There is a short list of fundamental skills needed to be good at innovation. You have to be good at observation, empathy, engineering, storytelling, and marketing. But perhaps the single most important skill is the ability to be comfortable with uncertainty.
I’ve grown to believe that discomfort with uncertainty is the main reason why organizations struggle with innovation. The annals of disruption are filled with stories of people who, when confronted with growing uncertainty, retrench into the comfort of doing things the way they have always been done. It’s so common that when recessions come, large organizations look to cut innovation programs first. Uncertain outcomes are almost always surrendered in the face of uncertain times.
Well, 2020 offers an environment that is beyond the traditional definition of uncertain. We are digesting a global pandemic, social awakening, political polarization. Add to that unemployment, monetary inflation, murder hornets, and the looming fear of the next-shoe-to-drop. There is no calendar date for a return to normal. Things are scary and uncertain. But this is a time for people with the innovation mindset. We are built for these times.
In periods of high uncertainty, we need to trust the foundations of innovation thinking: Keep our senses sharp, stay on the lookout for problems worth solving. This crisis is revealing aspects of our world that were broken, but hidden in the normal state of things. Now that the apple cart has been turned over, what can we see that is obviously broken? There is a world of opportunity opening up with our new circumstances and new perspective.
I offer two stories of innovation from the last few months that will likely live long beyond these days.
Fairfax Pediatric Associates is a primary care practice in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. The fear of COVID-19 from both patients and healthcare providers has dramatically reshaped the demand for interaction models. In particular, parents are no longer comfortable taking their healthy children to a doctor’s office for regular checkups. So, waiting rooms and checkup rooms sit empty.
In response, the practice tried an experiment to meet their patients where they are—quite literally. In March, they leased and reconfigured an RV to meet the needs of a wellness visit exam room. Within a week, they developed the ability to take the clinic to the driveways of children who were sheltering at home. The vehicle is for well-visits only, and it is cleaned between every visit. Children and parents can now get the important routine care that they need, with the convenience of at-home delivery. This is a game-changer for convenience in pediatric care.
The second story: With so many people spending so much time at home, UPS is experiencing an unusual surge in demand for residential delivery (though somewhat balanced by the reduction in delivery to traditional business locations).
In the fall of 2019, we launched a new experimental storage service called Storage on Demand. Think of it as an unlimited closet where storage bins magically appear and disappear from your doorstep. Click a button on your phone, and your winter coats or boxes of holiday decorations are gone (or returned). No more drives to your storage unit, no more climbing into the attic. You just pay for each bin you are storing. It’s a lot like the “cloud storage” concept in computing, but for real-world space.
The rolling lockdowns in the spring of 2020 created huge spikes and valleys in supply chain flows. States and cities were shutting down all non-essential activity. Countries and ports were closing. Demand and supply balances were broken. Nothing was working normally. Large retailers needed help.
The Storage on Demand team realized that the flexible storage platform they had been building for small businesses might work perfectly to help big retailers keep their operations running smoothly in the face of unpredictable transit times, store closures, and demand spikes. As everyone left the office to work remotely, their focus shifted to re-engineering a solution for enterprise. Within three weeks, the team designed an enterprise-grade solution that could handle the volume and coverage that national retailers need. Three weeks after that, their first customer was onboarded. As we close this summer of quarantine, the operation is scaling. We believe that edge-of-network storage could be a sustained innovation to smooth out disruptions in the transportation industry. But it was a problem we didn’t see until the cracks in the system appeared.
As innovation leaders, our core responsibility is to provide guidance on how to navigate moments and markets of high uncertainty. It is first nature for us. We know how to uncover customer needs, build makeshift prototypes, and plan for pilots with low risks but high learning. When there is a crisis, and you don’t know what to do next, the innovation mindset is perfect for formulating a response. We are living in a world filled with uncertainty, but this is when we are at our best.
David Lee is Vice President of Innovation and New Ventures at UPS. He was previously Director of Innovation Programs at SunTrust Bank.
This piece is a part of the Fall 2020 special issue of IL’s magazine, which collects advice and insights from 25 contributors. Read the full “Innovation Matters More” magazine.