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Innovation, leadership and purpose in a post-pandemic world

Everyone is currently trying to picture what the future will look like after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, how markets will be shaped, and how products and services will shift to address structural changes in organizations and society at large. However, the future we are facing is uncertain, disproportioned and evolving quickly – we don’t really know, nor can predict, what will happen.

What follows is the English version of a collaboration between the House of Innovation's Roberto Verganti and Dagens Nyheter, featured in a special edition about the post-covid workplace of tomorrow.

Roberto Verganti, professor at the Stockholm School of Economics, explains how organizations will need to create innovation, leadership, and purpose in a post-pandemic world.

About Roberto Verganti 

Can we expect leaders and experts to know what the future holds and to be able to lead us into (and through) a new world?

It is impossible for experts and leaders to know exactly what will happen, or how we can deal with the new scenario – pretending to know is the worst mistake that anyone can make right now. Instead of guessing how the future will be, they need to prepare to learn, to experiment and to adapt. This will be a major challenge given that the context is completely new. Since we won’t be able to rely on past experiences, we will need to learn on the fly.

How can we learn to conduct business in this new scenario?  

There are two ways of learning – by trying and by sharing. The purpose of the first one is to learn independently and to beat your competitors. Each organization tries ideas, fails, adjusts its direction and iterates based on its learned actions. Organizations that learn this way don’t share their insights nor the data that fuel the learning outcomes. They rely on their own resources.

The latter, learning by sharing, implies that organizations still try their own ideas, fail and iterate, but they share the outcomes of their tests and their data, and take stock of what others are sharing. In this way, they avoid making the same mistakes or taking the same erroneous paths – i.e. no one needs to start from scratch, and everyone has the possibility to build on top of others’ successes, while saving on time and resources.  

Can organizations choose how to learn? 

Learning by trying has been the way to go in the past decades – fail often to succeed sooner. This strategy worked when the environment changed rapidly but in a linear way, so the learnings from one experiment could be applied to the next one. However, with the uncertainties brought by COVID-19, we don’t have enough time to pursue multiple solutions, and to iterate before the context evolves again.

To innovate now, we need to learn by sharing. This strategy is the only one that can guarantee a wider scope, as well as enough speed and productivity derived from the experiments conducted by collaborating communities. This way of learning brings two additional advantages: data sharing enables more players to participate in the experiments across a larger variety of settings and sharing of findings helps avoid unproductive trials.

Do you have any examples of how organizations learn by sharing?

Learning by sharing is practiced by the World Health Organization, who has launched an international collaboration for the COVID-19 vaccine development. They brought together research centers, manufacturers, foundations and other organizations to explore strategies, share data, reduce inefficiencies and avoid duplication of work. Another example, not related to public health, is the Open Data Campaigned launched by Microsoft, aimed at developing principles, new collaborations and assets, all related to data sharing.

What kind of mindset do leaders need to have to promote innovation through learning by sharing?  

To promote innovation through learning by sharing, leaders need to follow these criteria:  

  • Look at how bigger the results achieved through higher productivity, data sharing and collaboration can be.
  • Aim for long term results rather than sort term wins.
  • Celebrate leaders who can bring people together around the same vision, rather than those who succeed by eliminating competitors.
  • Promote a culture where leaders can join others, and not only drive.
  • Engage partners across industries.
  • Focus on purpose, i.e. on defining what is the real role that your organization wants to play for the collective.

Are these criteria all equally important?

The most important one is the focus on purpose, although they are all relevant and interconnected. Purpose connects people and organizations to the meaning of life, why they are doing what they are doing and what their role in the world is.

COVID-19 is the moment of truth for leaders: an opportunity for them to exhibit their true orientation, to lead with purpose and meaning, to help their organizations navigate the uncertainties of the future and to provide a more human direction. 

Innovation and leadership in the new normal – Stockholm School of Economics’ book Sweden Through the Crisis

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