C-Suite Insider

How to Foster Innovation in the New Normal

Innovation should be a CEO priority. The problem is, leadership teams can struggle to inspire innovation in remote workforces. But physical distance shouldn’t prevent organizations from innovating or carving out new market niches. Here are four steps the C-suite can take to inspire innovation in the new normal.

COVID-19 has made an unprecedented impact on businesses across the world. In a few weeks, most organizations had to re-pivot their operations, processes, and ways of working just to ensure business continuity and survival. Along the way, organizations had to learn how to maintain productivity while working from home — and chances are, this will continue for months to come. One survey found that only 27% of Fortune 500 CEOs believe their workforces will head back to the office in 2020.

Of course, tiding the current crisis is no easy feat, even for the most seasoned C-suite leaders. It requires foresight, clarity, agility — and most important, ideation and innovation. The reality is that innovation in the virtual way is a tall order. In other words, “How do business leaders enable and foster innovation in the workplace with a remote workforce?” has become the question du jour.

Innovation should be a CEO priority and should start at the top. CEOs must figure out how to encourage innovation in a company, and they must be outspoken proponents of innovation. Even initiatives focused on incremental innovation won’t often result in high-impact outcomes when not driven by the C-suite. The problem is, leadership teams can struggle to inspire innovation in remote workforces. Not even 30% of executives feel confident in their abilities to address the changes emerging from the pandemic, according to a McKinsey article.

But physical distance shouldn’t prevent organizations from innovating during this new normal — nor should it inhibit carving out a new niche in the market. Here are four important aspects to consider to get going on innovation in the new normal.

Create a well-defined process for innovation.

The importance of process innovation cannot be overstated, as it is critical for tapping into ideas from across the organization and for scaling innovation initiatives. A typical innovation life cycle has the following key phases:

  • Market research and qualification— objectively building an idea on the basis of primary and secondary research. This is the most critical step in the innovation journey and typically determines approval or rejection.
  • Business case approval— creating a formal business case to secure leadership buy-in, budgetary approvals, and organizational alignment.
  • Build and develop— building a team with complementary skill sets to design and engineer the innovation so that it is ready to launch in the market.
  • Monetization— outlining the go-to-market strategy, especially around branding, marketing, pricing, customer acquisition, sales, and service support.

Structurally, it helps to have the innovation charter be led by a C-suite leader, which could be the chief strategy officer, chief technology officer, or the chief innovation officer.

The question then is, how do leaders encourage innovation in the workplace by way of virtual processes? Effectively leveraging technology makes it possible. It is critical for an organization keen on innovating today to reexamine the innovation process with a remote workforce.

Invest in tools for effective virtual collaboration.

Physical environments can model behaviors that accelerate innovation, as do co-working offices, innovation spaces, and flexible work environments. But how can an organization create enterprise-scale collaboration environments for remote teams?

The selection of the right tools and platforms is critical for communication, video chats, idea workshops, brainstorming, and design thinking. Instead of just setting up a regular video meeting, design it as an experience for your employees and use it as a corporate innovation platform.

One potential option is to create a simulated online virtual environment for smaller focused groups around a specific agenda. For example, when deciding what emerging technologies to focus on, create a virtual brainstorming zone with collaborative whiteboarding tools to get the creative ideas flowing for a team. The goal here is to create a simulated space where employees can be energetic, creative, collaborative, and productive.

Strengthen the innovation ecosystem.

It takes a village to innovate; hence, a reliable ecosystem of innovation partners is very powerful to scale corporate innovation. Partnerships bring in different perspectives — including vision, technology, security, customer experience, scale, and road maps that can strengthen the quality of research and innovation. Examples of partnerships include design partners, technology partners, startups, or universities researching topics closely related to your organization’s innovation initiative.

Many companies have been relying on their partners and other third parties for innovation purposes during this pandemic. At Wipro, we have multiple research programs with universities across the world and run Open Innovation initiatives where we actively engage with the vibrant startup community and innovation ecosystem. We also are part of innovation forums like the Berkeley Innovation Forum, where we connect with companies around the world on their innovation challenges, share experiences in dealing with these challenges, and learn from real-world experiences.

Build an innovation governance framework.

A comprehensive innovation governance framework that provides visibility and transparency into progress and roadblocks is essential to maintaining the momentum of any innovation initiative. Corporate innovation programs tend to generate huge amounts of research and analysis data, and those insights can get lost in the shuffle if the data isn’t properly structured, managed, and archived.

Investing in the right infrastructure for managing data and the plans with virtual teams is critical. Cloud-based tools with robust and comprehensive features around security and scale have become the go-to resources for many organizations. These tools often come with advanced file-sharing and collaboration capabilities.

Last but not least, strengthen the innovation culture that acknowledges and appreciates those who dare to innovate through employee-friendly policies, corporate recognition, and enterprisewide enablement programs.

There’s no surefire way to encourage innovation in a company. But it starts with a commitment from the C-suite. Make innovation a priority from the top down. Invest in collaboration tools for remote teams. Strengthen the innovation ecosystem and develop a robust innovation governance framework. And, of course, recognize those employees who contribute to advancing innovation initiatives. After all, innovation is a journey, and making the first right steps creates a strong foundation for continuous innovation.

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Nischala Murthy Kaushik
Nischala Murthy Kaushik is the Global Marketing Director for the CTO Office at Wipro. She is a writer, mother, speaker, IIM alum, and polymath artist based in India. Nischala Murthy Kaushik is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on LinkedIn.