“I don’t see how we can replace the serendipitous innovation advantage of hallway conversations. At least a third of our best innovation ideas come from serendipitous conversations, which then morph into brainstorming sessions. We’ve had almost no such serendipitous conversations in the many months of lockdowns. If we don’t return to the office full-time, we’re going to lose our innovation competitive advantage to rivals who do so and gain the benefits of serendipity.” That’s what Saul, the Chief Product Officer of a 1,500-employee enterprise software company, told me at his company’s planning meeting on the post-vaccine return to office and the future of work.
Hired as the consultant to help the company figure out its return to office and permanent future of work arrangements, I was facilitating the meeting. It was my ninth such engagement. Over two-thirds featured leaders responsible for the company’s products expressing some version of this concern, although Saul was the most aggressive about it.
So what explains these struggles with innovation and what can be done about them? My experience of helping over a dozen organizations transition to a post-vaccine office return provides important insights for any leaders who want an innovation advantage in the future of work. Hybrid and even remote teams can gain a substantial innovation advantage if they don’t stick to office-based innovation processes. Instead, by adopting best practices for innovation in the return to the office and the future of work, hybrid and remote teams can outcompete in-person teams in innovation.
Returning to Office Full-Time Threatens an Innovation Advantage
My response to Saul, as well as to those other leaders, started by determining a shared goal: to maximize innovation in the most efficient and effective manner. All the leaders overseeing products agreed with this overarching goal.
Then, I probed how these leaders tried to pursue innovation during the lockdowns. They all told me they tried to adapt their office-based approaches to the new videoconference modality.
Therein lies the problem. None of them tried to research best practices on virtual innovation to adapt strategically to their new circumstances. Instead, they tried to impose their pre-existing office-based methods of innovation on virtual work. While understandable in the initial stages of the lockdowns, it might seem surprising that they would pursue this same office-based toolkit over the many months of the pandemic. Yet that’s exactly what happened.
Thus, these leaders have pushed for a full-time in-office schedule after vaccines grew widespread, despite the obvious dangers of doing so. After all, even prior to the surge associated with the Delta variant, extensive surveys of employee desires for post-vaccine future of work arrangements showed that 25% to 35% wanted remote work only. In turn, 50-65% wanted to return to office with a hybrid schedule of a day or two on campus. Only 15-25% desired to go back to Monday to Friday 9-5 schedules.
Those employee desires represent a definite mismatch to the demands of product leaders, the large majority of whom wanted to go back to the office full-time. The surveys, taken before the Delta surge, showed that 40-55% intended to find a new job if they did not get their desired working preferences.
Indeed, we know that many already resigned due to their employers trying to force them back to the office. Of course, the Delta variant will cause many more to quit, due to fears about breakthrough infections: recent data shows that waning vaccine immunity after 6 months results in vaccine efficacy falling to 39% against Delta.
It’s obvious that having a large portion of your workforce resign as part of the Great Resignation pushed by the coercive efforts to get them to return to the workplace is no way to maintain an innovation advantage. That’s why even before the Delta surge, Google backtracked from its intention to force all employees to return to campus and permitted full-time remote work to many in the face of mass employee resistance and resignations. Amazon did the same for similar reasons.
These trillion-dollar companies lost many billions through their self-defeating actions due to top employees leaving, serious hits to employee morale and engagement, and having to change the basics of their return to campus plans. If these top companies, with supposedly the best leadership and policies, can screw up their return-to-office plans so badly and hurt their innovation advantage, no wonder leaders of less-resourced smaller companies do so as well.
The Dangerous Judgment Errors Blocking Innovation Best Practices in the Future of Work
Numerous leaders fail to adopt innovation best practices for the future of work because of dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. These mental blindspots, which often lead to wishful thinking, result in poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating options. They render leaders unable to resist following their gut and their personal preferences instead of relying on best practices on returning to the office.
Many have a desire to turn back the clock to January 2020 and go back to the world before the pandemic. They fall for the status quo bias, a desire to maintain or get back what they see as the appropriate situation and way of doing things. Their minds flinch away from accepting the major disruption stemming from the pandemic to the status quo, whether regarding innovation or other areas of work.
Unfortunately for them, with so many people having successfully worked from home for so long, the genie is out of the bottle. Surveys show the vast majority adapted to it well and want to continue doing so for half the work week or more after the pandemic. The disruption happened. Yet many leaders continue to perceive any work from home as a “purely negative” situation, in the words of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.
Another major cognitive bias, the normalcy bias, causes our minds to undercount the probability and consequences of disruptive events. Because of this perilous judgment error, we significantly underestimate major challenges such as the Delta surge.
Indeed, it was already clear that US Delta cases were starting to rise in early June. There was also clear evidence that countries with high vaccination rates, like the United Kingdom and Israel, were experiencing a surge in cases in May.
It’s not simply the Delta spike, but the implications of Delta for our future. There are new variants appearing regularly that seem even more dangerous than Delta. For example, Delta Plus is a newer variant that, compared to Delta, contains a mutation that makes it easier for the virus to escape our immune system and thus undercuts vaccine efficacy. It’s already in the US and many other countries.
While leaders would like to think that they are making data-driven decisions, they have obviously ignored the data. And they’re unable to say that they weren’t warned about the rising COVID infections. Even while being aware of the increasing danger, they are still pushing for a return to the traditional office setup.
Though the Delta variant may be a short-term issue, it comes with multiple similar scenarios as part of the long tail risk of new waves due to other variants. Research on why Boards of Directors fire CEOs shows denying such negative reality as one of the top reasons. This denial is due to another cognitive bias, called the ostrich effect. It is based on the mythical notion of ostriches burying their heads in the sand when facing danger.
