Culture is king: How to move innovation online

I’ve had the privilege of working alongside fantastic organizations around the world as they’ve moved their innovation projects, processes and teams online since the pandemic started.

This has been a fascinating journey to witness. Running innovation projects is tricky business at the best of times, so learning to do it remotely during a crisis is no small feat.

What’s been most remarkable to me is that regardless of the size or focus of the business, it’s their culture that has played the biggest role in whether remote innovation efforts paid off.

For anybody yet to take their innovation activity online, or any organizations in the thick of trying to work out how to make remote design work for them, I’ve set out the journey I’ve seen teams go through, and what a culture-first innovation approach looks like in a remote world.

PHASE 1 – ‘Let’s do innovation like we usually do, but online’

First up, I should say: we made this exact same assumption ourselves at Treehouse Innovation when we had to pivot to working online too, and quickly discovered that remote work requires a bespoke approach.

We saw businesses try to run what would have been all day, in-person workshops across eight hours on Zoom. We saw people try to run a sprint in a day because they were keen to walk away with the same results they’d expect from an away day setting. But they soon learned that this copy/paste approach doesn’t work. Here’s why:

  • People tire of being on screen much more quickly than they do in a face-to-face engagement. Just because people are on a call doesn’t mean they’re engaged.
  • People’s personal and working lives have merged during this crisis as everybody has been working at home. Other responsibilities, like being a primary caregiver, can make it difficult for people to participate in a rigid time frame.
  • Being an online facilitator is entirely different from doing it in person. Leaders don’t automatically have the skills they need to run workshops, manage tech, and capture outcomes all at once.
  • Having emails, social media, and their day jobs at their fingertips will distract people from an online meeting if they’re not completely engaged.
  • Mixed levels of confidence amongst teams makes some people less inclined to participate in tech-led sessions.

We saw leaders realise that if they were going to make online innovation a success, they needed to adapt their approach specifically for this setting. They learned from this experience, and used it to iterate towards something better.

PHASE 2 – ‘Let’s make the most of the advantages remote working brings’

After trialling different tools and bringing people together online to innovate, we saw organizations start to see the benefits that remote design work can bring, and consider how they can make the most of them.

They tested out a variety of collaboration platforms, and learned more about what it means to facilitate virtual teams and how to use pacing, activities, ice breakers, and virtual breakout rooms to give people an engaging experience.

We also saw leaders quickly realise that when you’re working remotely, there’s absolutely no need to limit projects to a one or two day period. They started to wake up to the far greater results they can get from their teams when they give them the flexibility to contribute at a time that suits them.

Not only that, but longer projects also give teams the opportunity to involve more people in a project to get the benefit of their expertise. Time zones are no longer a barrier as remote work can continue 24/7. Teams also have longer to build deeper empathy with customers because they can access more people to find out about their experiences and what they care about.

By trusting their teams to do a great job at a time that suits their schedule, and allowing projects the breathing space to maximise contributions, organizations started to see that remote innovation really can lead to better outcomes.

Now that they’d figured out the nuances of working remotely, we saw leaders start to explore how they could take their work to the next level.

PHASE 3 – ‘The best results happen when our culture supports our purpose’

For some organizations this journey to remote innovation success has happened across a few weeks, for others it’s taken months, and many are still working through what is undoubtedly a profound shift to a new world order.

After adjusting to what innovating online looks and feels like, and what yields the best outcomes from teams, leaders realise that to achieve real, long term results with innovation they need two things: teams who know how to collaborate with purpose, and a culture that empowers them to get great results.

For teams to learn new processes, embed new ways of working, and run projects that take their business forwards, they need tools specifically designed for the types of innovation work they are doing. Whilst a world of collaboration software and programs exist, organizations wanting to achieve real change with innovation are doing so by using technology created by experts in the field. Whether they’re doing ethnographic research, idea crowdsourcing, design thinking, prototyping, or experimentation, teams – and especially those who are new to innovation – need tools that give them the structure required to achieve real impact with the task at hand.

But knowing where to go to get the support they need to make innovation happen is only part of the answer. To get good outcomes, they need to be working within a culture that enables them to do their best work. There are many elements of a great, innovative culture, but here are four we’ve noticed are particularly important for remote teams:

  • Deep trust – With everybody working remotely, it’s vital that leaders trust teams to work effectively in their roles. Where organizations have felt most able to rely on teams to keep making a great contribution to innovation work – and indeed any project – they’ve taken the time to truly engage individuals with the organization’s wider vision and mission, creating a shared sense of purpose and motivation. Rather than trying to micromanage people virtually, teams work better when they know why they’re doing what they’re doing. Also, with everything documented online, it’s incredibly easy for teams to keep leaders up to speed with their projects and demonstrate ROI on innovation work.
  • Safe space – For innovation to work, people have to feel free to try ideas and prototypes out without fear of failure. Any innovation process is a learning curve for everybody involved, and the best outcomes happen when teams see iteration as the norm, and not a sign that they’re doing something wrong.
  • Autonomy to work flexibly – Enabling people to work at times that suit their schedule and that enable them to manage other commitments and contribute when they will be best able to focus makes a huge difference to the quality of people’s input and the pace at which projects can keep moving forward.
  • Inclusion – Getting the right people involved at the right time is key to the running of any great innovation project, as it helps everybody achieve better results. It’s also vital in a remote environment that people don’t feel isolated, and that they can easily keep in touch with their colleagues and where the business is going.

In a year of constant change, throughout every innovation project we’ve seen companies lead, one thing has remained the same: true, game-changing remote innovation happens when organizations create a culture in which innovative mindsets and practices can thrive, no matter where people are.

If you’d like to talk about how you can take your innovation efforts online, do get in touch.

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