Keeping Innovation Alive in the Time of COVID-19


Are these the roaring 20s? So far, no champagne, no flappers, and no Gatsby. Instead, thanks to COVID-19, we’ve entered an unstable and economically volatile period that may serve up the biggest challenges of your career, and will require every business to innovate in ways they never have before — and fast.  The individuals who seize this moment to rethink how they conceive and deliver new products and services will be the ones who position their companies to survive (and even thrive) in this period of incredible uncertainty.

Blade Kotelly. Photo by David Sella.

So, if home is the new office, then why not use this moment to see things from a new perspective? Why not transition the tools you already use to serve you better? Why not see if you can even scale up your innovation operation, using existing techniques in a new way? 

Here are three things to help you innovate at a distance, followed by a few of my work-from-home pro tips.

1. Running Innovation at a Distance 

You might think that it’s harder to use your design thinking and innovation processes when you’re not co-located, but if you do it right, you may discover that some parts become more valuable because everyone is in their own space. Consider brainstorming: most groups brainstorm out loud, or write ideas on stickies and place them on a board.  This is fine, but if there’s anyone else you want to weigh in who can’t be in that room, you lose their input completely.  

IITAOC (Innovate In The Age Of COVID-19) by using a Kanban-style list-making tool like Trello or Asana. That kind of tool usually organizes tasks into various lists (e.g., in progress, being reviewed, completed). Instead, bend it a bit and you have an incredible way to create and capture ideas. 

Since everyone is remote, each person can be on a call and log in to see the Kanban board. Instead of adding tasks, everyone adds ideas to a generic list — each idea being placed on a card, just like using a sticky note. Run the session silently; anyone can choose to read what’s being posted in real-time and get inspiration to create new ideas. You can easily see when people stop coming up with new ideas. Then, to organize the cards, have people create a new list — giving it any title they like — and group similar ideas together. You can let people move cards between lists freely until there’s a general consensus about the groupings. 

Why this works: The best part of this approach is that introverts can have their voice heard as loudly as the most bombastic extrovert. In addition, you don’t have to decipher anyone’s handwriting, and you don’t need to take a photo of a whiteboard with stickies and transcribe it later on. 

A sample Trello board.

2. Managing Innovators at a Distance

Managing innovation correctly requires many skills, chief among them a good understanding of leadership and how to get the most out of your team. All good innovation leaders know that too much certainty creates boredom — people don’t engage their hearts or minds when they feel that they’re just following a recipe— and too much uncertainty creates anxiety, which kills people’s ability to perform at the most creative level. 

As these next weeks unfold, IITAOC by recognizing that some people can handle massive changes better than others. You may have seen the Will/Skill Matrix before (at right) — it describes four quadrants that you can use to determine the best leadership approach to use based on how someone is performing. When your employees are able to do their jobs, and want to do them, you don’t need to do much more than continue to provide new challenges. If you have a team member whose drive is now lowered because of increased existential anxiety, shift things slightly: give them small and clear goals to achieve. For the ones who adapt well to a new way of working, push them to think about how to challenge the underlying assumptions in how you operate — from internal processes to creating products to delivering them to customers. 

Why this works: These moments can be incredible motivators and catalysts for a certain kind of person, but they can be paralyzing for others. Recognizing that people will behave differently in this situation will enable you to react quickly to support them in the right way, and let you challenge some members of your team in ways you never thought was possible before. 

3. What to Watch For

There will be two challenging times ahead. The first one has begun already, as most employees will have to get used to new ways of handling normal tasks and communication patterns. The second one will start when it comes time to implement any new ideas that you’re now devising. To prepare for that stage, IITAOC by demanding that your team:

  • Uncovers and challenge assumptions about how you work and the output of your work. This is the cornerstone of innovation, and there is no better time for people to push against the status quo than when they are being forced to grow.
  • Identifies boundaries and remediation paths to overcome them. Distance can be closed in many ways. Need hardware? Ship or have a courier deliver items. Need to communicate complex topics that you think require a  whiteboard? Use your smartphone on a tripod to log in to the Zoom/WebEx meetings, using that camera to show illustrations in real time. Miss having lunches together? Have lunches sent to peoples’ houses once a week and videoconference while you eat. Need to work on the same user-experience concept? Consider using the K-Script technique and Google Docs to devise and edit an experience in real time. 
  • Identifies hazards and remediation paths for internal and external communication. This one is particularly important, because there’s a high likelihood that this current situation is putting other teams in a state of anxiety, and when you have an exchange of information at distance, key points may get lost in the process. Think about times in the past when you needed to work with the legal teams to quickly patent a new idea, or work with finance to book a sale before the end of the quarter. “Sneakernet” might have been how you got your data to them, walking over to someone’s office to ensure you got their time and attention. Now that all changes. Not only can’t you do that, but your communication channels will be the same ones used by everyone else, and those teams may be overwhelmed with new projects because of the current situation. Working with your team, identify what can go wrong in every step of how you work, even when your team does everything correctly — and try to eliminate or ameliorate communication problems.

Why this works: When you explicitly look for problems early on, it helps raise awareness about some of the parts of your process you take for granted. This can save you a ton of time and rework, getting you to the finish line faster with better results, and it allows pessimists to do something incredibly valuable — identify why something might fail, so you can prepare for, and prevent, stumbles. 

A Few Work-From-Home Pro Tips…

Try MIT Time:  At MIT, we start class at :05 past the hour and end :05 before the hour (even when the scheduled time on the calendar is on the hour). This gives us 10 minutes to move between classes, or simply chat for a bit after a meeting.  Consider setting up this way of working if your team is remote — you’ll not only save 10 minutes in every meeting (you know you don’t need the full hour, right?) but you’ll also give people time to chat after a meeting so they can have the important serendipitous conversations that might occur in the interstitial times.

Remove the New Distraction: Add a new mail rule to your email. If message contains “COVID-19″ and ” is not from” “<your company name>” move it to a “COVID-19” folder. Check this once or twice a day. This will help give you fewer distractions, as every news site and business that has ever had your email sends out updates. 

Focus better at home: Use comfortable noise canceling headphones if you’ve got any sound distractions, and find a playlist that doesn’t demand your attention. 

Keep Learning: Now that you’re not spending two hours a day commuting to the office, there are a few great books that you’ve got time to read that can give you new insight. The High Velocity Edge talks about how to avoid problems that arise in handoffs and exchanges. Design Driven Innovation shows how getting input from non-standard people and groups (artists, scientists, suppliers, etc.) can be incredibly valuable.

Blade Kotelly is a Senior Lecturer at MIT, and also works to teach companies the skills of innovation and help them design breakthrough user-experiences. Kotelly is hosting a webcast on March 27th, 2020 on “Innovation in the Age of COVID-19: The 7 Techniques To Make Your Virtual Organization Tangible.”