Driving a culture of innovation in a VUCA world

We are living in a VUCA world where the success or resilience of the organization depends on the preparedness and ability of their managers to cope with Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (VUCA) by being more agile and lean. Add to the VUCA a crisis like a pandemic and we see how a crisis becomes an opportunity and sets the wheels of change as organizations strive to become resilient.

Innovation is a state of Mind


Before we talk about innovation and how it happens, I want to highlight 2 key skills; Creativity and Problem-solving. Those two I feel are the hardest "soft" skills to develop or maintain. Being “creative” doesn’t mean having an aesthetic background or artistic flair. As Steve Jobs said: Creativity is just connecting things, spotting connections to make things simpler is what we all strive for. On a personal note, I cannot think of a single project I’ve worked on that didn’t require connecting people, ideas, concepts, products, user journeys, or systems together. But to connect them right and to solve a problem, we need to “understand the problem”.


Albert Einstein once said:

If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions

The combination of the two drives innovation.


Innovation is not only about creating something novel and radical, rather it can take the form of small continuous improvements to an existing product or service.


When those small incremental innovations solve a pain point it feels like something that has never been done before! Such a series of innovations can transform the business’ customer experience.

Innovation is all about people and their mindsets. It is a constant state of questioning things around with an intention of improving things. Be it in designing a good experience, or innovative product, or even giving your audience relevant content. Innovation needs to be sustainable from the ecology and societal point of view as well.


The best companies that put people before business and technology win.


Talk about the famous FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google). They nailed on their user’s needs and made windfall profits as their users didn’t want to leave their applications.


Innovation and Digital Transformation requires a Cultural Transformation


Reasons, why more than 70% of Digital Transformations fail and Innovation Programs fail to deliver the outcomes are due to organizational behaviors that are blockers, barriers like daily habits, meetings, rituals, and routines that stifle desired new behaviors. Popularized by @Scott D Anthony, BEANs (Behavior enabler, artifact and nudge) uses gamification and behavioral economics to change organizational behaviors and habits.


Jad Jreijiri, an Organizational Leadership consultant shares, “Success of organizations is measured by their results, which are obtained from the daily behavior, working habits, more known as competencies. Most interventions are focused on developing those competencies through knowledge, which today, during the pandemic, this knowledge is very cheap and sometimes free. Since that is the case, then why aren’t all organizations successful? It is because Behavior/Competencies are affected by our attitudes, thinking habits, or META-Competencies. For example, we cannot expect a manager to develop his Time Management competencies through the widely available online courses if that particular manager has a negative attitude of Perfectionism or skepticism. Hence, why a re-conditioning personalized program needs to be implemented, with the end results focused on the ROI for the organization as well as the employee”.


Organizational culture nurtures a cooperation & collaboration mindset between all parts of the company and the major reason why legacy companies fail to empower their employees, create trust, and craft a shared strategy to realize a common goal and hence are unable to build a customer-centric culture.

The culture either remains product-focused or sales-driven, both of which cannot be considered as a differentiator hardest to copy.

@Adam Grant mentions in his book “Think Again” when employees have psychological safety they see mistakes as opportunities to learn, are willing to take risks, speaking their minds, openly sharing problems and struggles, trust in teammates, and willing to accept mistakes.


Companies now use design thinking to design organizational culture and defining values.


The organizational structure needs to be leaner and agile, so small multi-disciplinary teams need to be formed to solve a certain part of the customer journey as a team and not just working for their functions in silos. High-performance teams aren’t those that have the best resources, most capable ones, and those that just deliver in good times, but they are those that have adaptability, patience, situational awareness when things go sideways.


Employees as change agents: Employee experience is key to workforce transformation


Employee Experience (EX) is key to maintaining a great Customer Experience (CX), or EX=CX2. Employees have to be motivated enough to lead the company in its strategic direction. Employees need to be nurtured by providing them with soft skills to successfully be able to adapt, learn, unlearn, re-learn and build an agile and growth mindset to keep pace with the changing business landscape and disruptions.


It’s important to gauge the pulse of the organization through employee polls to uncover insights about what employees think if the company is headed in the right direction and the company’s ability to innovate. Also continually get feedback through focus groups from employees to get a real-time pulse of the organization in the midst of the change.


@Laszlo Bock, former SVP People Ops Google on Google's approach to HR. The way Google builds its HR & People's team is using the 3/3 rule. 1/3 of the resources are from HR-specific backgrounds. 1/3 are from strategy consulting firms with great problem-solving skills and deep business sense, the last 1/3 are from people with advanced degrees in operations, psychology, physics, statistics, and organizational psychology to run experiments. Politics is crushed in the company. The worst thing you can do is self-promotion and politics. External VPs must unlearn a lot of stuff as they join Google. They need to know that titles won’t get them influence or authority here. Sending emails to higher management and copying them signals an employee doesn’t get Google.


Let’s talk techy: Automation, AI-ready culture, and Future of Work


Organizations looking to be AI-driven businesses need to first establish their North Star, where they see themselves going, ambition, strategic priorities, and chart the future state of the ‘AI Transformed Organization’. Leadership needs to be involved from the get-go and establish a committee/governing body to prioritize scaling AI investments. There should be new resource allocation to AI-related investments, focus on high benefit, use cases that will yield the most value, hire AI expertise and champions who can drive AI enablement across the organization’s different functions, and also develop enterprise IT and Data practices. Despite AI requiring highly technical competence, organizations in retail and e-commerce need to be human-centered and create value by analyzing user insights.

Groupe Renault recently embarked on accelerating the adoption of IR 4.0 and future-proof its digital transformation and innovation through a strategic partnership with Google Cloud to create new industrial solutions leveraging each other’s capabilities and grow its employees’ digital skills and competencies. The partnership will enable improvements in supply chain and manufacturing efficiency, production quality along with a reduction in environmental impact through energy savings.


VUCA world requires Resilience, Diversity & Inclusion


We are living in a VUCA world where the success or resilience of the organization depends on the preparedness and ability of their managers to cope with Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (VUCA) by being more agile and lean. Add to the VUCA a crisis like a pandemic and we see how a crisis becomes an opportunity and sets the wheels of change as organizations strive to become resilient. If we turn the pages of history, we can see that the need to transport goods and people led to the invention of the wheel, shift work during the Industrial Revolution encouraged the harnessing of electricity and now during the pandemic, we have adopted new ways of remote working.


The World will be more digital and more VUCA than ever before and the workforce will only rally behind a company with a mission to act responsibly towards the environment, champion social issues of diversity and inclusion and more importantly work on a meaningful mandate to create an impact in the society beyond just CSR initiatives.


Are we ready to work on the very small behavioral changes needed to form new ways of working, the likes of which the FAANGs or any startup unicorns are following?


PS: This article was first published in Seham El Behissy's Linked in Blog.