We live in a time of great change- and innovation thrives on change.

The pandemic altered the nature of change itself, and we're all still dealing with the impact of the many crises that unfolded. The good news is that innovators have the unique opportunity to make the best of it and unlock innovative thinking to succeed in the innovation journey.

We must first learn how to be innovative about innovation, though.

At our recent Innov8rs Connect on Careers and Personal Development, Dr. Jayshree Seth – Corporate Scientist & Chief Science Advocate at 3M – shared her perspective on what innovation will look like in the future and how to shape the future of innovation.

Here are some highlights from the conversation we've had.

2020: When The Nature Of Change Changed

In 2020 we witnessed a deep change in the very nature of change. We struggled with the Covid-19 crisis itself and also with the rapid transformation that accompanied the emergency. All our systems and mindset – built for gradual, continuous improvement – weren’t ready for that disruption, both at an individual and an organizational level.

In other words, the pandemic made the VUCA world of yesterday look very tame and manageable.

“VUCA” stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. It's a military term also used to describe the situation of constant, unpredictable change in the business world. During the pandemic – and we’re actually still feeling the effects of that anomalous crisis – the VUCA world reached a new level. In Jayshree’s view it now stands for vulnerability, unprecedented, contentious, and amplified.

Volatility → Vulnerability

Uncertainty → Unprecedented

Complex → Contentious

Ambiguous → Amplified

In this new VUCA world, vulnerability (of our health, communities, companies, and countries) has completely eclipsed any discussion of volatility. And, of course, this has been truly unprecedented in its wide-ranging impact. Complexity has given way to contentiousness: all subjects are deemed controversial. Lastly, every action, the words, and the abundant rhetoric gets amplified, constantly leading to additional challenges for individuals, leaders, and organizations.

Yet change is an excellent opportunity for innovation. If only you know how to navigate it successfully, especially given the fact that more change is on its way.

"We need to bridge to the future; we cannot just take the old workbooks and keep playing with them. We have to get innovative about innovation".

Innovation Is A Journey. Yet Hardly Anyone Can Travel

On March 23, 2021, the Ever Given – one of the world's largest container ships – ran aground in the Suez Canal for almost a week, blocking all traffic. Because of the high demand for goods, speed, efficiency, and low cost, the vessel got piled high with containers and ended up wedged across the waterway. That single ship, that isolated event, set up a domino of disruption at a global scale.

According to Jayshree, the current state of innovation in many organizations can be compared to the Ever Given. Expectations are usually piled sky-high. The main goal often coincides with productivity, efficiency, and low cost at all costs. The stakeholder community just wants results and has no realization of the travel, the trial, and the travails it takes to get across the finish line. “Eyes are on the destination, on that big pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There’s no appreciation for the journey”, adds Jayshree. Also, if the one major innovation project we have gets stuck, the cascading impact within the organization can last for years.

“Now more than ever before in our lifetime, innovation is a lifesaver for business, inspiration is the lifeblood of innovation, and purpose is the lifeline for inspiration”.

And so, there is a need to focus on the “why”, not just on the “what”. The money, the timelines, and the phase gate are important. Still, the context, the story, the community, and the purpose are crucial as well. This is what ultimately inspires innovation.

But we will be unable to inspire innovation if the Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal represents our innovation engine.

If anything, the pandemic has heightened that something isn't working with the current model of capitalism. It unearthed that there needs to be authentic compassion for employees, care for customers and suppliers, and concern for society and sustainability. This will lead us into the next era of value creation. And those – companies and people – with a continued focus on traditional metrics will be blindsided.

Today, instead of success, innovation should be directed primarily towards significance, which spells success:

- Significance that
- Underscores
- Customers
- Communities
- Employees
- Shareholders
- Suppliers

A focus on stark individualism is not going to get us where we need to go. It's evident that we need more collectivism, we need to respect the past generations, have concern for the generations to come, and care for the current generation. We need to strike that harmony and that balance in our relationship with the environment. We need holistic cognition and dialectical thinking to drive purposeful innovation.

What To P.A.C.K. For The Innovation Journey?

Innovation takes a village and it takes people who are inspired to do the needful to drive the innovation. Navigating this journey takes time, effort and skills. And the last thing to do at this time of great change is to set sail with a big vessel like the Ever Given. It's time to understand what to build and rebuild to be nimble and agile on this journey.

So, let's unpack what skills does one need to P.A.C.K. on such an expedition. Here are Jayshree’s tips:

1. Pencilsell’ship: the idea of being able to summarize what is being talked about on a piece of paper. And this involves not just salesmanship but also elements of showmanship. As an innovation leader, you have to know what you're trying to sell, represent it, and answer the questions- even virtually. And that's really tough when you don't have person-to-person, face-to-face, eye-to-eye contact.

2. Allyship: this skill refers to your social capital and its three key elements, bonds, bridges, and linkages. Bonds are your relationships with others in your own community. Bridges are the relationships with people not in your group, very critical as you socialize a new idea. And the last one is linkages or hierarchical relationships, which are crucial because it's what can often make or break opportunities for your innovation project. And you need good bonds, bridges, and linkages that are well-balanced among the three to succeed.

3. Citizenship: are you helping others out, or are you just helping your cause? Are you genuinely believing in the cause, or are you just pushing your own agenda and thinking about yourself? Are you truly talking about the company? Do you have an authentic story to tell? People around you are constantly judging you. They want to know if you have paid your dues to be a citizen before they embark on such a journey with you. It's a give and take, and you have to accept it with true sportsmanship.

4. Kingship: finally, innovation requires you to develop the skills to influence others, “It is important to move the needle sometimes to move that giant ship in the right direction. Every little effort counts. As innovators, we have to be the signal, not the noise”, wraps up Jayshree.

Our Role as Innovators

In 2020 we all had to learn new vocabulary and find new ways of working, living, and worrying. There's no workbook to use or play with when such a change occurs. We had (and still have) to become innovative about innovation.

As an innovation practitioner, there are lots of challenges you have to face. Unfortunately, there are still people in the organization that have a tough time believing that things have changed; they're missing what is playing out in front of their eyes. Others think it's best if everything goes “back to normal”. And there are yet others who recognize the change but are scared of its challenges.

It’s up to you to open their eyes.

“You have to become the fact-finder, the storyteller, and the soothsayer in this (new) innovation journey”.

Easier said than done? You will be better prepared for the expedition if you authentically embody the cause you are carrying, your knowledge will help inform others and your passion will help you influence them.

Many of the problems that have (re)surfaced during the pandemic time have far-reaching impact and essentially need us to build relationships, create kinship and establish partnerships to arrive at innovative solutions.