Pursuing Innovation During COVID-19

By Kaitlin Milliken |  March 31, 2020

In this episode, experts with experience at Blue Shield of California, LogMeIn, and Whirlpool share best practices for navigating uncertainty in the wake of COVID-19. Conversations focus on how teams should strategize, types of projects to pursue, and tips for working from home. 

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Russell Rogers: You need to be delivering value now.

Nancy Tennant: Wherever the organization needs us, we need to move there, and help, and be relevant.

Christian Ponce: Acknowledging that it’s not a normal normal environment, and making people feel okay with that.

Kaitlin Milliken: Hi everyone. Welcome back to Innovation Answered, the podcast for corporate innovators. A lot has changed since our most recent episode. At the time that episode was released, COVID-19 or the coronavirus, still seemed like something very far away. For many people, their daily lives had not yet been impacted. Now, the disease has spread widely in many communities. Schools have been shut down. Super markets have been picked through. Stock markets have been in turmoil, and we’ve seen announcements of layoffs and furloughs in many industries. People are encouraged to stay in their homes as much as they can, to protect themselves and others.

We know how strange and uncertain everything feels right now — both in your professional and personal lives. So we wanted to create a special episode to serve up some helpful advice and guidance from your peers in these unprecedented times.

When the business environment gets unpredictable, companies start looking for expenditures to cut. In order to weather the storm, innovators working on a portfolio of short, medium, and long-term projects will suddenly have to prove their value to the business in more immediate ways.

Russell Rogers: You should be thinking, how to make sure that the organization sees you not only is as relevant, but absolutely necessary. If you can show that you’re bringing that great ROI to the organization, they might think twice about cutting back in innovation. The other thing I would say, is you need to be delivering value now. So when you’re managing innovation, you have a whole portfolio of different projects. And I would say you might think about focusing more on what are the near term wins that you can deliver, that are going to show, I think, value to the core business, right? How am I solving problems with the core business today that’s going to help them to continue to deliver on the current business model? And you might have to put some of those other projects on pause.

Kaitlin Milliken: That was Russell Rogers. Russell has worked as the Vice Preside of Global Innovations at Blue Shield of California and head of the Silicon Valley Innovation Center for Dupont. In addition to prioritizing near term results, he also recommends that innovators provide help and support to other parts of the business.

Russell Rogers: I think this was also an opportunity to practice and promote the mindset of being service oriented. Extend that service mindset and show that we can quickly sort of flow to where the needs are. And now it’s our opportunity to say, “Hey, how can we help the core business, right? Where are your pain points? We’re an adaptable group, and we can fill a lot of gaps that you may need filled.”

Kaitlin Milliken: Another big change: Everyone is suddenly working remotely — typically from home, with kids, pets, and partners in the background. To collect some pro tips for keeping innovation moving ahead when your team is no longer together, we called Christian Ponce, the director of operational transformation at LogMeIn. We’ll be back with Christian after this break.


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And we’re back with Christian Ponce. Christian is the Director of Operational Transformation at LogMeIn, a company that provides collaboration and connectivity software. You might have heard of GoToMeeting or LastPass, two of the company’s products. Prior to this role, Chrisian was the director of the company’s strategic innovation team.

Kaitlin Milliken: So, one thing that we’re asking all of our guests and interviewees is how your role has shifted in light of the new uncertainty that sort of is happening around the globe when it comes to this public health crisis. Have your priorities changed at all in your role since the pandemic really started to affect businesses?

Christian Ponce: So I’d say, LogMeIn is one of those unique positions where my role didn’t shift too much. We make GoToMeeting, and our employee base has always been empowered to work from anywhere. So as a practice, we’ve all worked from home at some point or for some period or worked from the beach or ski slope depending on what you need. So, from that perspective, day-to-day things didn’t change.

What has changed is kind of our priorities right now. Again, being that we make a product that helps solve this immediate need. Of course, we’re all hands on deck, making sure that our customers — both existing and new — are able to get up to speed and support their clients and employees in a real way. And that means, we’re seeing tremendous growth, you know, expansive numbers, growing exponentially. But it also means that as a whole company, that is our priority today.

Kaitlin Milliken: For some of our listeners, this may be the first time that their entire team has been distributed or working from home. What are some best practices that you see really work when it comes to being remote?

