A few years ago, Centric Consulting team member Carmen Fontana launched her first Artificial Intelligence project. The goal? Craft machine learning to predict and manage human resources conundrums, such as project staffing. The initiative involved a new-to-Carmen technology, a dual-shore team and a healthy dose of ambiguity. We funded her anyway.
Carmen was participating in Centric’s newly minted innovation incubator which allows any employee to conceive and share product and process improvement ideas. Her idea was stellar, even if the roadmap was sketchy at best.
Carmen thought if companies like Netflix, Amazon and Spotify could observe, record and learn user behavior, allowing them to continually fine-tune their recommendation algorithms far beyond the scope of a traditional Boolean (and/or) statement, then HR could do the same with staffing.
Although much about this innovation journey may sound familiar — from the ambiguity of methods to the lofty (but vision-packed) goals — there’s one core element that most likely does not:
The entire project took place remotely. And we were even able to use it to guide our weekly staffing calls.
Since its inception 20 years ago, Centric has had a thriving “office-optional” workforce, which has grown from just a handful of people to more than 1,000 employees in 13 cities in the U.S. and India.
At a time when everyone is struggling to transition to remote work while innovating, we’ve won an award while doing just that. This year, we were included in Fast Company’s list of “100 Best Workplaces for Innovators.”
As we all hunker down in our separate home offices, physically apart, the stakes around innovation are only increasing. Innovation will remain a key differentiator in the market today and tomorrow. And there’s no turning back from the changes the pandemic has brought to the workplace.
Luckily, remote innovation is something that can be planned for, managed and grown, much like every other aspect of remote work. Below is our blueprint for keeping the creative wheels turning and amping up innovation when employees aren’t always working side-by-side:
Make Extemporaneous Encounters Intentional
The right collaboration tools can create the same sort of opportune encounters that Apple and Pixar champion while also facilitating remote collaboration. Microsoft Teams and Slack, for example, provide an online space for people to talk about new ideas and track progress on innovation projects.
While working on a recent Healthcare VR project, for instance we managed all of our interactions through a Microsoft Teams space — including meetings, brainstorming chats, project management and the collection of all of our teams’ output and materials.
Start a Problems-to-Be-Solved Repository
Nothing triggers innovation like having a problem you’re itching to solve. That’s where a remote repository of problems comes in handy. The more people contribute to the repository, the better: Innovation requires a lot of ideas coming in from a variety of people.
Although you do want to collect as many ideas as possible, you also want to provide some guidelines to make sure those ideas align in some way to larger company goals or to real client or industry challenges. A repository can be a great tool for vetting which new ideas fit the bill.
A repository can also connect a firm’s natural innovators with employees who may not have an idea to offer but are strong problem-solvers and creative thinkers. Successful innovation efforts engage both types of people.
Hold Sessions Geared Towards Innovation-Generation
Whether in-person or remote, innovation-focused sessions for gathering and testing the latest thinking, ideas and problems are key. Employees usually leave these sessions energized and excited to be part of something new.
One recent example is Expedition: Data, an in-person event to encourage and develop machine learning and data science talent. Early this spring, Centric employees worked with Microsoft and RevLocal, a national digital marketing company, to come up with innovative ways to use Microsoft’s Azure Suite and other tools to improve RevLocal’s employee and customer retention. The winning team got bragging rights and $100 Amazon gift cards.
Institute A Virtual Innovation Lab
Too many organizations focus only on getting ideas, neglecting what comes next. If one of your employees has a concept they want to explore, do they know how to go about developing it?
Centric created its Virtual Innovation Lab to guide innovators as they explore their idea and see if it has legs. The lab acts as a collaboration portal and provides tools and resources for remote teams to work through the innovation lifecycle, helping them overcome major hurdles as they mature their concept and get it to the minimum viable product (MVP) stage.
Our virtual lab essentially provides a blueprint for rapid prototyping using agile development and human experience design principles, among other innovation frameworks. The goal is to help innovators quickly assess proof of concept and proof of value. This is important. If something works, that’s great, but is it feasible from an operational standpoint? Does it actually provide value to the end users or customers? Does it solve a real problem? If the answer is no to any of these questions, your innovator either needs to pivot or kill the project.
Be Deliberate About Forming Teams
Our virtual innovation process relies on agile development, which in its purest form requires teams to be together every day. So how do we get around that as a remote company? We’re very intentional about how we put teams together.
While self-forming teams can work and come together easily when you’re in an office setting, in a virtual environment, team formation needs to be more deliberate. To do this, get to know your internal network and who has what skills, capabilities and passions. Use that knowledge to build teams that will mesh well and play off one another’s strengths. The goal is to virtually replicate the relationships and collaborative spirit that happen effortlessly in an office.
Make Transparency Your Mission
As with any effort in your organization, communication plays a critical role. And in a virtual environment, it’s easy to forget to share information or see what your teammates are doing. That’s why we’ve made transparency a key focus for our virtual innovation lab.
Transparency is not only vital for networking and team building, but it’s also necessary for defining the success metrics that matter. Innovation isn’t easy — and intentionally prioritizing transparency forces learning and greater understanding. Perfection and polish are not required (at least not until the idea is commercialized). Drive the difficult conversations now, and always try to operate in the light.
Treat Failure As Additive, Not Subtractive
Many companies are failure-phobic, and in the interest of profits, many penalize employees and divisions for losing money. But innovation only succeeds through trial and error.
To innovate, you have to embrace failure and help your teams do the same. Give them the tools and the space to test new ideas or processes. Celebrate their efforts regardless of the outcome. Organize sessions – remote or in-person – where they share stories about their failures. We have, and it has served us well.