By Tanja Yardley

I have a bias to confess to. The phrase “we are in this boat together” sparks an almost irrational irritability. While we are in this pandemic storm together, we are most certainly not in the same boat. As leaders, we know instinctively that some of our team members are flailing around in a dinghy with multiple holes, barely holding themselves above the water line and bailing continuously. Others are zooming around in a motorboat, enjoying the sea breeze and checking on all the other boats. Some are lucky enough to be cruising in a well-appointed yacht, enjoying umbrella drinks with loved ones and hoping that this quality time doesn’t end too quickly. Times like these expose the gaps, the rocks, and the choppy seas, as well as the skill and resiliency of the sailors.

Leading is difficult at the best of times, but now, more than ever, emotional intelligence and creativity will guide successful decision-making. As forward-thinking companies regroup and rechart their course post-pandemic, innovation creates opportunities to pivot in response to the headwind and gain momentum. According to Evans Baiya, co-author of The Innovator’s Advantage, innovation is an opportunity to create new value. It’s a team effort that embraces a broad and diverse range of skillsets. It’s an opportunity to draw your team together in a meaningful way, bolstering the full range of vessels in the face of the stormy sea. Innovation can be the lifeboat that brings your company safely to shore.

Whether you are innovating in a time of crisis or a time of calm, the same principles apply:

1. Understand the skills, strengths and situational context of your team members.

Each of the six stages of successful innovation laid out in The Innovator’s Advantage framework requires a unique skillset.

The Identify stage requires the sky watchers perched in the crow’s nest of the ship—team members with great futuristic and creative thinking skills, adept at looking at problems and identifying patterns while generating and gathering ideas.

The Define stage is ideal for the navigator—a team member who excels at gathering data about the scope and scale of the problem to be solved or opportunity to be captured, while qualifying and ranking potential solutions against the criteria that will define success. The Define stage clarifies the problem to be solved and the solution to be tested, and culminates in a map of the journey for the team that will get the job done.

The Develop stage demands seasoned sailors—resilient self-starters, skilled at managing the projects, processes and people who will deliver the big-picture results; undaunted by the obstacles that present along the way.

The Verify stage often falls to the ship’s engineer. It’s all about experimenting with your proposed solution(s), testing, tweaking systems, gathering feedback, failing forward and adjusting course where needed.

The Deploy stage is where the captain’s skill and strength at navigating the waters of implementation and change management will really shine. Strong communication, team-building and emotional intelligence ensure that the oars are aligned in the water for maximum thrust.

The Scale stage often attracts the swashbuckling-explorer type. Charismatic, confident, optimistic team members who engage others with their stories of storms surmounted and treasures found. These individuals bring insights and opportunities to scale innovation beyond its original intent, finding new markets and options to diversify.

Innovation projects engage the full range of diverse skills and strengths of your team members around a meaningful common goal. Managing this amongst a distributed team, many of whom will be working from home, may require a higher level of creativity and communication, but it’s worth it. Ensuring that each person is positioned in alignment with their skillset and unique vantage point will restore confidence and drive cadence. It’s a crucial step in helping people shift out of situational crisis thinking and into a more future-focused mindset. As Peter Drucker once said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

2. Decide TOGETHER what problem to solve

Solving problems together generates momentum and a meaningful sense of purpose. Skilled leaders can leverage this insight to bring teams together and stimulate deep, generative conversations about problems that need to be solved with and for your clients. In a crisis situation, problems abound and are compounded by the fact that your customers’ needs are changing minute-by-minute. What seemed important pre-pandemic may be completely off the table once the storm settles. This is where diversity can help you create a more robust and nuanced approach.

Start by asking the right questions.

  1. What are the jobs that our customers need to get done? What obstacles are getting in their way? What new value can we create in the process of helping them?
  2. Who is affected by these problems and what is the impact?
  3. What capabilities do we have, or will we have to create, to address these challenges and solve these problems?
  4. Is this a meaningful problem to solve, now and in the future? Why?

Ensure you are asking the right people.

  1. Brainstorming with your team is a great preliminary step, but it is important to reality-check your proposed solutions with your current and prospective customers early on to ensure that you are on the right track.
  2. Where possible, embrace the option to co-create a solution with your customers that engages them in the process and allows them to experience the rewards of a problem well-solved. Not only does this ensure that the solution meets their needs, it also contributes powerfully to a sense of alliance and loyalty.

Once you are clear on the problem you want to solve and the constituency of the Innovation Team, the structure of the innovation process lends itself well to collaboration at each stage. Customers can have an advisory role in identifying the scope of opportunity and the key features of the solution in the Identify-Define stages. They can be invaluable in beta-testing and tweaking the design during the Develop-Verify experimentation phases. If the solution lands well in the Deploy stage, they might take an active role in the Scale stage, bringing it to new customers or re-imagining how it can solve new problems.

The old adage applies here: a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor. The beauty of a well-executed innovation project is in its ability to unite, bolster and strengthen your team while simultaneously differentiating and deepening relationships with key customers.

Tanja Yardley is founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Wellspring, where she works across multiple industries with leaders, inventors and learning institutions to create innovation-focused, cross-functional leadership teams that thrive as a result of diversity and cross-pollination. She spent over a decade as a VP and National Healthcare Innovation Lead for Canada’s largest private healthcare company.