Christian Ponce: So, I think the biggest difference is, when people first work remote, they’re like, “Oh, I’m just working from home. So, I’ll go sit on the couch, and I’ll put on the TV. Or I sit at the kitchen table, and that’ll work for me.” And for a lot of people, I understand that that is the restriction that you have because of the space. But…if you aren’t restricted that way, and you do have extra space — be it a guest room, or a basement, or garage that you can put heat into — having a dedicated space to work in, that you can separate from life, makes all the difference. It almost gives you kind of a place where you can put that mindset in, and start working that way. And you can walk away from it. When you’re working at the kitchen table or on the couch, you start blending your life, and you never know when to turn it off or turn it on. So that’s my biggest recommendation. If you can do that, define a space and keep that space for work.

Kaitlin Milliken: A lot of times, really great ideas are born organically — so around the water cooler, at the coffee station, through those spontaneous conversations. How can you simulate that type of experience when everyone is remote?

Christian Ponce: Yeah, you don’t get that with, let’s say, a Slack message or a text chat, because there’s that weight and you don’t know what people are going to come up with. One of the things that we instituted in our team, relatively recently since everyone’s remote, is this 15 minute check-in, at the end of the day, where we all log on into a video chat. We’re cameras on, and we’re shooting the breeze, right?

This is not to talk about a specific topic or to address some work concern. We’re just checking how everybody is. So, as a practice, if you can do that with your team, just set a time that’s separate, where you guys will check in, in order to just have a general conversation like you would in the office. That happens organically.

Kaitlin Milliken: That’s great. At InnoLead, something we tried is “Coffee with colleagues,” where we set aside 15 minutes in the middle of the day to just check in and kind of chat. It’s a good place to get the conversation flowing the same way it would in an office.

Christian Ponce: In our innovation team, we had a member that went remote full-time about six months ago, and he set up his office space. And we used to do this thing, very much like Coffee with Colleagues, but we called it “Drinking Alone Together.” Where we all shared a beer at the end of the week, but everybody was on-screen.

Kaitlin Milliken: So another thing that can kind of be challenging, especially if you have a larger team, is brainstorming effectively since you don’t have the, “We’re all in a room huddled together with Post-its and a whiteboard.” Do you have any tips for running brainstorming sessions right now?

Christian Ponce: So in that regard, we used a tool called Mural. This is not an advocate for them at all. But it was great, in terms of allowing you to brainstorm, because it does allow you to do Post-it notes in the same way that you could in a room and move those around with a group. Another great tool, of course, is Trello, where you can drop cards on, and people can shift those.

But to me, the core sense of it is, creating a space where everyone has the chance to move things around and add their own opinions. Google Drive and Google Docs, is a great example. That’s a free option to get people all into the same space. The benefit of a tool like GoToMeeting is that you can get on screen and you can have audio when people see each other, so there’s more engagement. But having a place where you can just drop your thoughts down, if you’re not a big talker or you don’t want to be on screen, make sure that you are still engaged.

Kaitlin Milliken: Running meetings is something that can be really tough, even when you’re not all remote. Just keeping everyone focused and keeping it engaging can be hard when you are just presenting something, or doing something that’s very one way. When it comes to running meetings, what are some things that really work when it comes to doing it virtually?

Christian Ponce: So, from a virtual standpoint, I think, first and foremost is trying to figure out a time that works for everybody. When everybody’s remote, especially in today’s situation, where people have their kids at home, where they have to manage their online school, identifying a time that’s going to actually work where people can be engaged is paramount.

Second, giving them some sort of agenda. Stuff is going to happen.Your dog runs into the frame. Your kids are here. Your spouse or partner might need you. So acknowledging that, “No, it’s not a normal environment,” and making people feel okay with that. But then again, any kind of tool that you can put in that lets people have something to do with the meeting, and not just sit back and listen. Because even when things were normal and we were all in offices, in a meeting where you’re just sitting back and listening, it’s very easy to just start zoning off.

Kaitlin Milliken: So another thing that’s really important right now for innovation teams is staying connected with the business unit — so, checking-in with folks who may not be on your team. What are some good ways to keep connected with those other departments right now?

