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  • Writer's pictureMichael Johnstone

Innovation Under Pressure

Are changes made during the Covid pandemic false?


The current Covid19 environment is providing many opportunities to reexamine existing practices and behavior, which affect how we all work, live and play, as well as how we make meaning from our lives. We are all needing to find new ways of operating both because we have to respond to the demanding restrictions and because we can use the changed circumstances to try new things, things that didn't seem possible previously. These new ways seem possible in part because it is as if we now have permission. No one has asked us or required us to sing opera from our balcony, to create online activity networks or to create different ways of working. We are doing so because many of the apparent barriers and attitudes that prevailed pre-covid19 are no longer present. In many ways, so long as we adhere to the essential health and physical distancing measures, anything is possible.

On a recent webinar with colleagues, someone asked, "what permissions has the current environment given us?" My colleagues had no trouble generating a long list of enablers which included

  • Express my feelings

  • To experiment more

  • To be whole as a person and not compartmentalize myself

  • To have two conversations at once ( on zoom including on chat)

  • To ignore boundaries because they have become more flexible

  • To speak the truth and name reality

  • To see time as a more flexible and spacious resource

  • To include dogs, cats, and children in my public life

  • To have fun and make fun.

All of these permissions enable a wide range of experimentation: how we create and sustain life at home, as well as in our professional and economic lives. I am thrilled every time I hear of someone or a group who has used this profound disturbance to create something new or something previously desirable or necessary, but that was not realized because there was too much opposition to overcome. The status quo has been hacked, and there are chinks in its amour, allowing a wide range of innovative responses to emerge.


An Israeli winemaker we spoke to recently described how he had mobilized a group of his regional winemaking colleagues to make available online wine tastings built on a rapid home delivery system. What was novel was not the tasting nor the home delivery but that a broad group of competitors came together, willingly as one, to try a new means of keeping in contact with customers. He described the initial success as a miracle because such collaboration had not been possible before. Competitors became allies, united because of the extreme circumstances where the primary purpose was solidarity rather than a business benefit or, at least, a different, more successful path to commercial gain.


My Doctor (a GP in local practice) is, like many of his colleagues, undertaking teleconsultations with his patients, something for which there were previously deep reservations. Therapists from different professions are conducting sessions online, recognizing new ways of being available to support clients and patients. On the surface, not much has changed given the one-on-one nature of such work, but much has changed, including the ability of therapists to see and feel their clients in real-time. Many are saying, "I don't know why we didn't do this earlier," or "I will never go back to how things were."


Then there is a worldwide project between scientists across 30 different research centers working collaboratively to study intensive care patients with Covid 19. This project (Ecmocard) has overcome all the usual bureaucracy and demarcation issues that plague global medical collaboration and has rapidly begun processing masses of time series data from dozens of ICU wards in 250 hospitals around the world. The goal is to discover critical intervention strategies in treating Covid patients. Sam Hinton, an Australian astrophysicist, working in this project, described this as an unprecedented response to research and how typical barriers have been put aside, how the usual processes and accountabilities have been given up. Speed, mass data analysis, a connection between individual ICUs and researchers, have been established, and new norms and research protocols established.

Individuals and families are finding new or renewed ways of relating to each other that somehow were constrained before. For example, a colleague described during an online forum how his ex-wife had recently contacted him to acknowledge that she might have taken unnecessary risks when exposing their children to a stranger. On the surface, not a particularly innovative action but for an estranged couple a renewed openness and honesty that created hope for their new separate relationship, a more trusting foundation going forward.


As much as I applaud all these responses, I also have an overriding question. Are these true adaptations, real innovations, or are they false solutions that will wither on the vine when the health conditions improve?


And how would we know?


We can not know at the moment, but we can ask some questions that would guide our analysis and judgments, and also avoid drawing any premature conclusions. We could expect real adaptation to occur if some of the following conditions were meet.

  • People from different groups with differing perspectives on the problem and the solution were engaged.

  • There were real and at times painful losses involved

  • Preexisting loyalties, values, and processes are being refashioned

  • Some kind of deep learning is taking place

  • A variety of possible solutions are tested and reviewed iteratively

Given these conditions, we could ask, for example, that the Israeli winemakers use their experiment in collective online engagement with competitors to ask a series of questions. Such questions would help them learn and make sense of why it was possible to collaborate when it had not been possible earlier. Imagine the mobilizer of this initiative gathering his colleagues to ask:

  • "what can we learn from this experiment that we can carry forward into the future, and what should we discard?"

  • "how has this situation revealed vulnerabilities in our ecosystem that we can now begin to address so that we do not lose the opportunity for real and sustainable change?"

  • "what does our current willingness to collaborate tell us about our ongoing need to compete in the market post Covid19?"

  • "what would we need to give up were we to decide to continue to collaborate in this, and other ways, as we go forward?"

The key to determining if real adaptation is taking place, or might take place, is the fundamental understanding that change only takes place if learning is occurring. Learning assists the players to do the hard work of examining their underlying beliefs, assumptions, loyalties, and values. Real learning will engage people at the frontiers of their experience and capability where they will begin to consider solutions beyond their comfort and where they can figure out the difference between what is really important from what is unimportant. This work of adaptation takes time and is unlikely to take place rapidly because of some quick win or seeming "miracle." All participants will need to navigate the paradoxes that the Covid environment generates, such as slow down to go fast and embrace flexibility while enhancing control. Adaptation can, and is, taking place. However, the heart of such change requires accepting the possibility that the short-term initiatives may only be the starting point for ongoing adaptive work or maybe a false solution. It is necessary to understand the attractiveness of 'false solutions,' ie, why people might be flocking to them, so you can recognize the distraction.


Leadership is needed to ensure that the new experiences and possibilities generated in response to Covid restrictions are not lost and don't become just the subject of fireside conversations down the track.


First published in LinkedIn on 4 May 2020

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