeaways from today with thanks to Sarah Kiernan, U.L., Modular Automation (a mature tech company) and Tracworx (a tech start-up).

We recommend a ‘4S’ approach – 1. Synchronicity (for learning flow) 2. Spontaneity (keeping communication vital) 3. Sociability (especially teamwork) and 4. Safety (an ‘OK to Fail’ culture).

1. Synchronicity – balancing the implicit and explicit

Staying in sync as teams is important. Informal learning is easier on-the-job where we barely notice modifying our ideas and modelling our behaviour around others. In uncertainty, face-to-face interaction but also real-time communication benefits innovation by providing short and fast feedback loops. We tap into innate knowledge for recognisable patterns and generalisable lessons that help us deal with the unknown. Tools like “Slack” can help streamline this process. We may need to be a bit more explicit than when face-to-face but we get to reach across timelines and departments seamlessly.

Time differences can also help implicitly by providing a natural pause to reflect. “Make haste slowly” is a good mantra for innovation. As an iterative process, we need to ponder, revisit points, and add others to the conversation as needed.

We can also use apps like “Fellow” to give 1:1 feedback more quickly to staff - what each is doing well or how each can improve. With change a constant, annual reviews are obsolete and continuous, consistent feedback is more sustainable. As Sarah pointed out, managers have more impact as ‘servant leaders’ who coach remote workers. After all, we need to synchronise our style with the prevailing environment.

2. Spontaneity – keeping communication vital

Self-directed learning is important as is autonomy and striking the right balance between structure and freedom. Staff are now unsubscribing from scheduled meetings that do not add value. It is as if everyone has been given more permission to say when ‘enough is enough’. We are freer to decide when and who to converse with and more aware of the need to avoid emails unless communicating points of facts. “Loom” is popular to record and share thoughts and insights that are pertinent as they arise, with staff encouraged to “declare it” e.g. time lags or obstacles.

In addition, platforms like Sharepoint and Jiri greatly accommodate workflow to give us more headspace from the daily grind. Staff can also set up impromptu ‘discovery’ meetings to explore which ideas add value to customers and reduce duplication of effort. For example, Lean Coffees are an agile, agenda-less meeting tool -

The best sign of a problem-solving culture is one that prevents rather than corrects problems, picking off what feels “away from goodness”. Innovation also grows from ‘slow hunches’ brought to light when the pressure is off – intuition needs space to breath.

3. Sociability – the key to our Collective IQ

Collectives solve more problems than any of the individuals within them. Vivian from Modular Automation highlighted just how much cross-company interaction happens in Shannon and to mutual benefit. Similarly, companies can enable staff to become more self-directed learners with a ‘communities-of-practice’ approach. These usually form organically (if the environment is conducive) for peer-to-peer learning purposes. Staff share newly acquired skills by practising these together e.g. in adopting a new tech tool. Good ideas can come from anyone at any level in the organisation being encouraged to decide what they most want to learn.

A key to teams working well remotely, and established teams adjusting to this, is ensuring work does not become atomised. Jira gives a nice structure where jobs (‘issues’) tie to clear themes (‘epics’) so we see the big picture.

We also need to be able to step outside the ‘box’ to question key criteria and ask the “unaskable” (as Sarah put it). This might well take place out-of-bounds after a TGIF evening session but again, it ensures close bonds when we show we will question even the most fundamental assumptions. As we say in Think4Purpose, all fallacies must be faced down eventually – hopefully before it is too late.

4. Safety – clarity of purpose wins over certainty

As Fran from Tracworx and Sarah agreed, a diverse workforce is helpful with people of different skills and backgrounds bringing new ways of knowing. This makes for cognitive agility with Tracworx a great exponent of this, effectively pivoting its entire business positioning this year. Diversity also enables onboarding new staff more effectively. Being the new kid on the block is a lot easier when you are buddied up with someone with a complimentary learning journey.

However, employer branding as the icing on a crumbling cake is a waste of effort. Companies need to prove their commitment to curiosity by recognising and even celebrating failure as well as success. Some companies have launched “Feck it Fridays” for example. Here staff demo. their worst work outcomes to clarify what they wished they had known beforehand. Initiatives like this prevent the type of mistake-phobia that impairs quality and can destroy innovation, before it even begins.

Finally, the good news from industry and academia is that greater honesty and openness prevail. Leaders are more upfront on the real pressures and future directions their business need to take. In fact, both Vivian and Fran agreed that this is an imperative if idea generation is to be fit-for-purpose.

The world is changing but we do not have to lose the essence of who we are to cope. In fact, our ‘unfair advantages’ as Irish professionals are an openness to any idea that works, our artful conversation (making work meaningful) and our degree of comfort, relatively, with uncertainty itself - the seed of reinvention rather than a poisonous berry to be avoided at any cost.

As Chrissy Hynde puts it – “Something is lost, Something is found” – thanks 2020 for making us better able to get ahead of future change and uncertainty.