Friday, May 01, 2020

Innovation traits that are critical now: comfort with ambiguity

I'm writing a series of blog posts that examine what skills are necessary to innovate in a post COVID pandemic environment.  In the first installment, I wrote about the importance of "beginner's mind", because in the post-COVID future, some past experiences and knowledge may not be meaningful, and looking at new challenges with a fresh perspective will be valuable.

Innovating in a new construct, especially trying to create interesting and new products and services, means moving beyond traditional incremental innovation.  That means that you'll need new ideas, new perspectives and people who are capable of connecting outside your company and even your industry.  I'm making the argument that your traditional new product development and innovation approaches may be too limited, and that you'll need to find new people to participate who have skills that are critical to innovating in new settings.  As we examined in the beginner's mind segment, many of these skills aren't pertinent to traditional day to day efficient operations, but they are vital for transformative and disruptive thinking in new environments.

Next Trait:  Comfort with Ambiguity

Experts will tell you that we live in a VUCA world - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.  This sounds very impressive but often leaves me a bit cold - what, exactly, does that mean, and how should I respond?  It's true that post-COVID we will experience more volatility - if by volatility we mean sudden shifts in the economy or in markets, or if by uncertainty or ambiguity we mean the inability to gain more stability and work with certainty.

The reason the idea of VUCA is so important to traditional business operations is that we've built processes and systems that rely on reducing uncertainty, reducing variability and reducing risk.  Finely tuned operations that rely on just in time deliveries expect certainty.  Managers who have taken every step to eliminate or reduce risk hate uncertainty or ambiguity.  Yet for the next 24 months or more I think we'll see a lot of volatility and ambiguity.

Which means that you need to find people in your organization, or recruit or retain people from outside your organization who can operate with some comfort in ambiguous settings and situations.  The future is murky, and we can't know exactly what new emerging opportunities or threats will spring up.  Creating new products and services in this environment will require that your new product and new service development teams operate in a very ambiguous and uncertain future, discovering opportunities and making bets before the facts are certain.  This was true before COVID if you were doing transformative or disruptive innovation.  This new environment only makes the future more ambiguous or uncertain.

The choices you have

This volatile, ambiguous and uncertain future leaves you with choices.  You can ignore the future and stick to your knitting, anticipating that the eventual future gets back to some semblance of the "past normal".  All you need to do in this scenario is hold on and gradually improve existing products and services.  Frankly, this choice is a selection for obsolescence.  We aren't going back to the old normal, and your competitors and new entrants are framing new products and services for the new normal.

Or, you can split your teams, leaving one team to continue to develop existing products and another team to start exploring opportunities, discovering needs and making bets about new products and services that will be needed post COVID.  This discovery team has the potential to help you create meaningful new products and services that consumers may demand in a "new normal", but there are no guarantees, only uncertainty and ambiguity.

If you choose the second path, you'll need to identify the people on your team who are most able to operate in an ambiguous and uncertain future.  Far too many people have become accustomed to a black and white operating environment, where options and risks are knowable and where risk and variance are avoided.  After all, that's what makes operations efficient and effective.

In a VUCA world, we cannot simply wait for more information or more clarity, because the volatility and uncertainty may not clear up for quite some time.  And, by the way, all of your previously existing competitors are still out there, trying to understand the new opportunities.  You aren't competing against your own reluctance.  You are competing against established competitors, and hundreds of new entrants who were formed as companies laid off their workers.  Even thought you have less information and less clarity, you may need to work at higher speeds than you did previously.  Only people who can work in uncertain and ambiguous environments will be able to move quickly in this new environment.

Who are these people?

Finding people who can operate in an ambiguous or uncertain environment is not easy, but it will be important.  First, try to find people within your organization who are more entrepreneurial, more willing to take risks and who have traditionally been the people to conduct discovery or explore new markets or new opportunities.  But ensure that this isn't just a data gathering exercise - it's entirely reasonable to collect and analyze information but this also requires people who are self-starters, who are willing to go into a somewhat unknown market and figure things out.

These individuals are often those that push the envelope internally, intentionally moving faster and further than the informal rules would suggest.  They are likely to have tried and "failed" before, and are not too worried about the implications of failure.  While they may be risk takers, they understand how to moderate the risk, how to explore and how to operate in uncertain conditions.  The problem many of these folks have is that they often can't understand why others don't enjoy working in these conditions, so they can be a bit condescending to people who want more data or more clarity before committing.

In other words, like the people who possess beginner's mind attributes, people comfortable with ambiguity often operate at the margins of a business, especially a highly efficient business.  They are valuable but often not trusted with core processes and products.  They often run special investigation projects but when the project is validated the scaling activity is entrusted to someone else.

If you have these kinds of people, you need them to start working on what's next after COVID.  Teaming people who are comfortable working in a VUCA world with people who possess other valuable traits like Beginner's Mind will position your company to take advantage of the innovation opportunities that will emerge in the next 12-18 months.

If you need help

If you need help finding people with Beginner's mind or comfort with ambiguity in your organization, I can help.  Based on years of innovation experience and a lot of research, I've identified a number of traits to help you find the best innovators in your organization.  Contact me to discuss.  If you think you don't have these skills internally or need an extension of your team, I can help with that as well.

Read the white paper I developed on these core innovation skills and traits for more information.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:04 AM


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