Christian Ponce: So, what we’ve done at LogMeIn is, we have a broad and expansive use of Slack. We have a number of different Slack groups, where you’re seeing just stuff going on. And again, these are people that you work with, but you may not engage with every day. So having something like Slack, where you can have messages on there and you can catch up with them asynchronously, definitely gives you control of the information flow, but keeps you engaged.

Secondly, having, as I mentioned earlier, there’s kind of informal check-ins. They don’t just have to be with your team. They can be with different groups. We started a weekly meditation group, if you want to check in on that one, where you’re dialing remotely. And, again, all those things that you can try to do to recreate some of those normal engagements so you’d have in the office.

Kaitlin Milliken: A lot of our audience, they’re kind of in a unit where they’re prototyping things. So maybe they’re building stuff with cardboard or paper, and then eventually moving into whatever the actual material will be. And you can’t really do that the same way that people would do when they were all sitting in the same lab. Are there any solutions to that, or is that something that should be put on pause for now?

Christian Ponce: Whatever you can continue to do, I’d say don’t put it on pause. You know, if you can build a model with whatever you have at home, get it on the screen and start talking to people. It will keep those ideas flowing. It’ll keep people engaged. And the reality, it will keep you busy. What can you use now that you wouldn’t be using in the office? As an example, around me I have Legos. I can totally build a model with Legos that helps you understand what I’m trying to get across, and then you might be able to take it from there and code it because that’s your skillset.

Kaitlin Milliken: What are three things that you want people to try in this period of remote work?

Christian Ponce: First and foremost, accounting for what your company’s software policy is, try anything that you can that’s SaaS based. Trello or Google Docs don’t require you to download anything, and you can all be in the same place and be able to use the same thing at the same time. That sharing experience is like a group chat, and it will definitely get you engaged.

If you have a videoconference solution that you’re using, turn on the camera. I know that for most people, being on camera feels really, really weird. And it feels uncomfortable. But I promise you, the stuff that you get from being on camera — that body language and that interaction — is going to make the conversation so much better, and you won’t have the, “Oh, I spoke over you. Oh, I spoke over you. Oh, who goes, now?” awkward moment of silence, because nobody wants to do it.

And, lastly, just remember to get up and walk outside. I know we can’t go that far, but walk away from your desk. You are working from home, but try to set some limits that let you remember that you are a person, and that this is still your home, not your workplace.


Kaitlin Milliken: So teams can stay connected and work effectively to continue pursuing their missions.

Before we end the episode, we wanted to leave you with one more piece of advice. Your mandates and priorities may be in flux right now. That’s always a possibility when there’s a sudden shift.

Nancy Tennant, an adjunct professor at the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame, says that corporate innovators need to be flexible to survive over the long haul. Nancy is also the Former Chief Innovation Officer at Whirlpool. During a recent webcast, she explained how her team adapted during the 2008 recession.

Nancy Tennant: When we hit the recession, we moved the innovation teams over to cost projects. It wasn’t where our heart was, but that was the most pressing problem. And when I teach innovation to i-mentors and others, I say, “There are no hills worth dying on in innovation, and we should be like water. Wherever the organization needs us, we need to move there, and help, and be relevant.”

Kaitlin Milliken: And remember, as innovators your role is to help ensure that your organization can find a path to the future, solve the tough problems, and stay relevant to customers. That has never been more important than now. Here’s Nancy again.

Nancy Tennant: There’s a lot we can do to help humanity to use our skills to solve, not the scientific problems, but some of the problems that we’re hearing. So, I just want us to think about what’s a bigger space for us to really contribute to the world. Let’s use our force for good, for the common good. Let’s think about how we can help each other and our communities. Let’s take care of each other because we’re all stressed, and be like water.

Kaitlin Milliken: Be like water. That’s a reference to a quote from the actor, philosopher, and martial arts legend Bruce Lee. He said, “Be formless, shapeless like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. If you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.”


Kaitlin Milliken: You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered. This episode was written and produced by me, Kaitlin Milliken. Additional reporting was provided by our Editor and CEO, Scott Kirsner. Special thanks to our guests Christian Ponce, Russell Rogers, and Nancy Tennant. During this uncertain time, our team remains devoted to creating resources that can help you continue innovating. We recently published an article on keeping innovation alive in tough times, as well as a webcast with tips for navigating this difficult period. You can find all of our articles at Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you soon.