Embracing Innovation

August 14, 2021

Stepping into constant change

Really? Another pandemic semi-lockdown? Here we are, 17+ months into pandemic and lockdown life, facing another Covid-19 crisis. How can we possibly continue to “adapt and thrive” in the face of this perpetual uncertainty? What does this mean for each of us, and what does it mean for us collectively?

Last week I had the first in-person business meeting since starting a new venture last summer. The delight is hard to describe. Even with the awkwardness arising from sudden over-stimulation, the energy, buoyancy, and joy that came to life in the room was palpable.

And now, this week, masks are on, dates to return to work are delayed, and social distancing is back. The familiar feeling of anxiety has crept back in: Should I go to the birthday party this weekend? Should I finally go to the dentist? Will customers delay the start of programs until they are back in the office?

We each have our own version of this, and our own experience of anxiety that arises with uncertain and changing conditions. So how do we cope? How do we grow and thrive?

Adaptability

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, adaptation is the “adjustment to environmental conditions, such as modification of an organism or its parts, that makes it more fit for existence under the conditions of its environment.” That is perhaps a complex way of saying “survival.” Our biology is set up to naturally adapt and our brains are wired to learn from experience.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein

So we have innate “software” that enables us to learn and grow throughout our lives and in varying conditions. But it is not quite that simple or straightforward. We also have a nervous system that can trigger a response of fear and aversion to new situations, whether we perceive them to be positive or negative. This stress response can shut down our openness to learning and lead us to rely upon familiar solutions. Instead of responding in a new way, we revert to the status quo or inertia (do nothing).

Relying exclusively on existing knowledge or sticking to responses we know have worked in the past when we are in a novel situation shuts down new possibilities. It is as if we put blinders on. Our creative mind loses out to a stress response in our body and brain that seeks, or automatically generates, a familiar way of being. This is sometimes referred to as the “adaptability paradox”. Just when we need to find a new solution the most, we are gripped by fear of moving forward. This response is also a part of our innate software, but it limits growth and the discovery of new ways of responding. Innovation gets averted.

Change Creates the Conditions for Innovation

Merriam-Webster defines innovation as “the introduction of something new; novelty.” We could frame some of the changes and adaptations we have made in our lifestyle as a result of COVID-19 as innovations. Some of them we certainly would rather live without but I am sure each of us can find examples of adaptations we have made, and things we have learned, that have moved us forward.

On my side, I became a virtual corporate trainer overnight. I would not have volunteered for that role as digital fluency was not a strength of mine when the pandemic began. But a scheduled in-person training program was happening two weeks into lockdown and I had the opportunity to deliver it virtually instead. I quickly got a tutorial on zoom, practiced with friends, and successfully delivered the first program. I wondered if virtual emotional intelligence training could work without us all being together physically in the same room and found out that it did! The evaluations were good; the participants had connected with me and each other and learned new skills.

These learnings nudged me to explore how I might bring ideas I had about developing a new kind of training program to fruition. Since all of my work was not converting to virtual, I had space in my schedule to fill. Some outreach efforts quickly turned me toward a Silicon Valley tech startup accelerator program. I applied to the Founder Institute program (even as a non-digitally-fluent being) and was accepted. I have spent the year since creating a new startup company and the AwakeTeams training platform that is now in the pilot phase.

I joke that this has been the most extroverted year of my life, all while in isolation! In addition to brushing up on old skills, such as creating and effectively delivering PowerPoint presentations (virtually!), developing financial models, and networking, I am also learning to be a salesperson and a startup CEO.

The AwakeTeams business, team, and training platform have only come into being through a continual process of stepping into new and uncertain conditions and finding new ways to respond. Of course, there certainly have also been missed learning opportunities in this process when I have been caught in fear and inertia. Compassion is important here: we do the best we can and will figure out which experiments, iterations, or adapted behaviors are keepers.

Changing conditions require new solutions and different ways of being. What can we do to encourage our “better angels” of openness to change and willingness to experiment and learn?

“The only way out is through.” — Robert Frost

Cultivating Personal Innovation

At the individual level, innovation in this period of the pandemic has meant survival. While there has been a lot of lost life from the virus, there has also been great adaptation and survival. And, hopefully, each of us can find examples of personal innovations that have supported our wellbeing and helped us grow and thrive.

Here are some tips and tricks for cultivating personal innovation:

  • Practice daily mindfulness: We need to feel resourced in order to step into uncertainty without overwhelm. Overwhelm will cause us to shut down and we will not be able to respond creatively to what is happening. Mindfulness grounds us in the moment and opens a greater palette of “capacity” than our thinking mind alone. My definition of mindfulness here is becoming aware of your natural breathing process and feeling into your full physical presence in the moment. Feet on the floor, arms at your side, hands perhaps folded in your lap (or even typing!) — take a moment to experience simply being present in this moment. Yes, I know, coming more fully into a moment that is full of uncertainty can seem like a bad idea, but this can have a couple of important positive effects. Deliberate breathing, or even simply bringing attention to breathing, can relax the whole body and nervous system. Feeling the ground beneath your feet offers a sense of “groundedness” and enables a shift of consciousness beyond the realm of the ever-seeking-to-control mind. You have more resources available when you are in touch with your physical, biological presence.
“The moment I let go of it was the moment I got more than I could handle. The moment I jumped off of it was the moment I touched down.” —lyrics by Alanis Morrissette
  • Build self-awareness skills: Develop a habit of reflection so that you become more aware of where you get overwhelmed and when you are able to respond to what is happening in a relaxed way. See if you can take an objective eye and look at yourself and your behaviors. Where are you reactive? When do you get overwhelmed? What are the behaviors, situations, or circumstances that lead to those outcomes? The more you become conscious of your triggers, your reactivity, and the conditions where you feel relaxed and confident, the more empowered you are to make positive and creative choices.
  • Create experiences of awe: Dacher Keltner, in his research at UC Berkeley, has found that experiences of awe lead to greater humility, curiosity, innovation, and happiness. Awe is described as a heightened awareness of beauty and mystery, and it is most commonly experienced when we are in nature or with inspiring leaders. These don’t have to be extraordinary experiences; awe can arise in ordinary experiences if we are paying attention.
  • Learn something new: Learning something new expands what we believe is possible and what we think we are capable of. It automatically moves us beyond a rote, familiar way of being and invites creativity. Get out of your comfort zone and do something different. Explore a new territory, visit a new place. Find an area or subject that you are curious about and dive in!
  • Practice self compassion: This is challenging territory. To ask ourselves to walk into uncertainty, eyes wide open, and resist the instinctive responses to shut down or do what we’ve always done is a big deal. Please be kind with yourself! This is about learning, and certainly not about having it all figured out already. It is also about trying something new, stumbling, perhaps falling, and getting back up and trying again. As an entrepreneur, I feel like I am doing this daily, or at least weekly! (the stumbling part, not always getting right back up or the self compassion part if I am honest).

How Organizations Can Cultivate Innovation

Organizations as entities also need to innovate to survive. If organizations can not adapt to changing conditions, they cease to be relevant or lose out to competitors who are meeting the changing needs.

And we can’t really separate organizational survival, or thriving, from individual survival and thriving. The functioning of any organization depends upon the individual employees within the organization. The line gets blurred here between individual adaptability and organizational adaptability; the lived experience is actually a reciprocal relationship.

Here are some insights on how organizations can cultivate innovation:

  • Invest in wellbeing initiatives: Organizational research shows higher ratings on innovation when organizations attend to and invest in employee wellbeing initiatives. Employees stay longer in these organizations and name them more frequently as great places to work. This reduces employee turnover costs in addition to increasing productivity levels: when employees experience greater wellbeing at work, productivity increases, and so do the “bottom line” (financial) results.
  • Develop, evangelize, and embed adaptability behavioral norms: Studies about organizational performance suggest that companies with strong “adaptability” behavioral norms — that are clearly understood and intensely followed — perform better financially than companies without such norms. These behaviors include such things as being willing to experiment, quick to take advantage of opportunities, and willing to take risks.
  • Encourage knowledge sharing: Innovation requires integration of new learning. Different studies highlight the importance of creating organizational best practices that optimize knowledge sharing. The practices should encourage the sharing of both internal knowledge and learning from exposure to external ideas.
  • Improve team dynamics: Since most organizations rely upon teams to achieve their objectives, teams need to be trained to work well together in order to collaborate effectively. Some key characteristics of effective team learning include knowledge sharing, co-creation (working toward something together), constructive conflict, and the capacity to acknowledge setbacks and actively engage with them as learning opportunities. Trust within teams drives how much knowledge is shared and how effectively teams collaborate.
  • Create structures for peer learning: This new research from Christopher Myers finds that individual and team learning are increased in relationships where both sides are learning from each other. This reciprocal learning differs from a traditional mentor-mentee or supervisor-subordinate relationship where the learning tends to move in one direction. The findings suggest that reciprocal knowledge/experience sharing may increase overall learning more and have a greater impact on an organization’s performance than external learning.

Balancing our Dizziness and Stepping Forward

While our heads may spin as we try to take in all the changes that are happening around us, we can develop some individual habits that enable us to find balance and relax our nervous systems. Then we can respond in creative ways that help us adapt during this time of exceptional uncertainty.

As a friend of mine likes to say, what I am really responsible for is sweeping my own corner. So, on my side, yes I will go to that birthday party this weekend! We will be sailing and that will offer plenty of opportunity for experiences of awe and social connection. And, no, I am not ready to go to the dentist yet (practicing self awareness and self compassion for my personal risk barometer).

We also need people and environments that support our habits and personal innovations. Behavior change is hard; those default biological mechanisms we referenced that can shut down learning in response to stress are powerful. Seek out and find — or help create — those environments.

For the whole room to be clean, everyone else needs to sweep their part too. And if we have learned anything from Covid-19 it is that we are all in the “same room”, equally vulnerable to and affected by this global pandemic. We are not in this alone; we affect and are impacted by each other.

We are all stressed and struggling in many ways. It is challenging for each of us to step forward, so let’s figure out how to innovate, individually and collectively, in ways that move us all forward.

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