The planning fallacy is another blindspot that causes havoc. It prods leaders into setting optimistic yet unrealistic plans – on returning to the office along with other areas – and resist changing these decisions despite new evidence proving them wrong. After all, reversing a decision suggests that you were wrong to begin with. Weak leaders habitually refuse to own their mistakes and ignore the need to alter plans. By contrast, strong leaders show courage when new evidence shows a necessity to redirect.
Defeating cognitive biases to return to office successfully and thrive in the future of work requires the use of research-based best practices. It means a mainly hybrid model of one to two days in-office while permitting most employees to work remotely as needed. A substantial minority of employees should work full-time remotely if they are reliable and productive. That setup helps facilitate an easy way to shift to full-time work from home for all staff if need arises, such as during a variant surge, by creating a culture and systems and processes that facilitate remote work. This best-practice setup will translate to diverse benefits: optimization of innovation and collaboration, retention of top talent, and the creation of flexible company culture, systems, and processes.
Serendipitous Idea Generation for an Innovation Advantage in Hybrid and Remote Teams
In-Person Serendipitous Idea Generation
To address Saul’s concerns, I first asked him what he did to facilitate serendipitous conversations among the product team during the lockdowns. He said he did everything he could think of: he encouraged team members to have such conversation; he organized team meetings hoping that members would have such discussions on the sidelines; he even did regular videoconference happy hours with small breakout groups, aiming both to facilitate connection to company culture and also to have members drop in the small groups spark conversations about innovative ideas. Nothing worked!
At that point, I praised him for doing more than most leaders in his position tried to do. However, I gently highlighted how all his methods in essence transposed in-office practices on the virtual environment. Trying to shoehorn in-office culture into such a different context resulted in a very uncomfortable fit, and that just doesn’t work for something as spontaneous and creative as serendipitous innovation.
Virtual Serendipitous Idea Generation
To facilitate serendipity in virtual settings, you need to use a native virtual format, instead of trying to fit the square peg of in-office formats into the round hole of virtual collaboration. Besides that format, you need to tap into the underlying motivations that facilitate the creativity, spontaneity, and collaboration behind serendipitous innovation.
In my work helping companies transition to the future of work, whether for hybrid teams or full-time virtual teams, idea generation serendipity came from creating a specific venue for it and incentivizing collaboration without forcing it. An especially successful tactic involved setting up various venues in whatever collaborative software the organization was using specifically devoted to serendipitous innovation.
For example, organizations using Microsoft Teams would have each team set up a team-specific channel for members to share innovative ideas relevant for the team’s work; larger business units would establish channels for ideas applicable to the whole business unit; and there would be a channel for ideas appropriate for the whole company. Then, when anyone has an idea, they would share that idea in the pertinent channel.
Everyone would be encouraged to pay attention to notifications in that channel. Seeing a new post, they would check it out. If they found it relevant, they would respond with additional thoughts building on the initial idea. Responses would snowball, and sufficiently good ideas would then lead to more formal idea cultivation and evaluation.
This approach combines a native virtual format with people’s natural motivations to contribute, collaborate, and claim credit. The initial idea poster and the subsequent contributors aren’t motivated simply by the goal of advancing the team, business unit, and organization, even though that’s of course part of their goal set. The initial poster is motivated by the possibility of sharing an idea that might be recognized as sufficiently innovative, practical, and useful to implement, with some revisions. The contributors, in turn, are motivated by the natural desire to give advice, especially advice that’s visible to and useful for others in their team, business unit, or even the whole organization.
This dynamic also fits well the different personalities of optimists and pessimists. You’ll find that the former will generally be the ones to post initial ideas. Their strength is innovative and entrepreneurial thinking, but their flaw is being risk-blind to the potential problems in the idea. In turn, pessimists will overwhelmingly serve to build on and improve the idea, pointing out its potential flaws and helping address them.
Remember to avoid undervaluing the contributions of pessimists. It’s too common to pay excessive attention to the initial ideas and overly reward optimists – and I say this as an inveterate optimist myself, who has 20 ideas before breakfast and thinks they’re all brilliant! Through the combination of personal bitter experience and research on optimism and pessimism, I have learned the necessity of letting pessimistic colleagues vet and improve my ideas. My clients have found a great deal of benefit in highly valuing such devil’s advocate perspectives as well. That’s why you should both praise and reward not only the generators of innovative ideas, but also the two-three people who most contributed to improving and finalizing the idea.
“I never thought of it that way” said Saul after I described these tactics for virtual serendipitous idea generation. “It’s definitely worth experimenting with while we’re still forced to work fully remotely. If you’re right, I withdraw my objections to your model of most workers hybrid and a minority fully remote.”
He was as good as his word, and did some serious experimentation over the next couple of weeks until the third planning meeting. His staff felt surprise at how many innovative ideas they produced using this innovative methodology. It seems that their creative energies were waiting to be unleashed, and this methodology g provided the outlet.
If you want to gain an innovation advantage in the future of work, you need to avoid the tendency to stick to pre-pandemic innovation methodology. Instead, you need to adopt research-based best practices for innovation in the return to the office and the future of work, such as serendipitous idea generation. By doing so, your hybrid and remote teams will enable you to gain a true competitive advantage in innovation.
Clearly, work will never go back to a pre-pandemic normal. Leaders who don’t seize an innovative advantage risk lagging behind. Methodologies like Virtual Serendipitous Idea Generation grant a much-needed competitive advantage.
Questions to Consider (please share your answers below)
- How have you prepared for Delta-wave-like recurring future work scenarios?
- What innovative strategies have you pursued to facilitate serendipitous conversations during lockdown?
- How do you plan to gain an innovative edge based on this article?
Image credit: Luke Peters
Originally Published at Disaster Avoidance Experts on September 14, 2021.