How to Innovate Faster and Better During COVID-19

COVID-19  has dramatically disrupted nearly every industry, marketplace and business model, upending the way organizations operate and causing leaders to rethink their strategies. If ever there was a moment that demanded innovative ideas, this is it.

Jeremy Utley and Perry Klebahn, directors of executive education at the Stanford Design School (d.school), recently hosted a webinar to discuss the challenges facing leaders in today’s business climate and how they can encourage creativity and innovation during COVID.

Every successful solution starts with an idea — a lot of ideas, actually. Utley and Klebahn explain that most people underestimate the sheer volume of ideas that are usually needed to get one or two viable solutions. In many cases, organizations need to cultivate thousands of innovative ideas, then explore and refine these ideas, before narrowing the pool down to a few options that can be put into action.

To encourage this pipeline of ideas, leaders should encourage a creative mindset among their teams and actively create opportunities for inspiration to grow. Businesses can’t afford to sit around and wait for their teams to be inspired — they need to deliberately create a culture of innovation in a disciplined fashion.

The pair discussed a few mindsets that help cultivate new and innovative ideas.

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Combine perspectives

Groupthink is the bane of innovation, preventing teams from exploring new ideas or potentially disruptive strategies. Homogeneous teams are always at risk for falling into this trap since they approach tasks with the same basic mindset. Adding a fresh perspective to any undertaking can unearth ideas that would never occur to other team members. Encourage your teams to seek input from outside of their working groups and/or bring new individuals to the table. Set a framework where different opinions are not only welcome but encouraged. 

Move from project- to product-focused mindsets

Every organization has its strengths — typically there’s at least one or two things they know they particularly excel at compared to their competitors.  Exploring how these strengths might be repackaged for different audiences can elicit a number of innovative business ideas.

For example, internal functions might be spun off into products or services sold to external customers. Professors Utley and Klebahn share the example of a hospitality company whose internal support team helps the company’s retail locations improve customer experience and satisfaction. The company could capitalize on the strengths of this highly effective team  to provide similar services to outside organizations — contracting out to help external clients create better in-store experiences.

Reverse polarity

Sometimes the best way to drum up inspiration is to explore the opposite of what you want to accomplish. In this reverse brainstorming exercise, you think about the problem you are trying to solve, then instead of coming up with potential solutions, you brainstorm ideas to make the problem worse. For example, if you are trying to increase customer satisfaction, instead brainstorm ways customer satisfaction would deteriorate. Perhaps surprisingly, the ideas you generate for this “reverse” problem force you to consider perspectives and strategies that would have otherwise been dismissed.

One important note to keep in mind is that many of the ideas you come up with by reversing polarity are not going to work, and they might even be downright terrible. But there’s a good chance you will land on a surprising yet effective approach you hadn’t considered before.

Embrace distractions

Even the most prolific and creative thinkers run into mental walls. You can’t always brute force your way through those barriers — in fact, there’s reason to believe that the best approach to innovative ideation is to walk away during those moments.

Utley and Klebahn suggest you may need to temporarily distance yourself from the problem to receive new inputs and push through those brick walls. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should completely disengage from the task at hand, but leaving some problems unfinished and giving yourself space to let your mind wander can help lead you to unexpected sources of inspiration.

Commission a portfolio

As noted earlier, a single successful product or solution is often the result of thousands of other ideas that didn’t pan out. Gathering as many different ideas as possible should be your immediate goal as an entrepreneur. By building a massive portfolio of potential solutions, you never run the risk of becoming too attached to a particular one. It’s easier to scrutinize an idea with clear eyes when you know you have thousands of others waiting in the wings.

Innovation is a discipline like anything else, and it needs to be cultivated and nurtured to deliver the best results. While fresh perspectives and innovative ideas are always important to growth and prosperity, they become especially crucial in times of challenge. Watch the full webinar to learn more about driving innovation through moments of crisis and how to keep a steady stream of inspiration flowing. 

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If you want to take an even deeper dive into the world of innovation and ideation, enroll in the Stanford Innovation and Entrepreneurship program. Stanford faculty and industry experts use real-world examples and hands-on tools to show you how to solve challenges by thinking and acting differently.