Originally published in PRSA’s Strategies & Tactics on Oct. 1, 2021.
By Celia Willis
March of 2020 feels like a lifetime ago. Why? Because so much has changed. Companies began innovating more quickly than ever before simply out of necessity. Leaders turned to technology to help as an entire society pivoted in the face of a public health crisis.
In fact, a McKinsey Global Survey of executives found that companies “accelerated the digitization of their customer and supply-chain interactions and internal operations by three to four years” and the share of digital or digitally enabled products by seven years.
While it’s tempting to credit technology as the solution to many challenges, the reality is that people are the key to true innovation. Technology does not and could not exist in a vacuum. It requires the creativity and dedication of people to launch and steer it. Technology is simply a piece of a puzzle, created by human ingenuity, that enables us to solve problems.
Being an integral part of innovation can be exciting — it’s meaningful work that leads to long-lasting change. But before you can even start that process, there’s a question you must ask yourself and your team: Are you prepared to face the discomfort of innovation?
Insights to inform and inspire innovation
Have you ever tried to solve a problem before you fully understood it? It’s tempting to get ahead of ourselves — to see a challenge on the horizon and jump straight to solutions that might work. But how could you possibly identify the desired solution before you’ve defined the problem?
Gathering insights, be it through surveys, focus groups or anecdotally, is key. Data inform and influence how we understand situations, as well as how we respond, change and innovate. The more advanced technology becomes, the more readily available those in-depth, rich insights are. Armed with actionable information that provides a deep understanding of what’s really going on can inspire new ideas and strategies that produce robust results.
It doesn’t mean these insights are comfortable — they can be mentally and emotionally challenging. But I have watched my team respond to insights, innovate and flourish. The ideas and perspectives we receive from our employees illuminate new approaches that have significant, positive impacts on our business and the businesses of our clients. Even if it is a little bit uncomfortable at times.
Let me share an example.
People at the center of innovation
Our company has doubled in size over the last year. As we scaled to meet the increasing needs of our clients and teams, we found ourselves dealing with inevitable growing pains. It isn’t feasible to function with the same level of casual agility when you reach a certain size. But adding process and rigor can be hard, too.
In response to feedback indicating a need to better manage our own growth, we began using a digital project management system to streamline an increasing workflow, and it has proven to be a huge success. But the reason for that is not inherent to the technology platform itself. It’s due to the way in which we used insights to develop the strategy, the rollout approach we employed and the commitment our team has demonstrated in adopting the change.
Innovation and technology, like any other tool, must be tailored to your audience. It’s not just about what you use but how and why you use it and how you communicate along the way.
What is interesting about this juxtaposition is that innovation is often associated with automation. However, our strategy focuses on making processes and interactions more human, not less. Technology has become a way to identify and solve problems, to enhance what we do. But that only works when leveraged effectively in tandem with (and not as a substitute for) authentic communications, collaborative discussions and personal connection.
In order to achieve true buy-in for our new project management process, we had to understand the mindsets of everyone involved. Members of the team sat down and considered the perspectives of our accounts, our clients, our service managers, our people leaders — everyone who is part of our organization’s community. We had conversations and focus groups, observed meetings and sought feedback.
Once we had identified the existing challenges, hesitations, skepticism and needs, we mapped out a strategy to address the change and shift mindsets. And as we did that, intentional communication and careful change management proved the backbone of our efforts to drive the innovation forward.
Our team responded with action, commitment and adoption, enabling our entire company to expand and diversify our offerings and continue to grow our work. Did technology play a role in that success? Certainly. Is technology synonymous with the innovation we experienced? No.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Creating community and connection by putting people at the center of business drives growth. True innovation lies within this approach. Even in streamlining the way we manage projects, we didn’t shy away from honest feedback; we prioritized the people involved and focused heavily on personal connection with an intentionally consultative approach.
Committing to innovation
Change is challenging in the best of times. As creatures of habit, innovation is not a comfortable process for us humans. So, before you rush out to gather a plethora of transformational insights, ask yourself and your team some questions:
- Are we ready to ask questions to which we may not like the answers?
- Are we ready to take action based on the answers we get?
- Can we commit to long-term change?
If your team or company is not ready to challenge itself to listen, innovate and grow, then that should be a red flag. In fact, we have a saying at KWI: “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”
Companies willing to evolve are the ones that survive and even flourish; and human insights and action, supported by technology, are foundational to that process. So, as we look to the future, the real question is this: Are you ready to listen?
Read more from Celia in PRSA’s Strategies & Tactics or connect with her on LinkedIn to continue the conversation.