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How to redefine innovation for the upcoming virtual era

How to redefine innovation for the upcoming virtual era

Innovation is never easy but it is always essential

From groundbreaking construction projects to new technologies in areas like AI and healthcare, the UAE has long been at the forefront of innovation. Over the last five decades, investors, entrepreneurs and technologists have moved to cities like Dubai, hoping to benefit from the magic that happens when the world’s brightest minds meet and collaborate.

This ability to work together has been the driving force behind many breakthroughs in the region, from some of the brightest young startups, to the UAE government’s own National Innovation Strategy.

It’s no surprise that recent analysis by Boston Consulting Group found that social connectivity can more than double productivity – after all, Abu Dhabi’s thriving financial incubator, Hub71, exists because clustering people together makes breakthroughs more likely.

So, what happens when a global pandemic fundamentally changes the way we work together? What happens when our workforces are dispersed and distributed? A new study by Cisco says that, even when offices reopen, 80 per cent of the UAE’s office workers want the ability to work from home – suggesting that virtual working isn’t just a Covid-19 phenomenon, it’s here to stay.

To ensure innovation doesn’t suffer in a virtual world, CEOs need to turn to process. As championed in design thinking, we need to treat innovation as a discipline rather than alchemy.

And we need to do it, I believe, with a two-track approach: one for seeking 10 per cent innovations, the other for seeking 10x breakthroughs. Both are essential to any company’s long-term growth, but in my experience, they don’t often arise out of the same strategic process.

We must invent and adopt new tools and methods – for generative brainstorming, evaluation and decision-making, visual thinking and exploration, flowcharting, and systems diagramming – that distributed teams can use that don’t merely mimic the effect of teams working together more casually in an office but that are perhaps even more effective at eliciting brilliance and “aha” moments.

We haven’t figured it all out yet, but there are indications that even revolutionary innovation might be achievable by distributed teams if they use effective tools and intentional processes.

In the day and age of rapid iteration and fail fast, we need to embrace the practice of innovating with customers. Companies need a carefully designed process for developing customer insights that is based on a system of observation and user empathy. But to do this successfully, you need a deep connection with your customers or partners, one that integrates their problems and challenges into your design thinking. This is especially important with distributed teams, where the natural observation that might occur in a normal work environment is gone.

Let me give you an example from our own experience at Coursera.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit earlier this year, instructors across the region were forced to teach online. However, many universities lacked an online catalog that could serve their students’ needs across disciplines – in the UAE teaching has always been predominantly face-to-face.

Coming up with a solution required a disciplined process, rooted in observation of how an instructor’s life has changed post-Covid, wherein they are jumping from one Zoom session to another, giving live lectures because they don’t have a video library of content. The result: Live2Coursera Zapp (short for “Zoom app”), which allows instructors to easily record, share, and upload Zoom lectures on Coursera.

Innovation is never easy. But it is always essential. Ultimately there will be winners and losers in the coming years, and many of those who falter will do so under the impossible weight of circumstances beyond their control.

But for the companies who are positioned to grow and to thrive, this moment represents an opportunity to redefine innovation itself – and the process by which we spark it.

Anthony Tattersall is the vice president EMEA at Coursera

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