• Michel Gelobter

Learning from Unpleasant Truths: The Ongoing Innovation Lessons of COVID-19 for your Organization

Updated: Jul 10

Where do we go from here?

By now it is clear to everyone that the US and the world have entered uncharted territory with the COVID-19 pandemic. A lot of great organizations have used innovation and the principles of the Lean Startup to do extraordinary things in response to these extraordinary times. One of my favorites is the California Cloth Foundry (CCF). Normally a natural fiber clothing company, CCF pivoted to create a line of masks (some of which even matched patterns on their blouses) that met what has become today an everyday need and also featured a pocket for inserting a more rigorous filter. For every mask they sell, they also contribute one to a front-line organization.

A blog we published in mid-March highlighted three key components to innovating in the face of great uncertainty, and in some ways, there’s even more confusion today about what the future holds for our businesses, our communities, and our economy. Companies, like countries, are starting to get a sense that they need to do more than innovate on specific fronts like new products and new ways of delivering service and start thinking about the profound changes in the landscape that we are all facing.

This blog and the next cover two key dimensions of landscape-scale innovation... innovation that addresses not only your whole organization but also accounts for changes in the overall environment in which your organization operates. The first dimension is about learning culture, the ways your leadership, and your organization as a whole position themselves to learn fast. The second dimension is about the innovation portfolio and how it relates innovation to the company’s core businesses. We’ll cover that dimension in the next entry in this series on innovation.

Learning Culture

In the last few weeks, hopefully, your company has found a way to cope, to pivot, or even maybe to contribute something new. The medical threat we all face is not likely to fade for a couple of years, and the economic and social ramifications of the pandemic will be with us well beyond that. In addition to the near-term response, your leadership team is probably starting to consider how to stay viable and responsive well into the future.

The leadership (governors, legislators, the president) of our country is in the same boat as it juggles multiple objectives and murky facts, and there are some instructive lessons about learning that can be gleaned from the steps, and the missteps, they are taking:

The role of facts.

“Facts are stubborn things,” said one of the US’s founding fathers, John Adams; and diverse approaches to the facts are among the central challenges we face in shaping the future. Three ways of approaching the facts have very different implications for innovation and learning, and we’ve seen each of them on display in recent weeks.

The least constructive is the “cover-up.” There is some evidence that countries, some health agencies in the US and places like nursing homes have been less than forthcoming with facts about vaccine research, and infection and mortality rates and there are undoubtedly places in your organization or community where bad news or poor results are being covered up for far more mundane reasons.

“Cover-ups” may be a long-standing feature of your organization’s culture and not original to the pandemic era. Now is the time to take on cover-up culture. Build tools, learning, and support for maximal transparency because, without it, your organization will always be pointed the wrong way. Reward transparency, and build systems that punish cover-ups through embarrassment or accountability.

Second, and far and away the most common approach to facts is to ignore them in favor of “judgment” (or opinion). Think, for example, of governors “re-opening” their states absent good Covid-19 testing and data on whether anyone would, in fact, go back to shopping.

Our era is being re-defined by the capacity to almost instantly measure the impact of any action we take. This new capability runs counter to one of humanity’s core evolutionary advantages -- the ability to make assumptions and to act on considered opinion. We should never abandon that advantage but it no longer serves us well when we need to do some truly new things.

When Andrew Cuomo holds his daily briefings, he addresses and welcomes alternative paths and outcomes, but reminds us all that the new paths and outcomes must be tested and that he expects to be wrong a lot. A strong learning culture doesn’t punish judgment or opinion. Rather it rewards those ready to test those opinions relentlessly until you’re sure they are right, or you’ve rejected them and moved in a different direction.

This is the third and only viable approach to true organizational learning, but it’s not easy. It can be bruising for individuals and teams to test their plans, so to be successful, organizations need to invest in building a culture that productively questions and tests assumptions. Compensation, for example, can be partially based on how many new ideas an employee successfully framed experimentally and tested, and NOT on how many times they were right.

Coordination

Another feature of the pandemic response that is applicable to innovation is the need for coordinated leadership. Slowing the COVID infection has required both international and domestic coordination about travel, monitoring, research, supply chains, and much more. And gaps in coordination, like tardy reporting of infection rates, have proven very damaging.

Retailers of all stripes who’ve stayed open are an example of a front-line service where tremendous coordination was necessary to continue to operate safely. In these organizations, it hasn’t been enough to make a decision at the top. Rather, managers and employees have all played a role in setting up a new, safer way of doing business, determining new ways to manage floor traffic in stores, and protecting cashiers and others most in contact with customers.

Coordination is a vital component for growth because it is intimately tied to scale. After you know your idea or solution works (take COVID testing for example), the growth funnel for your company will also shift (from brick-and-mortar to online for example). You will face new competitors and have new opportunities, and the data and innovation to make this shift in how you grow will come from the field, from regional managers and local staff. So the focus on facts discussed above needs to be extended out in your organization so that as many as possible participate in gathering information and in testing new operating models.

Goal Clarity

We’re seeing how in the world today rapid innovation requires a focus on facts and good coordination among all those involved in learning and delivery. In COVID terms, an example of the need for focus is the confusion over whether governments focus on detecting new cases, testing for immunity, or ensuring supply chains for existing tests are solid?

A final cultural dimension that organizations need is clarity about where they are headed in this new environment. Clarity on questions like “What is the company going to be doing moving forward? Which products, which channels, and how will we be delivering?” But also clarity on what the organization is doing about uncertainty...how it will reward experimentation and the search for answers.

Clarity about the ultimate goals and the importance of learning can allow the whole team to charge forward and join the search for the future.

COVID-19 has accelerated the speed at which the unknown confronts our work. Healthy organizations have always operated with a system for managing uncertainty (see our next blog in this series on the Explore-Exploit framework), but right now is the time for us all to put facts, teamwork, and clear goals at the heart of our work to innovate our way forward.


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