An Attitude of Innovation

Reflections on the COVID-19 Pandemic

Cartographers in days of old marked large, previously-unexplored sections of their world maps with scary icons and phrases. The phrase they often used was “there be monsters.” Today, perhaps now, more than ever before, we find ourselves sailing into the unknown due to the global pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus. Yes, where we are today there are monsters.

We’ve planned for hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, fire, floods, and vandalism, but we most certainly failed to imagine that a pandemic would bring our world’s economy to its knees. Today, as we fight off a global pandemic, we find ourselves in an amplified world of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). Across the world, people are being told to shelter in place and not leave their homes. The global economy is also under attack by the coronavirus as we watch record-setting gyrations in stock market prices and unemployment claims spike ten-fold over the span of just a couple weeks.

Comparatively speaking, this global pandemic came on very slowly compared to 9/11. If you were leading an organization during the trying months after that horrific event, you know how unimaginably heavy your feet felt as you could not fathom how to survive those long days of the fall of 2001. Further, we had to reimagine how to survive in the dramatically changed economy which followed. Indeed, times of VUCA force us to change, be more resourceful, and draw upon our inner creativity. Some organizations will come through this pandemic stronger on the other side. Others, God forbid, may not see Easter.

Organizations that have previously practiced and embraced an “attitude of innovation” are staring into both the near and long-term future, considering it a target-rich environment for opportunities. On the other side of the shelter in place orders we’re all enjoying at present, these organizations will promptly debrief and ask tough, introspective questions such as: “Where did we struggle and why?”, “Where did we shine and thrive?”, “Where did our competitors thrive and why?”, “What did we fail to imagine?”, etc. This crucial debrief exercise, most often overlooked and seldom executed, sets the stage for what we call “opportunity/problem finding.”

An exercise in opportunity/problem finding coupled with a team’s intentional attitude of innovation will generate a cornucopia of fresh opportunities for your organization, but where do you start? First, it’s important to understand how you and your teammates prefer to solve problems. Second, it’s a decision to think divergently and to defer judgment on the presentation of ideas. 

We know from research that there are largely four styles when it comes to  how people address opportunities and problems. They include:

  • Generators – generators get things started by gathering information and asking questions.
  • Conceptualizers – conceptualizers form quick connections, define problems and conceptualize new ideas, opportunities and benefits.
  • Optimizers – optimizers turn abstract ideas into practical solutions and plans. 
  • Implementers – implementers enjoy getting things done and becoming involved in new experiences.

At Compass Consulting, our clients take a brief, 20-minute assessment, to understand their preferences in problem solving. Understanding how one another prefers to address opportunities and problems is vitally important for teams. We’ve all experienced a situation where a strong implementer was asked to “imagine this…”, only to receive a death glare. Conversely, asking a generator or conceptualizer to drill down into the details of a project plan is just asking for a disaster. Initiating an opportunity-finding exercise with an imbalanced team or teammates unaware of one another’s preferences will likely resolve to a futile exercise in brainstorming.

We’ve all experienced meetings where in our attempts to generate fresh ideas to solve a problem, someone immediately starts jumping to solutions, or worse, shoots down the ideas of others. There are three skills we teach during our workshops: divergent thinking, convergent thinking, and deferral of judgment. In a divergent thinking mindset, the team generates a large number of ideas without prioritization or ranking. Once a list of ideas has been generated, the team converges, or selects the best few options. 

Throughout the iterative process of diverging and converging, we must be on guard to defer judgement on any concepts presented. We want to avoid what are known as “killer phrases” – comments such as “That will cost too much”, or “We’ve tried that before”. Such comments throw cold water on the team and kill an attitude of innovation.

We know for certain that facilitated workshops where each participant’s problem-solving style is known and shared with others, coupled with a process for discovering opportunities and exploring problems, will produce the game-changing results enjoyed by the companies that will thrive on the other side of the pandemic. Now more than ever, it’s crucial you resist the temptations to just blow by the debrief, cross your fingers and hope for the best, or execute frustrating brainstorming sessions to solve problems. There are only so many hours in the day and our teams’ patience is wearing thin.

Drop us a note to discuss how your team might sail into the uncharted waters on the other side of this VUCA situation without fear of monsters.